Jessie Finnie was one of a large number of prostitutes who worked in Auckland, New Zealand, in the 1850s and 1860s. She was born in Scotland in 1821 or 1822. Her exact place of birth and the names of her parents are unknown. She arrived in Auckland on 18 September 1849 with her husband, John Finnie, and her children Marianne (seven), Jessie (five), Jane (three) and Edward (nine months) on the troopship Oriental Queen. John Finnie, once a member of the 1st Foot Regiment, which had served in Canada in 1838–39, had joined the Royal New Zealand Fencibles.
Settling at Onehunga on the Manukau Harbour, the Finnies found living conditions difficult. Jessie Finnie was forced to take complete responsibility for herself and her dependants when John left the family permanently some time after 1853, possibly to try his luck on the Californian or Australian goldfields. Jessie's choices were limited. Domestic servants earned low wages, and as there was little other work available for women, she became a prostitute.
In 1855 she made her first recorded appearance before the Auckland courts, charged with using abusive language. By the end of June 1857 she was well known to the police. On 11 June 1857 she made no appearance when charged with using abusive language and on 17 June she was gaoled for 24 hours for drunkenness. Two days later she was found in 'a beastly state of intoxication', with one soldier under her bed and another lying on it. Giving evidence against her, Constable Thomas Powley of the Auckland Province Armed Police Force, himself known to visit the brothels as a client, declared that he knew Jessie and that she kept 'a house of ill fame.' She was unable to pay a bond for good behaviour and so was imprisoned in the city gaol in Queen Street for three months. Only a few hours after her release in September 1857 she was found guilty of drunkenness. She was convicted of the same offence on 14 November 1857. Then she seems to have dropped out of sight of the authorities for a time.
Jessie Finnie and some or all of her children lived in the Chancery Street area, usually in accommodation shared with other prostitutes. Most of the Auckland brothels were concentrated in this district of the city, from where prostitutes had easy access to a number of hotels, many of which were open until midnight. They worked out of houses which were cramped and lacked privacy. It is possible that Jessie Finnie's daughter, Jessie, began working as a prostitute in her early teens and there is evidence to suggest that Jane Finnie also became a prostitute. It was not uncommon for several members from a single family to work as prostitutes.
The Finnies were part of a criminal sub-culture. They mixed with individuals such as William Wilson, a thief, who was convicted of keeping a 'bawdy house' along with the Finnies; Richard Dawkins, a well-known thief and robber, with 'a countenance of true bull dog pattern', whom Jessie Finnie (mother) prosecuted in 1862 for the theft of some of her property; and James Sullivan, proprietor of the Crown Hotel, West Queen Street, and William Lamb, of Chancery Street, who seem to have acted as pimps.
While working as prostitutes gave the Finnies some degree of independence, they were exposed to many dangers. For instance, in 1861 a house they shared with Ann Lamb, the 13-year-old daughter of the owner, William Lamb, was pulled down by sailors in retribution for property stolen from them. Occupational hazards included venereal disease, unwanted pregnancies, rape and assault. Like other prostitutes, the Finnies were debilitated by their working conditions and by alcoholism, which was a serious risk in an occupation centred on hotels. The Finnies and other Auckland prostitutes worked always with the possibility of raids by the armed police, whose barracks were located on the corner of Chancery and High streets. From the early 1860s, as public opinion demanded stricter controls on prostitution, the police became more willing to bring prosecutions against prostitutes, usually for minor offences such as disorderly behaviour.
Auckland had a large military population in the 1860s during the New Zealand wars; in mid 1863 over 10,000 British Army troops and militia were stationed there. Many of the Finnies' clients were soldiers. Jessie Finnie (daughter) may have met Zephaniah Wild, a sergeant of the 70th Regiment, in the course of her work. They married on 1 November 1862 at St Paul's Anglican Church. While he fought at Taranaki, Waikato and Wanganui from 1863 to 1865 (later receiving a New Zealand War Medal), it is possible that she continued to work as a prostitute under the name of Jessie Finnie.
In 1864, 1865 and 1866 various members of the Finnie family were charged with drunkenness and maintaining 'common bawdy houses'. In November 1866 a young woman known variously as Jeanie, Jenny and Jane Finney was arrested, along with others, for maintaining a 'house of common bawdry'. She was sent to gaol for six months, despite being seven months pregnant and in poor health. In gaol she became involved in a dispute with another female prisoner, who kicked her in the breast. A few days later she gave birth to a girl. Her breast became infected, she developed blood-poisoning and died on 22 January 1866 in extreme pain. Her baby daughter survived her by only five weeks.
After this period the Finnies are no longer mentioned in reports of criminal proceedings. The eventual fate of the rest of the family is not known. Jessie Finnie (mother), however, may have emigrated to Australia.