Spare a thought for Wellington wharfie R. Lloyd, killed on the job in September 1913 when, in the dry, unemotive language of the official record, “a derrick fell on him; no blame attachable to anyone”. In the booming years just before WWI, Wellington’s port was the busiest in the country. Sixteen hundred watersiders laboured to load export butter, wool, meat and flax by hand into heavy rope slings, which were then hoisted aboard ship by hydraulic crane. It was dirty and dangerous work, and accidents such as Lloyd’s were not only frequent, they occurred in full view of the public, since the port, which has always been the city’s central feature, was open to anyone who wished to walk that way.
Today, tall office buildings directly overlook the docks, and the houses clinging to the surrounding hills increase in value in direct proportion to their view of the sea. Wellington’s sheltered deep-water harbour is a natural wonder, where, as one early British visitor breathlessly put it, “all the navies of Europe might ride [at anchor] in perfect security”. Navies, however, have rarely had the pleasure, and the harbour, rather than serving as an antipodean Scapa Flow, developed early into a place of commerce. At the foot of Wellington’s bounteous hills, valuable flat land was reclaimed from the sea and now extends along the water’s edge. Today, the high street known as Lambton Quay stands several blocks back from the waterfront, and only its graceful curve suggests it traces the original shoreline.
The first public wharf—Queen’s Wharf—opened in 1863 to ease the arrival of manufactured goods for a growing township. As the volume of farm produce for export increased, Railway Wharf and the shorter Wool Wharf were added, construction continuing until, by 1913, from Oriental Bay to beyond the main railway station, there were eight public wharves and numerous smaller private jetties jutting into the inner harbour.
Almost all the port’s foreign trade was with either Britain or Australia. Baled wool made up the bulk of it, together with frozen meat and dairy produce, carried onto the wharves in railway wagons. The days of the great sailing ships were already in decline, and most of the harbour traffic was made up of steamers, both the great overseas cargo vessels and the scores of little ships, known as hookers, which shuttled between Wellington and local ports, such as Wanganui and Nelson. Cheese and butter were shipped from Patea, in Taranaki, while hemp—milled flax—came out of the vast Manawatu swamps by way of river steamers from Foxton. West Coast coal was unloaded into wicker baskets using wide shovels, its choking black dust spreading freely around the wharves.
The working waterfront, with its non-stop traffic of railway wagons, horse-drawn drays, motor lorries and hand barrows, bearing mountains of cargo, provided the finest show in town, and one appreciated by Wellingtonians of all classes. While small boys fished from the pilings, matrons in beribboned bonnets promenaded past cruise ships, and the gentlemen of the town dashed across from their offices to glean the latest intelligence from the old country. Passengers from other port cities disembarked daily; even the small steamers running to and from such local ports as Patea or Wanganui could offer passenger berths, albeit hardly the most comfortable. On weekends a fleet of steam ferries carried families across the harbour to the seaside playgrounds of Eastbourne and Days Bay.
This lively scene remained little changed until well into the 1950s, when the wharfie workforce still stood at around 1500 and frozen lamb carcasses were still manhandled into slings and swung aboard the ships. The rows of cranes were now electrically rather than hydraulically powered, and the ships no longer emitted clouds of steam, but the wind still carried the salty odour of Stockholm tar, and the waterfront remained the focus of Wellington’s daily life.
“It was great to be on the waterfront in those days,” recalls Karl Renner, who spent his working life there as a harbour board engineer. “It was a place of character, different from the other ports because the public had free access. As the plant got bigger, the danger increased and people had to be kept away from the bigger machines, but today it seems a bit antiseptic somehow.”
In fact, barely a trace has survived of the vigorous, perilous and rowdy waterfront of those days. Cargo handling is today confined to the northern extremity of the wharf area, and is sensibly off limits to the public. The brick wharf sheds, once stacked to the rafters with wool bales, are now hired out to display cut-price carpets, while the former steam laundry which washed several generations of ship’s linen is a restaurant called the Loaded Hog, with a patronage to match.
Today’s reinvented waterfront has tried to salvage the remains of its maritime heritage. The Bond Store building, in which goods owing duty were once stored, now houses the excellent Museum of Wellington City and Sea. The floating crane Hikitia, which arrived in Wellington harbour in 1926, is still in use. And there are plaques recording many of the most notable arrivals and departures at and from these busy shores. But there is barely a hint of the most sensational and politically significant event the wharves have ever witnessed, an occasion when mobs of angry men grappled for supremacy on the docks, machine guns were deployed, troops marched with fixed bayonets, the red flag waved over the wharf gates and the entire city trembled on the brink of civil war.
