Unemployed riot rocks Queen St

14 April 1932

The Queen Street riot, 1932 (Auckland Museum, C17682)

Auckland’s Queen St riot was by far the most destructive of the disturbances that rocked the four main centres in the ‘angry autumn’ of 1932. Trouble first flared in Dunedin in January and again in April.

Worse soon followed in Auckland on 14 April when a large crowd of unemployed relief workers joined Post and Telegraph Association members marching to a Town Hall meeting, swelling their numbers to around 15,000. Angry at being turned away from the overflowing hall, some demonstrators scuffled with the police barring the entrance. When a leader of the unemployed, Jim Edwards, rose to speak – apparently to urge calm – a policeman struck him down. The crowd erupted and surged down Queen St. Armed with fence palings and stones taken from a mini-golf course in Civic Square, they smashed hundreds of shop windows and looted jewellery, liquor, clothing and tobacco. 

One chemist shop was cleaned out of contraceptives; a man was seen staggering off with a grandfather clock on his back, and the department store Milne & Choyce ‘grieved over the spoliation of their very costly wax “dummies”’.

Reinforced by armed navy sailors and volunteers, the police regained control of the central city several hours later. Hundreds of people were injured, including several policemen, and 35 people were arrested for looting. Ninety-eight Waikato Territorial Army troops and 1000 volunteer (‘special’) police constables bolstered government forces the next day, but violence flared again that night. As crowds massed in Karangahape Rd, scuffles broke out and more windows were smashed. By the end of the night, there had been another 50 injuries and 35 arrests.

Auckland’s riots were followed by further disturbances in Christchurch and Wellington in early May 1932. A state of siege settled on the main centres, with ‘specials’ patrolling the street, all outdoor meetings banned and shop windows boarded up for weeks, but there was no more major trouble.