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This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Hi, I'm Dr Alison Laurie. I was the Gender and Women's Studies Programme Director at Victoria University of Wellington, here in New Zealand, for many years. I'm a writer, oral historian and lesbian and gay activist.

Today I'm going to be looking at the Parker and Hulme murder case of 1954, and the reason I'm going to be looking at that is because it's one of the first times that a discussion of lesbian relationships takes place in the New Zealand media, and it takes place in a very negative context of murder and of young girls out of control, and it has a big impact on how that generation of lesbians and their parents and their schools began to think about relationships between girls and women.

Now, it's not the first time that lesbian relationships are mentioned in the media. There's another case which happens in the '30s, which is the Freda Stark case and Thelma Mareo. There's also been other mentions of women leading rebellious lives, especially women who have cross-dressed, masqueraded as men – the famous case of Amy Bock, and other cases, too.

But this case is one happening in the post-war period, and it's been brought to great attention because a film was made about it after my colleague and I had published our book on it, and that's a film by Peter Jackson, Heavenly Creatures. And as well as that there have been a lot of mentions in the media regularly. As well as that, one of the girls, Juliet Hulme, her identity was revealed after the film was released and she is Anne Perry, the crime writer, and she has now made a film or appeared in a film where she has talked a bit about this case and other matters, too, in relation particularly to her writing.

So, what happens in this case is that Juliet Hulme, who is the daughter of Hilda and Henry Hulme who come to New Zealand, is actually sent here first.

They come to New Zealand. He comes to take up the position as Rector, which today would be the Vice Chancellor, of Canterbury University College, which today is Canterbury University. They were colleges, at that time, within the University of New Zealand. And prior to then they'd had a professor taking the role of Rector and rotating it. It was then decided, in the post-war period, that they needed to have somebody doing that job full-time. So Henry Hulme applied for that job and came out here.

He seemed to have very good qualifications, but as our research showed, actually his career had been the opposite of what you might expect. When other university scientists had gone to work for the government during the period of the war, that was when he'd been working in the university. He then went to work for the government when they returned to university work, so his career hadn't been as good as perhaps might have been hoped.

When he got to Canterbury he hadn't been there long before the professors actually were not too pleased with the way he was turning out. He was quite arrogant, he didn't want to take their advice when he met on the University Senate, and often voted against things that they wanted; for example they wanted a School of Forestry established at Canterbury, and he voted against that because in his opinion it shouldn't be there.

Hilda Hulme was also not particularly popular. She was one of the founders of Marriage Guidance and she was on the Board of the Christchurch Girls' High School, but she was the sort of woman who they called a man's woman. She was often quite dismissive of other women and not a popular person either. So they were very English people, very upper-class English people in Christchurch, which was quite a small city at that time, and they weren't particularly popular.

And then we have Pauline Parker. She was the daughter of Herbert Rieper, who was a fishmonger, and Honora Parker, who was also an English migrant, and these are both working-class people. Herbert had been previously married to a woman older than him, and he had two sons in that marriage, and he then ran off with Honora and they went to Christchurch and pretended to be married and then had another family.

In the other family there were oddities about it. The first child was a blue baby and died in the first 24 hours after birth because of a blood condition. Then the next child was a normal child, and then there's Pauline, who is a daughter but has this strange injury, which is never explained, which gives her osteomyelitis of her leg, and she has that injury in the first two years of life, never properly explained how she got it. And then 10 years later they have another child, a Down's Syndrome child called Rosemary, who lives at home for a couple of years and then is in an institution.

So they come from two very different backgrounds, Pauline and Juliet. They meet at Christchurch Girls' High School in 1953 and form a very close friendship – a friendship that's so close that it's remarked upon by the teachers. It's considered perhaps to be an unhealthy friendship. And the different class backgrounds of the two girls are quite significant in this regard: that Pauline likes to go and stay with Juliet in what basically is almost like a mansion, which was the residence of the Rector, with extensive grounds there at Ilam. These days that's the University Staff Club.

And meanwhile, Pauline just lives over the fence from the high school in a very modest home where her mother takes in boarders. And Pauline does a lot of housework. Her diaries, which have been depicted as terrible, terrible documents, but which, in fact, are full of very ordinary kinds of references, particularly to housework. And you wonder why she's doing so much housework until you realize that the mother takes in four boarders on full board, and that this girl is the one that's being required to do all this kind of work. So clearly it's not a very good home background and clearly there's a difficult relationship between Pauline and her mother.

