An Aucklander’s soapbox: what kind of journal was John A. Lee’s Weekly?

Image: An opening from one of John A Lee's scrapbooks, 1917-1950.
Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, NZMS 828.

John A. Lee was a mercurial star in New Zealand’s political firmament between the World Wars, rising to become a prominent member of the First Labour Government. He made enemies easily. His campaign to hold Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage to the manifesto commitments of 1935 culminated in 1939, with an anonymous pamphlet known as ‘The Lee Letter’ and an article in the left-wing journal Tomorrow entitled ‘Psycho-Pathology in Politics’, after which Peter Fraser and other loyalists accused Lee of hounding Savage to his death. Lee had already established himself as an author of autobiographical fiction (including the New Zealand classic Children of the Poor), but he claimed that his words against Savage were no fiction. He hit back by pouring scorn on the ‘union gangsters’ who had conspired against him for ‘telling the truth’. For John, also known as Jack, it was essential to publicise his voice, whatever the financial cost. He was a man of immense resources of self-confidence and self-righteousness, which strayed into outright paranoia in the 1940s. To cement his legacy he began donating his papers to Auckland Libraries in 1966, including some gramophone records of his radio talks.

But the clearest example of Lee’s reality-bending power of will was the newspaper he published from 1940 to 1954 – which made a loss of around £8 to £10 per issue in the mid-1940s.

Image: John A. Lee’s Weekly, 10 July 1940, page 1, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Lee was expelled from the Labour Party at its national conference in March 1940 for his attacks on Savage and his lack of party discipline. Less than a month later, he founded a Democratic Labour Party (DLP) dedicated to democratic socialism, anti-conscription and the use of public credit to build up the national economy. This last tenet had been part of the Labour platform in the 1930s and later re-emerged as the basic idea of the Social Credit party. The first issue of John A. Lee’s Weekly (“a views, not a news, paper”) appeared on 10 July 1940. Although the editor was DLP activist Norman Douglas, most of the copy was written by Lee himself. Jack Lee understood that a minor party could only spread its message by having a mouthpiece under its own editorial control – this went double during wartime, when censorship and patriotic support for the Government were all-pervading. The Weekly was a professional-looking publication, with a propulsive, modernist masthead, editorial content from Lee, letters from readers, pieces republished from British leftist publications, and a back page featuring updates from DLP branches. The purpose was clearly to convince Democratic Labour supporters that they belonged to a competent and enterprising movement before they had even delved into the textual content. And from January, the issues doubled from four pages to eight. The publication now included book reviews and longer-form essays. Later issues featured a ‘light thriller’, Mussolini’s Millions, appeared in the Weekly and its successor between June 1947 and February 1948, under the pseudonym ‘Milford Sound’, perhaps to conceal how much of the newspaper came from Lee’s pen.

But when one man writes a weekly paper for a varied audience of political malcontents, motivated largely by his own bitterness and lust for revenge, some strange idiosyncrasies start cropping up.

Image: John A. Lee’s Weekly, 18 June 1941, page 1, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

Somewhere along the line, John A. Lee had formed the opinion that his expected appointment to Cabinet in 1935 had been blocked by the Roman Catholic Archbishop James Liston, a trusted advisor of his fellow Catholic, Prime Minister Savage. Over the years, this conspiratorial suspicion had been reinforced by the support of some Catholics for the Franco regime in Spain, so that by the end of 1941, Lee was prepared to launch an anti-Catholic campaign in his Weekly. Perhaps his frustration and aggression towards the Labour hierarchy was leaching out onto other targets, perhaps he felt the need to keep his editorials fresh and exciting. The result was the same: Lee spent years condemning Catholics as being intrinsically prone to right-wing dictatorialism, saying that “it is a notorious fact that the Roman Catholic religion has never reconciled itself to democracy” (30 May 1945). This was quite a bold statement to make in a country, with a significant Catholic minority, which was at that moment fighting a World War for democracy. Lee’s position attracted unlikely bedfellows: Howard Elliott of the Loyal Orange Lodge, a right-wing sectarian organisation, endorsed Lee in the 1943 election (The Standard, 23 Sep 1943, p10). For years afterwards, Lee continued to print sectarian articles from his own pen and from overseas, as well as promoting pamphlets with titles like The Vatican Menace and Great Papal Criminals.

Image: John A. Lee’s Weekly, 28 January 1944, pages 2-3, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

One of John A. Lee’s more forward-thinking crusades, influenced by his wife Mollie, was feminism. Lee proposed a motherhood endowment to be tied to the male basic wage in his 1949 election editorial, but most of his feminist activism was in the adverts, principally around reproductive freedom. Most of the Weekly’s ads were taken out by N. V. Douglas Ltd, booksellers (in fact a partnership between Lee and his editor), and there were entire pages of 'Sex Books by Eminent Authorities'. Volumes by Marie Stopes sat alongside the Conceptograph Calendar (“For those who desire to apply the Rhythm Method”) and the Biosex series of books, which were written anonymously by Lee himself. Two were sex education books aimed at adolescent boys and girls, one at adults, and Biosex B focused on 'Birth Control Methods and the Safe Period'. He often advertised the works of New Zealand safe-sex advocate Ettie Rout – two of her books, donated to Auckland Libraries by Lee, are now digitised on Kura.