The great strike of 1913, which shut down practically every major port in the country but began, and was most violently conducted, in Wellington, has all but vanished from national memory. Yet at the time, depending on one’s sympathies, it was either the fulfilment of a dream or the ultimate nightmare: the take-over of the most vulnerable and vital link in the country’s economy by militant workers.
The scale and intensity of the strike attracted attention worldwide, wherever the new philosophy of syndicalism—the idea that the working class could seize and hold power through a general strike—had taken hold. The Russian revolution was still four years in the future, and it was an open bet which country might be the first to fall to the organised might of its proletariat. New Zealand seemed as likely as anywhere to host a socialist revolution.
Through the first decade of the 20th century, professional radicals from across the Tasman and further afield arrived in the country, where, they fervently hoped, the workers’ revolt might soon ignite. One of them was a gangly, bespectacled Scotsman named Peter Fraser. In 1911, as president of the Auckland General Labourers’ Union, Fraser won improved wages and conditions from the Portland Cement Company by eschewing arbitration in favour of direct action. The following year he was in Waihi as representative of the New Zealand Federation of Labour—known as the Red Fed—organising support for a long strike by gold-miners, which resulted first in tragedy, when a mine-worker was killed in a clash with police, and ultimately defeat for the strikers. By early 1913, the radical unions were licking their wounds and regrouping, still disinclined to compromise. When it was suggested to Fraser that this might be a good time to bury the hatchet by forging an alliance with the more conservative unions, he growled that the only place he would bury a hatchet was in the heads of the Waihi strike-breakers.
Fraser joined a number of embittered former Waihi miners who came to Wellington in 1913 to work on the wharves. The most militant of them belonged to the local branch of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, an organisation founded in the United States but active in many countries and uncompromising in its belief that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common”. Towards the end of 1913, the young Wobbly leader, Tom Barker, came down from Auckland to stir things up a bit, before going on to do the same on the West Coast. He found that the Wellington wharfies were a tough and determined bunch who, when an issue arose which threatened their wages or conditions, did not hesitate to “leave the hook hanging in the air” while they had it out with their employer.
This is what happened one morning in late October that year: the entire waterside union stopped work to discuss the question of travelling time for some of its members. The Wellington Harbour Board, fed up with union stroppiness and possibly emboldened by the recent election of “Farmer Bill” Massey’s anti-union government, locked the wrought-iron wharf gates and sent its own office staff out to take over the loading of goods.
The response of the watersiders’ union was like a mid-summer brush fire. An immediate strike of the entire workforce was called, and Post Office Square, the popular gathering place just outside the gates of Queen’s Wharf, became the scene of non-stop protest as hundreds of milling men listened to fiery speeches, insurrectionary songs (the Wobblies were famous for their singing), and stirring music from the watersiders famed silver band. Barker returned from his agitator’s tour of the West Coast just in time to take over organising the round-the-clock meetings in the square. This, he and many others thought, was the industrial storm they had long been waiting for.
Just over the road from the square, and clearly visible through the gates, harbour-board staff in brass-buttoned uniforms, accustomed to issuing orders from their desks, were carrying out the wharfies’ manual work. It was a volatile situation, and one which didn’t last. The few nervous policemen guarding the gates were no match for the several hundred wharfies who soon stormed the wharves and manhandled the strike-breakers down the ships’ gangways before barricading themselves in.
The unthinkable had happened. The workers had overrun their workplace and now controlled one of the largest and most strategically important industries in the country. The strikers were exultant. One union bulletin proclaimed: “We will have the old red flag over the top of Parliament Buildings yet, as the sign that New Zealand is the first socialist republic in the world.”
For some days the city seemed in a state of shock. Ships unable to load or discharge their cargoes filled the outer harbour, while drivers, labourers, seamen and others joined the strike. Supplies of imported foodstuffs such as sugar, flour and oranges grew scarce, but Fraser assured the crowd in Post Office Square that they would not go hungry: “There is food in the shops here that was produced by the working class, and the shops, if necessary, can be broken into by the working class.” As long as supplies lasted, however, no one seemed anxious to disturb the peace further. Even the Evening Post, usually hostile to the radical unions, described the strikers as orderly and well-controlled.
