The 1932 Queen Street unemployment riot

In 1932 unemployment riots swept through the country as the Great Depression intensified. The worst occurred in Auckland on 14 April, over 200 people were injured and 250 shop windows were smashed along Queen Street. Broken glass covered footpaths and looters grabbed whatever they could: shoes, jewellery, clothing, cigars. There were 45 arrests.

Thousands of unemployed assembled at the Auckland Town Hall. Auckland Weekly News, 20 April 1932. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19320420-46-1.

Earlier in the day, Postal and Telegraph Employees Association workers had marched to the town hall to protest a second 10% wage cut. All pensions had also been reduced and the family allowance terminated. Marching columns of jobless men and women joined the protest and the crowd grew to 15,000. Around 2,000 people were allowed into the town hall before police barred further entry. Scuffles broke out between police and those left outside.

Jim Edwards addressing demonstrators. Auckland Weekly News, 20 April 1932. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19320420-46-2.

Unemployed workers leader Jim Edwards rose to speak, a policeman struck him down with a baton and the crowd erupted. Police batoned protestors who armed themselves with fence palings from the Methodist Central Mission in Airedale Street, and stones from a mini golf course in Civic Square. Methodist missioner C.G. Scrimgeour was looking directly at the town hall and watched “Men [come] across to get the pickets from my cottage fence to defend themselves.” He went down Queen Street urging people not to loot and on his return home found Jim Edwards waiting with a scalp wound requiring 30 stitches. The next day Scrimgeour said, “If this trouble gives publicity to the plight of the unemployed, then my church will have rendered its greatest service to the community in a hundred years.”

Pickets from the fence of the Methodist Central Mission. Auckland Weekly News, 20 April 1932. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19320420-38-1.

Jim Edwards’ son, James, said “to appreciate what… brings normally law-abiding people to the point of desperation that rioting implies, you must consider the background of these hard times.” He was 14 in 1932, moving around a series of rented inner-city Auckland houses with his family. In one, his pregnant mother’s bed was a broken door placed on a couple of apple boxes. The family relied on the Salvation Army’s horse-drawn soup kitchen for their evening meal.

There were over 21,000 registered unemployed at the beginning of 1931 and this figure more than doubled to 52,000 in a year, with 70,000 expected by winter 1932. These numbers did not include women, Māori employed on Native Department schemes, and men under twenty. Women were not eligible for relief payments even though they had contributed 500,000 pounds from their wages to the Unemployment Fund; and married men were being sent to relief camps where they lived in primitive conditions and earned a pittance. Jobless were dependent on private charity or hospital boards for help. They had no representatives on the Unemployment Board and the government frequently ignored attempts to meet with them.

Scenes at the headquarters of the Auckland Unemployed Women's Emergency Committee in Newton East School. Auckland Weekly News, 29 June 1932. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19320629-48-4.

Scenes at two new relief camps in Auckland. Auckland Weekly News, 28 October 1931. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19311028-37-1.

The day before the Queen Street riot, a procession of 2000 unemployed men and women marched to the town hall to protest against relief camps. The Auckland Star belittled the march with a billboard implying only a few unemployed were involved. The demonstrators responded by marching to the Star offices, and a riot was narrowly averted after a truck driver tried to force his vehicle through the angry, densely packed crowd.

The following day, the demonstration in support of the Post and Telegraph workers proceeded up Queen Street with men and women carrying banners saying “Free milk for the schools” and “Close the slave camps.” Jim Edwards’ son was on the march, too. He lost sight of his father when they reached the town hall, then heard someone shout, “They’ve batoned Jim Edwards. They’ve killed him!” James tried to push his way through the mass of people but “… a mounted policeman spurred his horse through the crowd almost knocking me to the ground when the horse wheeled in fright and hit me with the weight of its flank.” He glimpsed his father standing on the balustrade of the town hall and then lost sight of him again. Pitched battles began and James escaped up Greys Avenue – he could hear the “terrible roar of the crowd” nearly a mile away.

Looking east towards Queen Street showing crowds gathered during the riots. Auckland Weekly News, April 1932. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections,  7-A4325.

A thousand “Specials” (volunteer police constables) joined up the next day and that night protestors massed again, this time on Karangahape Road. A further 50 people were injured and 50 plate glass windows were broken but there was no looting. The Herald reported that mounted special constables rode through crowds who packed K Road from the corner of Ponsonby Road to Grafton Bridge. As they passed “they were received with a chorus of hooting and shouting.”

Montage showing the results of the riot on Queen Street. Auckland Weekly News, 20 April 1932. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19320420-43-1.

The Mayor of Auckland, Mr G.W. Hutchison, said he would have no hesitation reading the riot act if the disturbances continued – every rioter would be liable to two years in prison with hard labour. This was the sentence Jim Edwards later received on a charge of inciting the Queen Street riot.

Julia Yates had a hat shop opposite the town hall and her shop was cleaned out during the riot. She said some on the march couldn’t even afford to wear shoes. In 1989 she recalled how “lawyers, dentists and doctors numbered in the unemployed who blistered their hands building Chamberlain Park, Western Springs, Scenic Drive and Waterfront Road…. They did a lot of good work for next to nothing but they still lost their homes.”

Shop windows on Queen Street. Auckland Weekly News, 20 April 1932. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS-19320420-38-2.

It wasn’t until 1938 that the Social Security Act provided income support for families.

Author: Leanne, Research and Information 


Auckland Star, 15 and 16 April 1932

Auckland Weekly News, 20 April 1932

New Zealand Herald, 15 and 16 April 1932; 1 April 1989

Auckland – Waikato Historical Journal, April 1996, No. 67
Auckland Anecdotes by Keith Dawson


The Penguin Eyewitness History of New Zealand
Ed. Bob Brockie

Riot 1932
James Edwards

Break down these bars
Jim Edwards