South Auckland's special constables

October 2013 is the centenary of the Great Strike, a wave of industrial unrest that affected the whole of New Zealand. The strike - or lockout - began on the Wellington wharves on 22 October 1913. By 28 October the trouble had spread to Auckland.

Ref: 7-A10659, showing rioters in Featherston Street, Wellington running for protection from Mounted Special Constables during the Waterside Strike, 1913, Sir George Grey Special Collections

The Reform government under Prime Minister William Ferguson Massey had proposed the use of the military to occupy the wharves, maintain essential services and protect strike-breakers, but ultimately decided to use civilian 'special constables' instead. In the Auckland area, enrolment of special constables began on 29 October. The New Zealand Farmers' Union - concerned with keeping the wharves free and export trade moving - actively sought out volunteers in rural districts.

Ref: AWNS-18991215-5-9, WF Massey, Parliamentary Representatives Auckland Provincial District, 1899, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Camps for gathering volunteers were set up at Hamilton, Helensville, Kawakawa, Dargaville, Whangarei and Matamata. On 5 November the first batch of mounted farmers arrived at a camp set up on the Otahuhu showgrounds, where they were formally enrolled as 'specials'.

The majority of Auckland's total of 1,902 mounted volunteers came from rural areas of the Northland or the Waikato, but there were also significant numbers from South Auckland localities. According to figures published in the semi-official volunteer-produced 'Camp Gazette', Waiuku with a total of 53 volunteers led the South Auckland contribution by far. Then came Buckland (23), Clevedon (17), East Tamaki (15), Patumahoe (15), Pukekohe (14), Tuakau (10), Mauku (9), Manurewa (8) and Bombay (4). There were three volunteers each from Glenbrook and Otahuhu; two from Aka Aka, Papatoetoe, Paparimu, Puni and Runciman; one each from Karaka, Pokeno and Waiau Pa.

Ref: Footprints 02388, A group of East Tamaki farmers who served as special constables, photograph reproduced by courtesy of Howick Historical Society, 1913, South Auckland Research Centre 

The special constables in the photo above included: Kennedy Ross (far left in the back row); Jim Ross (third from left) and Lou Gillard (far right). The 'Camp Gazette' for 27 November 1913 reported: "East Tamaki Troop of B. Squadron 2nd Regiment, under the popular Captain Scholefield, have erected a very neat flag of blue and white, being the Auckland representative colours. Congratulations to the men of Tamaki!”.

Most of the mounted men transferred to the Domain on or after 6 November, although smaller camps were also established in Remuera and near the wharves. The 'specials' took control of the wharves on 8 November, at which stage the strike in Auckland become more-or-less general. This phase lasted little more than a week, however, after which strikers gradually returned to work. The strike was formally called off on 24 November, although some unions held out longer - the waterside workers until 19 December. The specials by that time had mostly quietly returned home.

AWNS-19131113-40-2, the enrolment of special foot constables in Auckland, 1913, Sir George Grey Special Collections

The mounted specials were labelled by their opponents as 'Massey's Cossacks', and the name and an associated reputation for violence have stuck. According to one widely-read account by W.B. Sutch:
"The police enlisted thousands of special constables with horses and batons and sometimes revolvers [sic]. Young farmers, 'Massey's Cossacks', rode into the main ports as 'specials' to intimidate the strikers and the public ..." ('Poverty and Progress in New Zealand' (1969, p.65).

Popular mythology thus has it that the 'specials' were armed thugs rampaging out-of-control through the streets. This view reaches its apogee in Chris Trotter's book, 'No Left Turn' (2007, p.90), which characterises them as a proto- or Ur-Fascist species ("Look at the carefully posed photographs of these lads: young, confident, flaxen-haired, resplendent in their brown shirts and riding boots, batons in hands, it really is hard to tell whether they're from Hamilton or Hamburg ...").

Ref: AWNS-19131113-44-3, farmers swearing in as special constables at Otahuhu, 1913, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Certainly the specials were issued - and often photographed, as seen above - with fearsome looking batons (the official issue was long hardwood batons, or sometimes axe handles, for mounted specials; short batons for foot specials). However, contemporary reports make it clear that intimidation - abuse, stones, bricks and perhaps even gunshot - was equally directed by the strikers against the strike-breakers.

Most of the violence occurred in Wellington, where the strike began, rhetoric was at its hottest, and for a time the strikers seized control of the wharves. There ensued scenes never seen before on New Zealand streets. Soldiers and sailors paraded with fixed bayonets. Machine gun emplacements were set up on street corners. Spiked devices to lame horses were strewn on the streets. Even a cache of dynamite was discovered. In the overheated atmosphere a number of bloody clashes occurred between the police and special constables and the strikers and their supporters.

Ref: AWNS-19131113-42-1, the camp of mounted special constables on the Domain, 1913, Sir George Grey Special Collections

Auckland was in general a much quieter place, although there were some ugly scenes when the specials occupied the wharves. Some sources suggest that a number of the Auckland specials who occupied the wharves were armed with revolvers. There is no contemporary or independent evidence of this. On 9 November 1913 one special, Ted Bilkley, of Buckland, was wounded in the arm by what seemed to be a revolver shot from out of the crowd, but he suffered little harm, since the weapon - if it existed - was either primed with a low-grade charge or armed with a stone rather than a bullet.

Ref: 7-A10660, Mounted police guarding the lower Queen Street entrance to the wharves, 1913, Sir George Grey Special Collections

However grim the situation may have seemed at the time, as far as South Auckland's specials were concerned, the bitterness did not persist. In August 1914 the Mauku branch of the Farmers' Union took up a collection to help the wives and children of former strikers who were suffering hardship.

For more information about this story, with full references, see Manukau’s Journey (use the search term ‘Cossacks’). Contemporary newspaper reports on Papers Past also offer other insights into these events. For background material on the Great Strike from a range of different perspectives, see the following resources held in the heritage collections at Auckland Libraries:
  • Erik Olssen, 'The red feds: revolutionary industrial unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour 1908-14 (1988)
  • James Bennett, 'Rats and revolutionaries:: the labour movement in Australia and New Zealand 1890-1940' (2004, pp. 69-2)
  • Melanie Nolan (ed.), 'Revolution: the 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand' (2005)
  • Bruce Farland, 'Farmer Bill: William Ferguson Massey and the Reform Party ' (2008)
Author: Bruce Ringer, South Auckland Research Centre


  1. Thanks for the post! You may be interested in this project by the LHP and the MCH, which uses your collection:

    We are building a full resource from across various institutions here: May of your images are uploaded here (and referenced as required by your copyright statement).

    Jared Davidson

  2. Hello Jared,
    This is great, many thanks for letting us know about these projects and sending through the links. Wonderful to see use of the Sir George Grey Special Collections images - the Flickr page is a wonderful resource.

    Cheers, NB

  3. We have a Unionist in Waikumete Cemetery who was part of that strike and was also in the other strikes that NZ had. His name is Albert Boonstra. He is buried in Anglican A. I have yet to do a talk on him.

    1. Hi John. I was wondering if you were speaking of Alfred Boonstra? He is a relation of mine and I am trying to find out more info on him.

  4. Thanks John, that's really interesting to hear. I will pass your comment onto the author of the blog post. Cheers, NB


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