21 July 2014

John A. Lee on the 1932 riots

Aftermath of the Queen St riot, 1932 (via AWMM)
In a 1966 letter to the Listener, former rebel Labour MP John A. Lee (1891-1982) discusses New Zealand's Depression-era protest riots in 1932, which had been the subject of correspondence from a critic of one of Lee's books:


Sir - I do not know the reason for the letter of S. Mather in your issue of March 18. I never reflected on other participants. The article on Coates he does not challenge.

1. He admits I walked at the head of the procession. 2. The parade did turn into a riot at the point at which the Town Hall doors were closed. There are at least 20,000 living witnesses to that fact and every press report. 3. I was the only MP to be brought to Auckland for the meeting. I did not arrange for the meeting sequence; that was arranged by P[ost] & T[elegraph] officers. I was given the position of senior speaker, in the last half of the Town Hall meeting. I did not appropriate this position, I was given it.

But if Mr Maher thinks that J.H. McKenzie was better at drawing an audience than myself I don't mind. J.H. McKenzie was a very competent servant of the association and a person for whom I have much respect. It is about 33 years ago and the story has never been really told. Somewhere I have the riot file including press reports and advertisements for the meeting. At that moment I was drawing New Zealand's largest audiences, but no one drew that audience; it was made by circumstances.

I did draw about 20,000 to the Domain on the following Sunday. Mr Mather will remember the meeting was prohibited and a squad from the Navy plus Gatling guns was installed to keep me out. I received so many phone calls asking whether I would be there that I decided to go to prevent trouble. Then occurred one of the great scenes of my life. People in hundreds were gathered to see if we were coming in Karangahape Road. As we reached Grafton Bridge the thousands followed us until the bridge was packed from end to end. Mrs Lee, myself and Arthur Richards MP led the audience away from the guns and to an eminence behind the Museum. We sat down, sang songs and the police gave me permission to tell the audience to disperse.

I couldn't get away from riot [sic]. I talked to an immense audience on the Dunedin Oval on a Sunday and left Dunedin on Monday. Either that day or the next the unemployed lay on the tramline outside Wardell's and the Otago Daily Times blamed my inflammatory oratory. I went to Christchurch to talk to a full theatre and had to talk to as large an audience outside afterwards. There was a tramway strike and that week bricks came through windows. Again, although I had nothing to do with the disturbance, as Johnny on the spot I was blamed to some extent.

Fortunately when the Wellington riot occurred I was on the Main Trunk Express. But if Mr Mather wants to affirm that Mr McKenzie was chief speaker, although I was accorded the senior position, I wouldn't challenge him for a moment. It is a matter of opinion, and besides I thought a lot of the people who arranged the meeting and McKenzie was a good chap, and I still think so.

It is time the riots were properly documented. There are abundant photos. Here is a thesis for some University student.

- John A. Lee, Auckland, letter to the Listener, 7 April 1966


The Auckland march on 14 April 1932 was to protest against Government plans for a ten percent wage cut for all public servants. The rioting erupted after one of the march leaders, Jim Edwards, was batoned to the ground from behind by police when he tried to speak to the crowd outside the Town Hall to encourage them to disperse. John Mulgan's 1939 novel Man Alone recorded the incident as follows:

Johnson saw a baton go up and an arm raised and the little man [Edwards] go down with a blow on the side of the head, and then at once men seemed to know where they were going. He was knocked aside … It was a wild business, like a dream in which no one seemed real any longer.

A cry of 'They've killed Jim Edwards!' went up through the crowd and things turned violent, with Te Ara recording that 'hundreds were injured in the fighting and, while the police were hemmed in near the Town Hall, looters ran through Queen Street smashing shop windows and raiding jewellery and other stores. Sailors with fixed bayonets were marched through town, but public order was only partially restored that night. There was more window smashing the following day in Karangahape Road, when mounted “specials” charged the crowds'. The following morning's Herald contains plenty of gory details of the looting and much praise for the Navy. Lee was permitted a small quote:

Speaking of the disorders that had occurred, Mr Lee said they were the result of leading probably 14,000 or 15,000 people to a hall capable of holding only 3000. It was evident, he continued, that future demonstrations against the Government's policy would have to be held in the largest available parks and reserves, where there would be room for all and all could hear. "I believe that, if we have huge and orderly demonstrations we shall be able to persuade the Government that it is hopelessly out of touch with the people," added Mr. Lee. "The country is facing an explosion. We must recognise the times we are living in, or the explosion will be on us before we are prepared for it."

In the aftermath of New Zealand's worst riot around 200 people had been injured and 40 arrests were made. Police blamed Edwards for starting the riot, and Edwards was later convicted and imprisoned for two years with hard labour. 

The 1932 Queen Street riot was the subject of a 2009 TV drama by Ian Mune, titled 'Life's a Riot', but it's not available via NZOnScreen. Queen Street was also the site of a riot in December 1984, when a police attempted to close down a free Dave Dobbyn concert in Aotea Square.

See also:
Blog: The Wintergarden, 26 April 2014
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