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20334-19680.tifOcto­ber is the cen­ten­ary of the 1913 gen­er­al strike, one of New Zealand’s most bit­ter indus­tri­al dis­putes. It was a time of grow­ing work­er dis­con­tent. A new wave of rad­ic­al trade uni­ons had emerged, with fiery social­ist lead­ers. They were up against Wil­li­am Massey’s new Reform Party Gov­ern­ment, with strong sup­port from busi­ness and farm­ing interests, all very hos­tile to the new labour activism.

The strike began on the Wel­ling­ton wharves on 22 Octo­ber, after a long-run­ning dis­pute about work­ing con­di­tions. Sym­pathy for the strikers was strong in the densely pop­u­lated slums of Te Aro. With large crowds sup­port­ing them, the strikers took over the wharves. Soon, the inner har­bour was dot­ted with idle ships at anchor. The strike soon spread to oth­er ports and for a few heady weeks the strikers felt vic­tory was theirs.

In response, the Gov­ern­ment mobil­ised a force of moun­ted spe­cial con­stables. Many were from the city, but most were farm­ers, soon to be nick­named ‘Massey’s Cos­sacks’. By early Novem­ber, more than 1,000 spe­cials were camped up at the Mt Cook Bar­racks. They were well pre­pared. A Wair­ar­apa news­pa­per, for example, com­men­ted that the Mas­ter­ton volun­teers had left with a good sup­ply of ash wheel spokes, “suit­able for bat­ons”, and the Hawera & Nor­manby Star repor­ted a brisk trade in revolvers before their men departed.

This pho­to­graph shows the bar­racks up on Buckle Street, the base for the strike-break­ers. In the back­ground a line of sol­diers move into the bar­racks. They were used for guard duty dur­ing the strike. In the fore­ground are some of the spe­cial con­stables and their horses.

Viol­ence soon erup­ted. Shortly after they arrived, the spe­cials charged a meet­ing of strike sup­port­ers at Post Office Square. The street fight car­ried over into Lamb­ton Quay and surged into Whit­combe and Tombs book­shop, break­ing win­dows and over­turn­ing stands of books. Over the next few days, there was a battle on Buckle Street when the spe­cials charged a jeer­ing crowd, and anoth­er run­ning battle on Feath­er­ston Street. In these skir­mishes and oth­ers, sev­er­al were injured on both sides, from stones, bat­ons and gunshots.

The strikers were soon on the defens­ive. They could not stop the spe­cials tak­ing back con­trol of the wharves. Ships began to come and go again. By the end of Decem­ber, the strike was over.


Dur­ing Octo­ber and Novem­ber the Museum of Wel­ling­ton City and Sea and the Alex­an­der Turn­bull Lib­rary are co-host­ing a series of talks about the strike. See or for event details.



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