05 November 2013

100 years on - The Battle of Featherston Street

Today's Dominion Post reports on a small parade in Wellington to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Featherston Street, the most violent episode in the fraught industrial dispute known as the 1913 Great Strike.

In 1913 violent street clashes occurred in Wellington when rural anti-union sympathisers deputised as 'special constables', who were better known as 'Massey's Cossacks', clashed with stone-throwing watersider sympathisers. On this day 100 years ago this erupted into the Battle of Featherston Street, in which the mounted 'Cossacks' made repeated charges to break up unionist sympathisers and succeeded in reclaiming the wharves to allow strike-breaking labour to access the facilities. Ultimately this defeated the watersiders' strike and resulted in the failure of the 1913 strike. But as the history texts point out, 1913 was a pivotal year for New Zealand workers, because six of the strike leaders (Bob Semple, Peter Fraser, Paddy Webb, Bill Parry, Dan Sullivan and Michael Joseph Savage) went on to become Ministers in the first Labour government in 1935, and of course two (Savage and Fraser) became Prime Minister.

These famous photos were taken at the height of the Featherston Street clashes, showing the impromptu cavalry formations and the billyclubs carried by the specials. It is worth pointing out that despite the violence of the 1913 strike, there were fortunately no fatalities.

Charging the strikers (via NZHistory)
Fleeing the charge (via NZHistory)

The editorial in the Dominion of the following day (6 November 1913) unsurprisingly takes the side of the employers, arguing that the radicalism of the strike was harmful to the national interest:

The employers have no desire for industrial trouble. They are anxious to co-operate in the most friendly way with their workmen for their' mutual advantage and for the public convenience and welfare. They want some adequate of good faith in order that business may be carried on without sudden interruptions and unnecessary friction. They believe that the machinery of the Arbitration Court is the best means available for obtaining this security. It may not be a perfect method, but it would be fair to both parties and also a protection to the great third party to all industrial disputes—the general public. The crisis which has now disorganised the industrial life of New Zealand has made it quite clear that, however the present trouble may be settled, permanent peace cannot be restored until the sober-minded and law-abiding section of the workers, who really form the vast majority, take the control of the labour fighting machine out of the hands of the revolutionary extremists.
As for the conflict in Featherston Street, the Dominion was firmly on the side of the Cossacks, who were pelted by bystanders with debris and rocks, like an occupying army:

The conduct of the mounted specials under these trying and dangerous circumstances was such as to win for them the admiration and respect, of every decent minded citizen who witnessed it. Their pluck and endurance were magnificent. Almost invariably they were attacked from behind or from some point of vantage where their cowardly assailants knew they were beyond reach of immediate punishment. When, as was imperatively necessary from time to time, they charged the rioters, they sent them scattering in all directions for shelter, from which they emerged when all was clear again to resume their dastardly tactics.
A different perspective was offered by the workers' paper, the Maoriland Worker, in its next weekly issue published on 12 November 1913:

The "Evening Post" records that a "hail of road metal" greeted the specials as they galloped into Featherstone [sic] Street. This is not quite accurate. Still, it is a fact that the people were thoroughly aroused by the dastardly conduct of the invaders, and a good deal of stone-throwing took place. "There were times when the only chance a man had to save his own life was to stop his cowardly assailants with a stone," said one resident who was interviewed by "The Worker." Near the Government Railway Department Offices, where the mass of people was greater, and therefore more completely at the mercy of the bludgeon-wielders, one of the worst of the attacks by the "specials" was made. Exasperated by the conduct of individual scabs, as well as by the outrages along the line of march, the people retaliated,with stones, sticks, bottles — indeed, with any weapon to hand. The whole army of horsemen suddenly wheeled around and galloped furiously upon the people, who as soon as they had recovered from the effects of the rush, fusiladed the enemy with every available missile. Repeated charges were made by the perpetrators of the lawless law, and men, women, and children were either struck at or savagely bashed with the batons and axe-handles wielded by the scabs.

See also:
History: The end of six o'clock closing, 9 October 2013
History: 120th anniversary of NZ women's suffrage, 19 September 2013
History:  The bleakest day in NZ history, 12 October 2012
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