Elsdon Best as a special constable

Elsdon Best as a special constable, 1913
Elsdon Best as a special constable, outside the entrance to Alexandra Military Depot, 1913 (ATL, PA1-o-1240-16)

I have always been fascinated by the layers of history at the Pukeahu National War Memorial site in Wellington (some may know this site as ‘Mt Cook’, beside Massey University).

Now that I’m lucky enough to work there as an Educator, I’m able to explore this history in even greater detail. On a walk with local historian Peter Cooke, over the weekend, I got chatting with John Sullivan from the National Library of New Zealand about the well-known ethnographer Elsdon Best, and his role as a Special Constable (those on horseback were contemptuously known as ‘Massey’s Cossacks’) over the period of strikes between October 1913 and January 1914 in which up to 16,000 workers downed tools.

One thousand ‘specials’ were stationed at the military barracks at Mount Cook, literally overlooking a working-class community that supported the strikers. New Zealand’s small regular army secured Buckle Street with soldiers carrying fixed bayonets. There was a machine gun at each end of the street. Imagine that! The ‘Specials’ were deeply unpopular with the local community, and on 3 and 4 November residents rioted and the mounted specials charged the crowd. Revolver shots were fired on both sides, and although there were no deaths, people were injured.

I knew that farmers and labourers were recruited to help keep order at this time, but I had no idea that local academics, businessmen and office workers had also volunteered to join the Specials. In this picture taken outside Government House, Elsdon Best, then an employee of the Dominion Museum, is wearing the uniform of the Texas Rangers, legendary law enforcers who weren’t always too fussy about legal details. He was 57 at the time, so not a young man.

This image is echoed in Sheyne Tuffery’s Mount Cook mural near Pukeahu on the corner of Hopper and Hankey streets — check it out next time you go past.

Sheyne Tuffery mural, Mt Cook

Fairfax NZ Ross Giblin

Sheyne Tuffery’s Mount Cook mural near Pukeahu.

Sheyne Tuffery’s mural also refers to other ‘dystopian’ experiences at Pukeahu, including the imprisonment of Taranaki people from Parihaka, which is commemorated in a sculpture at Pukeahu  behind the Carillon and Hall of Memories.

We often think of war memorials as places to honour soldiers; and they certainly are. But there are other stories to be told too — about people who were pacifists, such as those from Parihaka, or conscientious objectors like Archibald Baxter who were subjected to the dreaded ‘field punishment number one’, or mothers and children left behind, represented by Darcy Nicholas’ Hinerangi.

It’s important that we remember that war is complex, and that we should encourage conversations which bridge the gap between the past and present to encourage people to think about the impact of war; both within our own country, during the Musket and New Zealand Wars for example, and overseas.

If you haven’t yet been to visit us at Pukeahu to learn more about this fascinating place, I hope you will soon. The staff of the Queen Elizabeth II Pukeahu Education Centre and National War Memorial are here to welcome you, and keen to discuss history and commemoration, what we choose to remember, and what we choose to forget. If you don’t live in Wellington but are interested in Pukeahu, use the links within and below this article to explore our work. And of course, feel free to contact us with any pātai you may have.

Cheers! Educator Emma Jean Kelly and the team.

Further information

How to cite this page

'Elsdon Best as a special constable', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/classroom/conversations/elsdon-best-special-constable, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-May-2019

Community contributions

1 comment has been posted about Elsdon Best as a special constable

What do you know?

Emma Jean Kelly

Posted: 01 May 2019

Peter Cooke has let me know that in the photo Elsdon Best is not at the Government House gates. He's actually at the Buckle St entrance to the Alexandra Military Depot, the name given to the Mt Cook Barracks in 1903. Thanks Peter! Emma