Tom Young, inciting seditious strike

William Thomas Young
Union secretary, born 1870, New Zealand
Tried: 4 October 1917, Wellington Magistrate’s Court
Charge: Inciting a seditious strike
Sentence: Three months’ imprisonment.

Pressure on the economy grew as the war went on, and the government responded by using the War Regulations to curb industrial action that might undermine the war effort. Regulations passed on 17 April 1917 classified strikes in the shipping industry as ‘seditious’ and punishable by a period of imprisonment.

On 7 September 1917, a group of seamen refused to go on watch on coastal steamers unless two deckhands shared this duty at all times. The relevant industrial agreement prescribed that only one deckhand was necessary, and discussions between the union and the shipping companies about adding a second had ground to a halt a few days earlier. However justified the union’s position may have been, refusal to work constituted an illegal strike under the War Regulations. The authorities set about establishing who was responsible for ‘inciting’ it, with Detective Carney visiting ships and interviewing crewmen, captains and witnesses.

In early October, Wellington magistrate S.E. McCarthy heard the Crown case against Federated Seamen’s Union secretary William Thomas (Tom) Young and his assistant Frederick Howell, who stood accused of issuing the instructions to strike. Several strikers called to give evidence denied that the union had ordered them to stop work – even though Howell had been seen visiting the men shortly before the strike began.

Young, presenting his own defence, argued that no strike had taken place; the hold-up had been caused by the shipping companies firing individual seamen who had refused to work – a ‘seditious lockout’. The police had searched the union office and spoken to witnesses, yet still had no definitive evidence to present against Young and Howell. McCarthy dismissed this defence, siding with the shipping companies and concluding that Young and Howell had instructed the seaman to strike. He sentenced both men to three months’ imprisonment.

Young protested that the lower evidential standards of the War Regulations – guilt did not need to be established beyond reasonable doubt, merely on the balance of probabilities – were being misused to ensure successful prosecutions. Young contended that the National ministry, directly opposed to the principles of organised labour, was cynically using the War Regulations to persecute the Seamens’ Union despite the absence of admissible evidence.


Sources: Police Gazette, 1918, p. 59; Evening Post, 2 October 1917, p. 7, 3 October 1917, pp. 7, 8, 45, 4 October 1917, pp. 6-7; Dominion, 3 October 1917, p. 6, 4 October 1917, p. 6, 20 October 1917, p. 7

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