The women were marvellous

In 1951 the National government used troops to run the waterfront after shipping companies locked out watersiders. The watersiders had refused overtime work in protest at a low wage offer. The dispute lasted for five months and grew to involve 22,000 workers including freezing workers and coal miners. The government announced a state of emergency, censored the media, seized union funds and outlawed support for the workers and their families.

Labour MP Mabel Howard called the emergency regulations “a war on women” as wives had to run a home without wages or support. It was forbidden to give children food. Strikers’ children at Wellington’s Clifton Terrace primary school were separated from their classmates at lunchtimes in order to prevent food-sharing.

And yet wives and children and the striking workers survived. “The women were marvellous,” was a common refrain afterwards. When asked to elaborate on how they were marvellous, many commentators dried up.

When Renée researched her 1986 play about the dispute, “Pass It On,” she found plenty of analysis about the unions and political parties involved but little discussion of the women’s role. The first woman she approached for information said, “Oh, I didn’t do anything. It was the other women. They were marvellous.” Renée spoke to two unionists who also said, “The women were marvellous, absolutely marvellous!” but didn’t mention any details.

Renée. Pass it on. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1986.

“Pass It On” became the first account of the 1951 dispute documenting women’s experience. Broadsheet called it “a great insight into a piece of our women’s history which is glossed over in the history curriculum.” In the play, one woman is initially angry that her husband refuses to work; while another helps organise marches, meetings and relief supplies. There are scenes of women cleaning donated shoes and weighing oatmeal portions at a relief depot. They help produce and distribute bulletins, pamphlets and notices; one takes a job cleaning an office block and steals reams of paper for more bulletins, pamphlets and notices.

Historian Dick Scott estimated 650,000 copies of bulletins, 400,000 pamphlets, and 400,000 miscellaneous items were produced during the dispute. Women helped create these underground publications and often distributed them because it was considered less likely that police would challenge women.

New Zealand Herald, 2 June 1951.

Women were often at the front of the workers’ marches to show the march was peaceful – so they were the first to face police armed with batons. The president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Watersiders’ Union, Freda (“Fuzz”) Barnes, was arrested for inciting disorder after a march which became known as Bloody Friday. She was one of twelve women at the front of 1500 workers marching up Queen Street. The women carried banners advertising a meeting in the Domain to hear the wharfies’ side of the dispute. Police were waiting for them at Myers Park.

Mrs Barnes said, “… one of the coppers grabbed at my flag, up went my fist, I hit him on the wrist – and caught him a beaut too because I was so wild – Bang! And he went, ‘Oh, you bloody bitch!’ and he took the flag off me and broke it into pieces.” Police alleged – and she denied – that she had called out to marchers, “Come back, you yellow bastards, and get these cops.”

The prosecution stated, “In a matter of inciting, the female is the more deadly of the species, as men take less kindly to their courage being questioned by a woman.” Mrs Barnes, a legal clerk and a justice of the peace, was found guilty of sedition for Bloody Friday. She later sought an order to prosecute the Minister of Police for describing the Combined Women’s Committee as a communist organisation. “We were not communists,” she said. “We were working men’s wives.” Her request to prosecute the minister was refused.

Auckland Star, 28 May 1951.

Full page. Auckland Star, 28 May 1951.

Despite it being a criminal offence to give food to a striker’s wife or child, many New Zealanders helped the families and there were apparently no prosecutions. Colin Bernard Kruse was a member of the navy who had to work in a coal mine during the dispute. He said women and young children came to the mine carrying containers in the hope of free coal. “It was the middle of a cold, wet winter and many homes relied on wood and coal for cooking and heating. Although all sailors were on instructions to give no assistance to strikers or their supporters, we would quietly point to a stockpile, turn our backs and walk away; after all these were New Zealanders and why should these wives and mothers suffer more hardship.”

Frank Barnard has said that foremost amongst those helping Auckland’s locked-out workers and their families were the Dalmatian community from Henderson and Oratia who supplied meat, vegetables, fruit and potatoes. “Without them, there would have been a lot of empty tummies,” he said. Hilda Parry, secretary of the Auckland Peace Council, ran a second-hand clothing store in Hobson Street and during the dispute it became a food and clothing depot.

Potato gatherers, Henderson. Roth, Herbert Otto, 1917-1994: Collected papers, personal papers, photographs and ephemera. Ref: PAColl-4920-1-2-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23171147. 

Former MP Sandra Lee’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were locked-out in 1951, and all lived in the same house. She said, “During my childhood, both my parents recounted time and again how kind people were to our family during the dispute … Most mornings in our house, for example, a box of vegetables would appear at our family’s doorstep … And we always knew it came from ‘dear old Harry Wong’s’ fruit and vegetable shop next door. Years later we moved to Johnsonville, and Harry and his business moved out there too. My mother would walk the whole length of Johnsonville to shop in his shop, because she never forgot his kindness.”

Meanwhile, with no pay coming in for five months, debts piled up for fuel, rent, hire purchase commitments and basic food items. Grocers and butchers who had extended credit during the dispute needed to be reimbursed. Loans to pay rent or doctor’s bills or school supplies needed to be repaid. It took years for some families to pay back the cost of those five months without wages.

Author: Leanne, Research Central


Barbara Brookes.  A History of New Zealand women. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2016.

David Grant (editor). The big blue: snapshots of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout. Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2004.

Dean Parker, Bill Anderson and Warren Brewer. '51 : 50th anniversary, waterfront lockout and supporting strikes. Auckland: Auckland 1951 Reunion Committee, 2001.

Renée. Pass it on. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1986.

Bert Roth and Janny Hammond. Toil and trouble: the struggle for a better life in New Zealand. Auckland: Methuen New Zealand, 1981.

Eric Harold George Williamson. Waterfront Strike papers. 1951. NZMS 1202.


Broadsheet, Issue 38, April 1986.
New Zealand Memories, Issue 115, August/September 2015.
The New Zealand Herald, 2 June 1951.
The Press, 25 February 2017.
The Sunday News, 17 October 1971.