Every gate to the wharves was now manned by a team of five or six picketers, and, said the Post, “the men…were always on the alert. Nobody escaped their eye, and people were approached in a quiet manner and asked their business… On the whole the strike is being conducted in as peaceful a manner as possible.” The strike committee issued passes permitting access to approved people, such as ambulance men. The government and the police were, for the time being, impotent to act, and Prime Minister Massey fumed in Parliament that “it was impossible for the citizens of this country to go on to the wharves without a permit from the people unlawfully in charge…just think of that state of things”.
A signals corps of up to a hundred strikers on motorcycles and bicycles kept the strike committee informed of any police activity. Wellington’s police superintendent complained that the men also took to the water around and under the wharves, “moving about in boats in a suspicious manner”.
To reinforce the hopelessly outnumbered local police, Massey and his advisers urged city businesses and government departments to release their staff to work as volunteer special constables. Other volunteers were recruited through the city’s gyms and gentlemen’s clubs, and included some of the town’s leading citizens. These “foot specials” were assigned to patrol outside the wharves, government buildings and sensitive installations, since the strike leaders were thought to be plotting to cut phone lines and blow up power stations and gas works. They were issued officially with short wooden batons, and unofficially with almost 300 army revolvers.
However, the response to the call for volunteers from the city was slow and disappointing, and the government was forced to ask the army to call on its networks of part-time territorial soldiers in order to rally a much larger body of men from the countryside. The first contingents of mounted special constables, soon to acquire the derisive nickname “Massey’s Cossacks”, arrived from Wairarapa. The strikers resisted them with every weapon at their disposal. As soon as the cycle look-outs warned of the approach of a mounted convoy along the narrow seaside road from Petone, Tom Barker and his mates climbed the steep hillside above the road and bombarded the horsemen with rocks.
The Wairarapa specials pressed on under this attack and arrived in town after dark to learn they were to be billeted in a Post and Telegraph Department depot near the present railway station. The depot was surrounded by a high barrier of wooden railway sleepers, but this proved no obstacle to a large crowd of determined strikers, who stormed the barrier “with a Maori war cry” and stampeded the horses and men inside. The strikers then tossed the railway sleepers into the sea. There was no more talk in the daily papers of calm and reasonable behaviour. From now on, declared the Dominion, it was “war to the knife”.
The beleaguered enforcement agencies received unexpected help in the form of a routine visit from a naval cruiser, HMS Psyche. The long, grey warship tied up at a wharf teeming with aggressive strikers, and the government pleaded with its commander to land his troops and disperse the men. Commander Carr referred the request by telegram to his superiors in London, where the First Lord of the Admiralty, none other than Winston Churchill, decreed caution: “Admiralty policy is to avoid all interference in labour disputes especially in Dominion.” In the meantime, however, Carr paraded his uniformed naval ratings on the Wool Wharf, armed with bayonets and a machine gun. This exercise had the effect of causing most of the strikers to withdraw, and the prospect of a bloody gun battle was, for the time being, averted.
Nevertheless, Wellington now gave the impression of a city under siege. The gun shops had all sold out of revolvers, and many stores carried notices in their windows announcing that “scabs”—strike-breakers—would not be served. The other port cities were also on strike, and Auckland, especially, was the scene of massive unrest. However, it was Wellington, the catalyst and epicentre of the conflagration, where the battle between labour on the one hand and government and employers on the other was focused. The capital was “the real centre of the struggle”, announced the hard-line conservative Attorney General. “It was recognised from the outset that if trouble could be stamped out here, it would gradually diminish in other places.”
But stamping out trouble on the scale to which it had now escalated would not be easy. The strikers by this time numbered more than 6000, and they were backed by crowds of vehement supporters. The government continued its appeal for volunteers from the hinterlands, and more mounted men poured into the city from Manawatu, Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay. The Post and Telegraph depot having been rendered unusable, they were billeted in the collection of defence-force buildings around the low hill where the Wellington university campus named after Prime Minister Massey now stands. Most arrived by chartered train at Thorndon, on the opposite side of the city from the docks, and proceeded through the streets in convoy, under a barrage of jeers and makeshift missiles, to the stables and straw-lined sleeping quarters which awaited them. “They are a fine, hefty lot,” reported an admiring newspaper journalist, “with square chins and an easy seat in the saddle.”
Once they had been settled in by regular defence-force troops, the square-chinned farmers were sent out into the embattled city equipped with hardwood batons almost a metre long. At first these were turned out by a timber yard in Courtenay Place, until Tom Barker and another Wobbly, Slim Byrne, paid the yard a visit one night with a box of matches.
The arrival on the city streets of so many unfamiliar mounted men, many of them itching for battle, dramatically raised the stakes of the conflict. At mass rallies in the Basin Reserve and Newtown Park, the strikers were urged to keep up their spirits and to maintain discipline but carry on fighting.