Then the Hulme's marriage breaks up. Hilda Hulme begins an affair with a man that she's counseled, Walter Perry, and she actually moves him into the mansion and this whole thing falls to pieces and they're going to divorce. So, the Hulmes are leaving the country. In fact the professors had by this stage forced Henry to resign because it really hasn't worked out – this is by the stage 1954. His appointment hasn't worked out and they want him to go, so he's been forced to resign. He's returning to England. The two children, Juliet and her brother Jonathan, are going to be sailing off to South Africa where they are going to be living with an aunt, and meanwhile Hilda is going to be going off with Walter Perry. So, that's what they were all doing.

According to Pauline's diaries there are various conversations that take place: that she might be able to go with Juliet; that somehow she could become part of this family. It's pretty unrealistic.

Then Pauline begins to see the big obstacle to her being able to be with Juliet as her mother, and so she plans a murder. They take the mother, they take Honora Parker, for a walk in Victoria Park in Christchurch. Pauline batters her with a brick in a stocking.

Initially there is a number of statements that the two girls make, but eventually they both take responsibility for having participated in this. They're both charged with murder of the first-degree. They're both found guilty, they serve five years in prison at Her Majesty's pleasure, they are released in 1959, Juliet leaves the country immediately and goes to England, and Pauline is on probation for another five years, after which she also leaves. They both are given new identities by the Justice Department. They're both given educational opportunities in prison because there's a very liberal prison regime at that time, and a justice system which seeks to rehabilitate them.

However, this crime is depicted, whether or not they are actually having a lesbian relationship, and what we might mean by lesbian relationship is unclear, but certainly it's the way that both the Defense and the Prosecution portray the relationship.

The Defense says they're crazy and they've got a joint insanity known as folie à deux. One of the symptoms of this is lesbianism. When we interviewed the Defense counsel, Brian McClelland, he said, "Well, the problem was they'd both confessed to it, and the only defense we had was insanity, but how could we find the two of them insane? And then this chap, Reginald Medlicott comes along with this wonderful idea that they could have folie à deux, so we went with that." So, that's a cynical Defense lawyer using that kind of theory. So, that was what was argued there.

Meanwhile the Prosecution psychiatrist said no, they're not mad they're bad. "They're dirty minded little girls" was one of the quotes that they said. The diaries were extensively quoted from, from both sides, to either prove that they were mad or that they were bad.

What isn't really considered is that this is a domestic murder. It comes out of what is clearly quite a dysfunctional household. It comes out of what is clearly a very difficult relationship between Pauline and her mother. That is not explored in the context of the Court at all. It might well be the case that Juliet in fact blundered into somebody else's domestic murder, which might well have happened with or without her. She might, in fact, not have participated as fully in this situation as she confessed to having done. In fact maybe she should have been charged as an accessory after the fact. None of those kinds of much more interesting legal questions have ever been raised in any discussions, newspaper articles or in things about this case.

The Heavenly Creatures movie claims to be based on the diaries. It's largely a matter of invention by Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh. It's a dramatization which Reginald Medlicott would particularly have liked because it depicts them particularly poorly and as having fantasies and plasticine figures that she sees moving around. None of that is there any evidence whatsoever for, and in fact the verdict of the Court was that they were completely sane, which is why they found them guilty.

They were lucky to be found guilty because had they been found insane, not guilty, they would have probably spent the rest of their lives incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital and probably at that time, since the psychiatric institutions were very keen to give our greatest novelist, Janet Frame, a pre-frontal lobotomy which she only escaped because she won a prize for literature, these two girls would probably have been given that kind of surgery or lots of shock treatment anyway. It was much better for them in the prison system where an enlightened regime gave them the opportunities to continue their lives.

So we will have to say that most of what has been written about this case has been very simplistic, hasn't really looked at the more interesting aspects of it at all.

In our work we were interested in the impact of the case and we found that it had very negative effect on many girls. Many girls became very frightened to have their relationships. Parents separated girls. In fact one woman we talked to, her mother sent her to a psychiatrist. Older lesbian couples were also affected by this. People were very afraid that if they had a lesbian relationship perhaps that meant they were mad. It certainly had a very bad effect on how lesbians thought about themselves, whether or not women were willing to have same-sex relationships and certainly how other people thought about lesbians and women in same-sex relationships. So it has been a very important case in the history of lesbianism in New Zealand.

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