Alice May Parkinson's conviction and imprisonment for manslaughter became a cause célèbre in New Zealand in the years before 1920. Born on 29 December 1889 at Hampden (Tikokino) in Hawke's Bay, she was one of at least 12 children of Isabella Rosina Beazley and her husband, George Parkinson, a farm labourer on Gwavas station. Alice's childhood appears to have been unexceptional, although the need to stretch a labourer's wage to feed 14 people must have meant that the family was often hard pressed financially. She was enrolled at the Hampden school and also at the Sunday school, where she later taught. Her parents and one sister were officers in the Salvation Army.
At age 14 Alice went into domestic service in Hastings. She left after six years to work in Napier as pantrymaid–waitress at the Masonic Hotel and, later, the Central Hotel. In Napier she formed a relationship with Walter Albert West, a young railway lifter. She seems always to have assumed that this relationship would result in marriage. In 1914 she became pregnant to West, and spent all her savings on renting and furnishing a house for the family to live in when the marriage and birth had taken place. On 1 January 1915, however, Parkinson underwent a complicated and painful labour and the baby was born dead.
Bert West initially agreed to marry as before, but became increasingly reluctant and finally refused to do so. Parkinson, penniless, without employment, and with her character stained by an illegitimate pregnancy, was desperate to marry. She first threatened West by letter, then, at a confrontation in Nelson Crescent, Napier, on 2 March 1915, shot him four times in the head and chest and herself in the right temple. West died on 5 March. Although it was considered too risky to remove the bullet from her brain, she recovered to stand trial for murder at the Supreme Court in Napier in June 1915.
The jury brought in a verdict of manslaughter with a strong recommendation for mercy on account of the provocation Alice Parkinson had received. The judge, Chief Justice Sir Robert Stout, sentenced her to imprisonment with hard labour for the term of her natural life. B. J. (Barney) Dolan, the defence lawyer, appealed the judgement and asked for a retrial. But Stout was also head of the Court of Appeal and the application was declined.
Alice Parkinson was sent to Addington prison in Christchurch, then the only institution for women sentenced to lengthy terms of imprisonment. Almost immediately her case was taken up by the New Zealand Truth newspaper, by the labour movement and, especially, by the Wellington and Petone branches of the Social Democratic Party. Harry Holland, editor of the Maoriland Worker, was an early and constant supporter, using the paper to campaign on Parkinson's behalf. Release Alice Parkinson committees, largely organised by feminists of the socialist movement, quickly gained widespread backing. There were big public meetings in Wellington and Auckland and three petitions (the first signed by more than 60,000 people) requesting her release. This campaign continued throughout the war and into the 1920s and, although it eventually lost momentum, Parkinson's name and circumstances were still kept in the public eye. She was finally released into the care of her widowed mother at Tikokino in mid 1921.
On 4 April 1923, in Wellington, Alice Parkinson married Charles Henry O'Loughlin, a carpenter. They had at least six children, four boys and two girls. She died in Auckland on 21 July 1949. Her husband had died in 1942.
Alice Parkinson's case highlights the social and economic vulnerability of contemporary women and reveals the double standard of sexual morality common at the time. The case also served as a focus for anxieties over inadequacies in the judicial system. Organisations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union of New Zealand compared her sentence unfavourably to the more lenient ones imposed on male child molesters, and insisted that there should be women judges, jurors, police officers, senior gaolers and MPs. Campaigners also drew attention to the lack of a system of probation for all but the slightest offences; their efforts led to an act of Parliament making probation available in cases similar to Parkinson's. The right of appeal was also extended.
Alice Parkinson was frequently stereotyped as villain, heroine or victim. She appears now as a woman driven to solve her problems by violence, whose efforts resulted in tragedy.