“If this case can be settled only by setting the country on fire industrially, that is going to be done,” roared the Seamen’s Union leader, Tom Young. “If the authorities of this country are going to use the police against the working class, I will undertake to mass in this city of Wellington 10,000 or 15,000 armed men.”
He was bluffing, or simply misguided. The strikers may have had superior numbers on their side, but they were almost unarmed and entirely unused to such an inflammatory situation. In a series of violent clashes in the streets, the two sides exchanged revolver fire, and several people were struck by bullets, including the police commissioner and a number of bystanders. The strikers also used sharpened nails to manufacture devices they called crowsfeet, which they scattered in the path of the horses. The specials in the barracks increased in number to almost 2000, and were securely guarded by regular soldiers with fixed bayonets and a machine gun at each end of Buckle Street. The adjoining Mt Cook primary school was closed to provide the specials with still more accommodation, to the delight of its pupils and the outrage of their parents.
Both the mounted and foot specials were placed under the command of regular army officers and referred to as troops—the cavalry and the infantry. Feeding and equipping so many men and horses strained the capacity of the peacetime military, and even notably sympathetic journalists recoiled at the stench of the “mounds and ramparts of manure, which stacks up day by day”. The city’s rubbish collectors had not joined the strike but refused to clean up after the strike-breakers, even when one of the horses died in camp. Its carcass had to be buried on the slopes of Mt Cook.
The specials made daily sorties through the city, running the gauntlet of violent abuse, stones and bottles. They hadn’t been issued uniforms and instead wore their everyday farm garb of oilcloth raincoat and dungarees, but they soon adopted unofficial protective gear, consisting of a folded towel around the neck and newspaper or other padding inside their hats as protection against rocks.
On November 5, a troop of almost 1000 specials riding four abreast, together with 65 regular police, proceeded down to the wharves under a near-constant hail of stones, as well as a barrage of insults from bystanders, who included, according to a surprised Dominion reporter, “quite well-dressed boys and some women”. When the mounted men reached the corner of Ghuznee and Willis Streets, a group of them, batons flailing, charged the stone-throwers, who fled along the footpaths, some taking shelter inside the vaulted wooden nave of St Peter’s Church, where a service was in progress.
Making repeated use of this tactic as they neared the port, the troops succeeded in breaking through the strikers’ picket at the wharf gates. For the first time in several weeks the cranes swung out over the ships’ decks, and the rope slings were lowered through the hatches to the “deependers” working down in the holds. A ferry was soon loaded for the South Island.
This was an important practical and psychological victory for the government, and one it was determined to consolidate. From then on the wharves were under close guard day and night, and cargo was loaded under the watchful eye of baton-carrying, battle-hardened men. As the work speeded up, many of the specials switched from law-enforcement to helping clear the backlog of goods. Some signed on as crewmen to operate the ships now moving in and out of the harbour, the government obligingly passing special legislation to allow them to work as stokers and able seamen.
By now the strike was doomed, but the strikers didn’t back down easily. The Royal Tiger Hotel in Taranaki Street, a preferred watering hole for thirsty specials after a day on the docks, was subjected to a three-hour riot which shattered most of its windows. To prevent a recurrence, Wellington’s mayor enacted seldom-used powers and closed every pub in the city. For the remainder of the strike, the nearest drink to be had was in Petone, a two-hour walk round the harbour which men undertook in droves.
The specials and regular police now clearly had the upper hand, and unofficial martial law was imposed over the city. The demonstrations in Post Office Square were forcibly broken up and armed horsemen patrolled slowly around the cleared space. The use of the term “scab” was grounds for instant arrest. Six-man mounted squads, by now adept at crowd control, ventured well beyond the inner city into the surrounding suburbs. In Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, a striker tried to escape arrest by dashing into a private house. The specials rode straight in after him, wreaking havoc in the front parlour. “They wantonly smashed pictures, photographs, crockery, a fire screen, a sewing machine and practically all the china and glassware in the room,” claimed a labour paper.
On the night of November 11, three weeks into the strike, the government launched its coup de grâce and arrested the six most prominent leaders of the dispute. Bob Semple, radical unionist from the West Coast coalfields; Harry Holland, veteran of Australian labour disputes; strike-committee chairman George Bailey; Peter Fraser, Tom Barker and Tom Young—all were held on serious charges, including sedition. The strikers’ revolutionary rhetoric took on a plaintive and desperate tone. Meanwhile, work on the wharves progressed steadily, the cranes swinging the stockpiled produce aboard, and, weighted to her Plimsoll line with cheese and butter, the large steamship Athenic finally left the port for London. It was a defining moment—the first overseas bound vessel to leave and one loaded entirely by strike-breakers.
