The 1913 Great Strike

Page 4 – The 1913 strike in Wellington

On 24 October, strike supporters broke through the gates at Queen’s Wharf and tore down a barricade at King’s Wharf. They invaded the wharves and ‘persuaded’ strike-breakers to stop working.

The government now adopted a suggestion from Colonel Edward Heard, the acting Commandant of the New Zealand army, who was reluctant to use military personnel directly to maintain law and order. Instead, Territorial Force officers in rural areas utilised existing networks to recruit farmers and labourers as mounted special constables. These ‘specials’ were issued with batons and sometimes with revolvers. Rural men were keen to volunteer. The strike threatened their livelihoods, and the Red Feds’ socialist ideas offended their patriotic values. Strike supporters deeply resented the arrival of the special constables, whom they referred to as ‘Massey’s Cossacks’.

The ‘cossacks’ arrive

The special constables who arrived in Wellington on the evening of 29 October camped overnight outside the Post and Telegraph Store on the waterfront. Next morning, about 1000 strike supporters broke into the yard and drove the specials out. The crowd settled down after sailors from HMS Psyche paraded with fixed bayonets and a machine gun.

The Distress Committee

Housewives’ Union activist Jane Donaldson and Australian factory union activist Selina Anderson were among the speakers who addressed the crowds gathered in Post Office Square. Donaldson and Anderson also played leading roles in the Distress Committee, which collected food and money donated by sympathisers and investigated the circumstances of strikers’ families.

On the evening of 30 October, a group of mounted specials and regular police charged the crowd at Post Office Square. During the melee revolver shots were allegedly fired.

Wellington businessmen, shop clerks, students and sportsmen were enrolled as ‘foot specials’. Strike supporters chased one foot special into Whitcombe and Tombs’ bookshop on Lambton Quay, but were held off by a few regular police and several shop clerks armed with revolvers.

Fighting at Buckle Street

After being driven from the waterfront, the special constables were billeted around the Alexandra Barracks at Buckle Street, Mount Cook. Many locals strongly resented their presence in this working-class neighbourhood. The New Zealand Artillery secured Buckle Street, placing soldiers with fixed bayonets and a machine gun at each end of the street.

One thousand specials were stationed at Mount Cook. The army provided their catering and supplies, and trained them in cavalry manoeuvres. Major sanitation problems developed as council workers refused to remove the large quantities of horse manure.

Buckle Street was besieged by rioting local residents on 3 and 4 November. Mounted specials charged the crowd and revolver shots were fired on both sides. Again there were injuries, but no deaths.

Off-duty specials relaxed at the Royal Tiger hotel, named for a British regiment which had fought in the New Zealand Wars. Locals attacked it on 4 and 5 November, smashing all its windows. McParlands bakery, supplier of bread to the specials, suffered a similar fate.

The Battle of Featherston Street

On 5 November, 800 specials set off from Buckle Street to escort racehorses from Lambton station (near today’s Wellington railway station) to the wharves, from where they would be shipped to Christchurch for the New Zealand Cup meeting. As they reached Ghuznee Street, strike supporters pelted them with road metal. After repeated mounted charges in Featherston Street, the special constables eventually took control of the wharves and brought ‘free labourers’, or ‘scabs’, on site.

Māori leaders speak out

At the time of the strike a group of Māori leaders were in Wellington involved in ongoing negotiations with Prime Minister Massey. On 4 December, Ngāti Tuwharetoa ariki Tukino Te Heuheu and Rangitāne leader Tuiti MacDonald (Makatinara) addressed a meeting of strikers at the Olympia skating rink in Vivian Street. Te Heuheu and MacDonald expressed their sympathy with the strike. They pledged to discourage Māori from acting as special constables and strike-breakers, as a number had already done.

The next day, the ‘free labourers’ were registered in an arbitration union and began working the ships. They avoided crossing picket lines by dossing down on board 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.

Arrest of the strike leaders

From the beginning strike leaders had tried to keep up morale with fiery speeches. On 11 November, Harry Holland, editor of the Maoriland Worker, Peter Fraser, Social Democratic Party activist, Bob Semple, UFL organiser, and George Bailey, chairman of the strike committee, were all arrested for using inflammatory language. The next day Tom Young, president of the UFL, and Tom Barker of the IWW were arrested for sedition. All were imprisoned in the Terrace Gaol for the duration of the strike. Union leaders Hubert ‘Tim’ Armstrong and Edward Banjo’ Hunter were also arrested for sedition, in December.