The ‘Battle of Featherston Street’, in downtown Wellington, saw some of the most violent street fighting of the 1913 Great Strike.
The strike began in October following disputes on the Wellington waterfront and at the Huntly coal mines. Watersiders and coal miners around the country struck in sympathy, and were later joined by seamen and other workers. The Reform government of William Massey organised special constables, nicknamed ‘Massey’s Cossacks’, who came into the cities from rural areas to reopen the wharves.
On 5 November crowds of strike supporters clashed with more than 800 mounted special constables. The specials were riding from their base at Buckle St to Lambton station (near today’s Wellington railway station). Their mission was to escort racehorses from the station to the wharves so they could be shipped to Christchurch for the New Zealand Cup race meeting.
On Willis, Ghuznee and Dixon streets, stones were thrown at the specials, who responded by charging and batoning the crowds. The battle began in earnest on Featherston Street, where specials charged strikers. Pro-strike tram drivers tried to ram specials on horseback, and metal spikes and detonators were thrown at horses’ feet. Eventually the specials broke through and took control of the wharves. This was a decisive moment in the strike. From now on ‘scabs’ (also known as ‘free labourers’) could be brought onto the wharves to load and unload ships.
The next day, free labourers were registered in an arbitration union and began working the ships. They avoided crossing picket lines by dossing down on board ships or in makeshift dormitories in wharf sheds. Once the wharves were working again it was only a matter of time before the strike collapsed. Similar ‘scab’ unions were set up around the country as the authorities regained control of the wharves.