On December 22, with the watersiders’ band still blaring defiance, a long column of strikers, their families and supporters marched for the last time down to the wharves, where many signed on for their old jobs. Their banner proclaimed, “The workers produce the wealth of the world”, and their revolt had shown that withdrawing their labour could indeed prove costly. Nationwide the strike cost an estimated million pounds, a staggering sum for the young colony and a huge blow to the Massey government.
Today, the waterfront which outlasted this ferocious dispute has been transformed by the subsequent decline of the shipping industry. The only area where cargo is still handled is an angular patch of reclaimed land north of the city, site of a securely fenced container terminal in which gangling yellow straddle trucks scurry about day and night.
The dominant shipping activity is now the inter-island ferry, no longer the butt of jokes about the quality of its catering but an efficient link in the national highway system, inhaling and disgorging passengers and vehicles like a seagoing vacuum cleaner. A few fishing boats still tie up at the remaining wharves, and their catch is purveyed through smart restaurants which now occupy the old harbour board sheds, still known by their original numbers. A trio of bright red tugs is on hand to shepherd the diminishing number of overseas cruise ships into the harbour, but the little red helicopters which buzz above the water are used mainly for joyrides.
In the mid-1980s, confronted with the commercial pressures of the kind facing under-used urban ports around the world, Wellington Harbour Board and City Council began refashioning the old waterfront from a place of hard physical work into an inner-city leisure zone. This process, still far from complete, has been fiercely controversial, and at times the public debate has reached a level of vituperation reminiscent of the darkest days of 1913. The recriminations continue, but what has been achieved so far is undoubtedly the creation of a place where thousands of Wellingtonians enjoy coming to stroll, jog, skateboard and consume.
Several wharves have disappeared entirely; others have been converted to non-maritime use, some being engulfed in the process by reclamation. Queen’s Wharf now boasts an events centre, the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, a range of restaurants, cafés and bars, and recreational facilities including kayaks for hire and an indoor climbing wall. The area immediately to the south, down to Taranaki Street Wharf, has been converted into the popular Frank Kitts Park. On one side this is linked to Civic Square—surrounded by the city library, council buildings, old town hall and art gallery—by the carved wooden City to Sea Bridge over the endless traffic along Jervois Quay; on the other a low stone wall holds back the sea, and the occasional seal may be seen sunning itself in summer. Nearby there’s Circa Theatre, Mac’s Shed 22 craft brewery, and, beside an artificial lagoon in front of the Wellington Rowing Club boathouse and function centre, Kaffee Eis, a coffee and gelato kiosk. A variety of sculptures add interest, including, scattered here and there, concrete typographic tablets immortalising lines of New Zealand poetry, and, most recent of all, a “water whirler”, born of the febrile mind of multi-media artist Len Lye. Dominating the waterfront a stone’s throw to the east is the national museum, Te Papa.
Today’s waterfront is one of the city’s principle attractions and a magnet for locals and visitors alike; but those who recall working at the port in its bustling heyday no longer enjoy going down there. Karl Renner, at one time in charge of up to 400 equipment-maintenance staff, says that now, when he walks on the old breastworks, “I feel a loss. In my day the port had character. Its development since then certainly isn’t in accordance with the original concept.” Karl heard stories about the strike of 1913 from his father, who witnessed it. “Among working men the specials were hated. They were seen as well-to-do and on the ruthless side. Bringing them in was seen as totally uncalled for.”
Such strong views are far removed from the placid and leisurely atmosphere of the rebranded waterfront, yet the strife of 93 years ago deserves to be remembered. The events of 1913 were, simply, a pivotal moment in our 20th century history. Massey’s Cossacks succeeded in breaking the strike but they also cemented divisions within the labour movement and led to the formation, three years later, of the most radical Labour Party in the English-speaking world. The crucible of 1913 was an early proving ground for a number of prominent public figures of later years. Most notably, Peter Fraser and another of the strike’s leaders, Michael Savage, became prime ministers, while one of the “hated” mounted specials, Bernard Freyberg, became arguably New Zealand’s greatest wartime leader and its first locally raised governor general. Peter Fraser, once unwilling to bury the hatchet with his political opponents, eventually did so to such effect that he became a revered leader of the country during World War II. “The militants might have lost every battle,” he said, “but they won the campaign.”