The introduction of mug shots in New Zealand

The New Zealand Police Force was officially established on 1 September 1886, and they began collecting photographs of prisoners that same year. These first photographs look a little different from modern mug shots. This is largely because there were no officially trained police photographers in New Zealand at the time. Instead, police relied on commercial photographers and amateur camera enthusiasts to take the mug shots. Because of this, the style of early mug shots in the collection of the New Zealand Police Museum vary greatly from photograph to photograph.

  • Photo of mug shots in different styles 1886 - Hugh Jones


    Hugh Jones (b. 1843). Charged with embezzlement and sentenced to two years in gaol in October 1884 (Nelson). Photo taken 11 May 1886.

  • Photo of mug shots in different styles 1886 - Edward Fitzgerald


    Edward Fitzgerald (b. 1849). Charged with larceny and sentenced to one month in gaol on 21 December 1885 (Oamaru). Photo taken on 8 January 1886.

  • Photo of mug shots in different styles 1886 - Maria Scanlon


    Maria Scanlon. Charged on two counts of larceny and sentenced to two years in gaol on 6-7 October 1885 (Dunedin). Photo taken on 16 January 1886.

  • Photo of mug shots in different styles 1886 - Arthur Davis


    Arthur Davis, alias John Kilson (b. 1857). Charged with obscene language and sentenced to one month on 6 October 1886. Photo taken on 5 November 1886.

One common element in many mug shots, however, is the display of prisoners’ hands. In 1886, the introduction of fingerprinting in New Zealand was still nearly two decades away, so the inclusion of hands in mug shots provided an additional point of identification for police. Missing fingers, scars, and the general shape and condition of the prisoners' hands could all help in the identification of a suspect.

  • Distinctive marks mug shot - Charles Fowler


    Charles Fowler (b. 1851). Charged with housebreaking and sentenced to five years in gaol on 6 October 1887 (Dunedin). Photograph taken on 13 June 1888.

  • Distinctive marks mug shot - Edward Ryan


    Edward Ryan (b. 1861). Charged with assault and sentenced to one year and two months in gaol on October 1887 (Auckland). Photograph: 9 December 1987.

  • Distinctive marks mug shot - Mary Spanger


    Mary Spanger alias Smith (b. 1850, Germany). Charged with two counts of larceny and sentenced to 14 days in gaol on 10 July 1886 (Christchurch). Photograph taken 21 July 1886.

In 1903, Police Commissioner Walter Dinnie organised a comprehensive system of criminal registration for the New Zealand Police, in an attempt to modernise and professionalise policing in the country. His new system required photographs, handwriting samples, reports, associates, and operating habits to be collected from every criminal arrested in New Zealand. His son E. W. Dinnie, who had been trained in the United Kingdom in these modern methods of criminal identification, was named Finger-print Expert and Photographer. Throughout 1904, the young Dinnie worked closely with the New Zealand prison administration to refine the record keeping system, particularly the photographic files. This resulted in new, more elaborate criminal identification forms, which included a place for fingerprinting details.

  • First version mug shot


    First version of the New Zealand mug shot form, used before 1904. This record is for James Milne, alias Miller (b. 1850, Scotland). He was charged with being rogue & vagabond and sentenced to 12 months in gaol on 20 February 1888 (Auckland).

  • Second version mug shot


    Second version of the mug shot form, introduced by Walter Dinnie in 1904. This record is for Henry George Hegarty (b. 1883, Australia). He was charged with theft and sentenced to three months in gaol on 28 March 1908 (Wellington).

Photo - Police Gazette John McKenzie

From 1904 it became a standard police responsibility to take mug shots of all prisoners. A list of New Zealand policemen who owned cameras and/or were acquainted with photography was drawn up. In areas where there were no policemen available for taking mug shots, commercial photographers were still relied upon. The Policemen-photographers were paid for each photograph, or compensated by being exempted from night duty.

In April 1904, the Police Gazette (a monthly bulletin circulated to all police in New Zealand) also published its first mug shot- a photograph of wanted criminal John McKenzie, a convicted rapist who was wanted for the murder of his former employer.

In 1912 the Prisons Amendment Act officially sanctioned the use of mug shots, by declaring that all accused or convicted prisoners incarcerated for the first time had to submit to being photographed and fingerprinted, including by use of ‘reasonable force’ if necessary. By 1913 it was reported that over a thousand photographs of prisoners had been taken at Police Headquarters in Wellington, and approximately two thousand had been taken elsewhere in New Zealand.