N. V. Douglas advertising gradually became a major contributor to the page count in later years, but the first few issues had no ads at all – one of the first to appear in 1941 was ‘Muir’s Goitre Remedy’. Medicines were a lifelong interest of Lee’s. He believed in clean living and outdoor exercise, but the pages of his Weekly also feature a smorgasbord of ‘alternative’ remedies, including homeopathy, naturopathy and hypnotism. Lee clearly used his personal networks to sell advertising space, meaning that the goods and services on offer were almost as idiosyncratic as Lee’s own writing.

Image: John A. Lee’s Fortnightly, 13 April 1949, page 6. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The DLP alternative was not an electoral success. Initially attracting monetary reformers and left-of-Labour radicals, it was fairly diffuse in its ideas. Early on, Lee (an atheist who supported the war against Fascism) printed articles by the Christian pacifist Rev. Ormond Burton, but in later years Christian Socialists like Bill Barnard (who had also contributed large amounts of copy to the Weekly) broke with the DLP. Other supporters were lost to Communism or to the Social Credit movement, or simply lapsed into political apathy after ingesting too much personal poison. The back page of the Weekly was full of partisan propaganda and branch news in 1940; this had all but disappeared by 1942. Lee kept the party going for a while after his electoral defeat in 1943, but largely as leverage to convince Labour to readmit him to membership. Based on their electoral results, Labour did not have much to fear from the DLP, although Lee was still threatening to run candidates as late as 1954.

Image: John A. Lee’s Weekly, 9 October 1940, page 4, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

John A. Lee’s Weekly only lasted a year in its original format, reducing in size to a demy quarto in June 1941. This did not involve a huge loss of content as it was now sixteen pages rather than eight. And the visual appeal of the paper was improved by putting the main headline in bold type on the front page, surrounded by negative space. But it signalled the beginning of the end. In 1947, paper prices pushed the loss-per-issue of the Weekly up to £20, forcing Lee to rename it John A. Lee’s Fortnightly from the start of 1948, and to reduce it in size again in October 1951. He subtly made his own name bigger in the new masthead – perhaps for name recognition, perhaps as a sop to his own rampant egotism. By now there was no prospect of Democratic Labour reshaping New Zealand politics (they had not even contested the 1946 election), so the publication only really ran on the fumes of bitterness. Lee subsidised it heavily from the profits of his Biosex books. From January 1954 it was renamed again, to John A. Lee’s, and appeared as a monthly until the end of the year – by this time, the front page was given over to adverts for sex education books and a list of readers who had sent their subscriptions in that month. Eventually, Lee’s editor and business partner Norman Douglas (who had rejoined Labour in 1952) lost patience with the loss-making enterprise and persuaded Lee to give in. Douglas became MP for Auckland Central in 1960 – he is less well-known today than his son, Sir Roger.

Image: John A. Lee’s, 14 April 1954, page 1. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections.

The last issue of Lee’s carried an almost off-hand mention that its namesake had voted Social Credit in the 1954 general election. Despite having criticised Social Credit for most of the previous year, he still bore so many wounds from the First Labour Government that he clearly could not bring himself to vote for the party as long as there was a non-‘Tory’ alternative. I suspect the job of writing within a set editorial line limited Lee’s ability to grow beyond the traumas of 1940. It is fascinating to witness the mental energy of a man who could spend fourteen years (and a lot of money) writing and printing a regular journal, against mounting evidence that the world was moving on. Lee’s Weekly forms an immense self-portrait in a manner which few serials can approach: the 1940s equivalent of an Internet blog or an unusually verbose Twitter account. The lists of contributors, similarly, are redolent of a modern-day crowdfunding project. In a rejection of mass-market blandness, the Weekly explored controversial ideas about women’s rights, alternative medicine, and the Catholic Church, maintaining a broadly consistent editorial line even if it meant alienating an increasingly limited audience. In our own time, characterised by media and political fragmentation, it is perhaps more useful than ever to look back at the Weekly – not as a historical curiosity, but as a harbinger of things to come.

Author: David Hoggard, Research Librarian

With special thanks to James Armstrong, Team Leader, Auckland Council Archives.

Further Reading

John A. Lee Papers: UNESCO Memory of the World inscription
John A. Lee by Erik Olssen (Otago University Press, 1977)
Simple on a Soapbox: a Political Testament by John A. Lee (Collins, 1963)
John A. Lee’s Weekly
John A. Lee’s Fortnightly
John A. Lee’s [Monthly]
The Standard
Michael Bassett, ‘Reviews: John A. Lee by Erik Olssen’, New Zealand Journal of History, 12.1 (1978), 75-79
Dennis McEldowney, ‘John A. Lee’s Children of the Poor’, in Critical Essays on the New Zealand Novel, ed by Cherry Hankin (Auckland: Heinemann Educational Books, 1976) (pp.24-39)
Keith Sinclair, ‘The Lee-Sutch Syndrome: New Zealand Labour Party Policies and Politics, 1930-40’, New Zealand Journal of History, 8.2 (1974), 95-117


  1. Entertaining and fascinating - long live Vital Books!


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