The 1950s

Page 4 – 1951 - key events

Trouble on the wharves

Union march during 1951 waterfront dispute

The 1951 waterfront dispute was the biggest industrial confrontation in New Zealand’s history. While not as violent as the Great Strike of 1913, it lasted longer – 151 days, from February to July – and involved more workers. At its peak, 22,000 waterside workers (wharfies) and other unionists were off work, more than 1% of the total population of just under two million.

The waterfront had a strategic place in New Zealand’s export economy and had long been a flashpoint for industrial conflict. The government strongly backed the employers and sent troops onto the Auckland and Wellington wharves to load and unload ships. Against the backdrop of the Cold War, the opposing sides denounced each other as Nazis, Commies, traitors and terrorists.

ANZUS signed

New Zealand and Australia’s sense of security had been severely undermined by Japan’s expansion across Asia and the Pacific during the Second World War. Both countries wanted a powerful ally capable of filling Britain’s shoes. The United States had become the dominant Pacific power in the 1940s, and it was to America that New Zealand and Australia looked in the 1950s.

The Americans wanted to rebuild Japan as a buffer against the spread of communism in East Asia, but New Zealand and Australia had concerns about a Japanese resurgence. Through the ANZUS treaty the US offered New Zealand and Australia the reassurance they sought, at the same time gaining their support against the spread of communism in the Asia/Pacific region. The ANZUS treaty was signed in San Francisco in September.

Yacht race tragedy

Wellington-Lyttelton yacht race tragedy

On 23 January 1951, 20 yachts left Wellington bound for Lyttelton in an ocean yacht race to celebrate Canterbury’s centenary. In 1940 an event had been sailed in the opposite direction to celebrate the capital’s centenary. It was expected that the fastest yachts would complete the journey in one and a half days, the slowest in five days. But following a severe southerly storm on 24 January most vessels withdrew from the race or were disqualified for using their engines. Only one, Tawhiri, officially finished the race. Two yachts, Husky and Argo, were lost along with their 10 crew members.

A magisterial inquiry found that Argo had collided with another yacht early in the race and probaly foundered on the evening of 23 January or the following day. A similar time period was suggested for Husky's demise.

Maori Women’s Welfare league established

Maori Women's Welfare League

In September 1951 the Maori Women’s Welfare League (MWWL) was established at a national conference in Wellington. A number of issues had emerged in the post-war years as increasing numbers of Māori moved to the cities. Some Māori were discriminated against with regard to housing. There were also concerns about Māori health and education. The League placed an emphasis on the family and the promotion of healthy lifestyles as well as issues relating specifically to women. Whina Cooper was elected as the League’s first president. By the mid-1950s the MWWL had 88 district councils, 300 branches and more than 4000 members.

Other events in 1951:

  • New Zealand’s upper house of Parliament, the Legislative Council, ceased to exist on 1 January.
  • On 24 January, 163 Battery shelled an enemy position south of Seoul, firing Kayforce’s first artillery shots in anger of the Korean War.
  • Death of Māori leader Sir Peter Buck.
  • Ngāti Whātua were evicted from their last remaining land at Ōrākei in Auckland.
  • In what was seen as an endorsement of its handling of the waterfront dispute, National increased its parliamentary majority in the 1 September snap election.
How to cite this page

'1951 - key events', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 1-May-2018

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