Counties-Manukau essays

Massey’s South Auckland Cossacks

Bruce Ringer


This article discusses the 1913 Great Strike in a local context. It explores the contribution South Auckland men made to the special constables who were used to help break the strike (or lockout). It discusses whether these specials, popularly known as ‘Massey’s Cossacks’, were really as brutal as they have often been depicted.


Background to the Great Strike

In 1913 a wave of industrial unrest usually known as the 'Great Strike' or 'General Strike' swept New Zealand. [1] Events saw the strikers, who attempted to occupy the wharves, and their supporters, pitted against volunteer strike-breakers who were protected by mounted special police armed with batons and – according to some accounts – revolvers. Historiography has generally depicted the special police as the villains of the piece. Is this really the case?

The strike - or lockout - began on the Wellington wharves on 22 October 1913. By 28 October the trouble had spread to Auckland. Prime Minister W.F. Massey's Reform government had at first proposed the use of the military to occupy the wharves and maintain essential services, but ultimately decided to use civilian 'special constables' instead. In the Auckland area, the formal enrolment of special constables began on 29 October. The New Zealand Farmers' Union - concerned with keeping the wharves free and the export trade moving - was active in seeking out volunteers in rural districts. [2]

The President of the Auckland Executive of the New Zealand Farmers’ Union at the time was the elderly Major D.H. Lusk, formerly of Mauku. Lusk, a hero of the Waikato war of the 1860s, and a former militia commander, ran the operation of recruiting and organizing the specials as far as possible along military lines. [3]

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The South Auckland contingents

The majority of Auckland's total of 1,902 mounted volunteers came from rural areas of Northland or the Waikato, but there were also significant numbers from South Auckland localities. Most of these men were formally enrolled at a camp established at Otahuhu, before transferring to the Auckland Domain on 6 November (where Lusk was the commanding officer). [4]

According to figures published in the semi-official Camp Gazette, Waiuku (ppn. 509) led the South Auckland contribution, with a total of 53 volunteers. Then came Onewhero (27), Buckland (23), Clevedon (17), East Tamaki (15), Patumahoe (15), Pukekohe (14), Tuakau (10), Mauku (9), Manurewa (8), Pukekawa (5) and Bombay (4). There were three volunteers each from Glenbrook and Otahuhu; two each from Aka Aka, Maramarua, Papatoetoe, Paparimu and Runciman; one each from Karaka, Pokeno, Puni and Waiau Pa. [5]

The commander of the 2nd Regiment was Acting Major John Herrold, a farmer from Waiuku. His 'Waiuku Bulldogs' came in for special mention in the Camp Gazette: "Maroon and gold is the colour of a new flag bearing the hieroglyphics of 'Waiuku and Mauku'. These two places sent about 100 specials [sic], whereas in comparison the larger and more important Pukekohe only contributed about half-a-dozen ...". [6]

Chief of Staff Captain F. Colbeck came from Manurewa. During his sojourn in the camp, his infant daughter was born at his Manurewa home. (“We present our sincere congratulations and that of the camp to our Staff Officer Captain Colbeck consequent upon the arrival of a little daughter at his Manurewa home …”) [7]

There was a fifteen-strong East Tamaki contingent: "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!"  [8]

These men, although on active service, did not forget their everyday concerns. One of them, J.H. Ferguson, used the Camp Gazette to advertise his services as a water boring contractor (“Testimonials on application, B Squadron, 2nd Regiment, or East Tamaki …”). Another, W.E. Gordon, advertised employment opportunities for three young men to help bring in the hay and one for general farm work. [9]

East Tamaki residents who volunteered to act as special constables during the 1913 waterfront workers strike.

‘East Tamaki residents who volunteered to act as special constables during the 1913 waterfront workers strike’. This photograph was published in Jenny Clark, East Tamaki, 2002, p. 176, with the men in the back row described as: Kennedy Ross, unknown, Jim Ross, unknown, unknown, Lou Gillard. The names of men from East Tamaki listed in the final issue of the Camp Gazette in January 1914 were as follows: J. Connors, T.W. Fairweather, H. Ferguson, N. Galloway, E. Gillard, T. Gillard, F. Gillard, W. Gordon, F. Pearson, W. Pick, J.G. Wynyard, R.K. Rawson, J. Ross, K. Ross and G.H. Selby. (Original photograph courtesy of the Howick Historical Society)

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The question of violence

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 the 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.

During the strike, there were inevitable and sometimes dramatic clashes between strikers and strikebreakers. The mounted specials were labelled by their opponents as ‘Massey’s Cossacks’. (Newspapers of the time often carried stories about the brutal behaviour of Cossack troops in Tsarist Russia. ‘Cossack’ was thus ready-made as a term of abuse. The phrase ‘Massey’s Cossacks’ had first been applied to mounted regular police during the Waihi miners’ strike in November 1912; in November 1913 it was by extension applied to the mounted special police.) [10]

The name and the 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 ...". [11]

Popular or at least left-wing mythology has it that the 'specials' were armed thugs rampaging out-of-control through the streets. This view reaches its apogee in journalist Chris Trotter's book, No Left Turn (Auckland, 2007), where he characterises them as some kind of proto-Nazi 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 ..."). [12]

Certainly the specials were issued - and often photographed - 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 gunshots - was equally directed by the strikers against the strikebreakers.

Most of the violence occurred in Wellington, where the strike began, rhetoric was at its hottest, and for a time the strikers managed to seize control of the wharves. There ensued scenes never seen before or since on New Zealand streets. Soldiers and sailors paraded with fixed bayonets. Machine gun emplacements were set up on street corners. Devices to lame horses were strewn on the streets. Even a cache of dynamite was discovered. [13] In the overheated atmosphere a number of bloody clashes occurred between the police and special constables and the strikers and their supporters.

Auckland was in general a much quieter place, although there were also some ugly scenes there when the specials occupied the wharves. [14]

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The issue of revolvers

Some writers have suggested that a number of the Auckland specials who occupied the wharves were armed with revolvers. [15] There is no contemporary or independent evidence of this. On 9 November 1913 one special, Ted Bilkley, from Buckland (near Tuakau), 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. [16]

In Wellington, by contrast, revolvers were almost certainly used. Pat Lawlor, who witnessed the events as young reporter, wrote some years later: "I found myself mixed up with a violent mob intent on doing harm to the 'specials' at their quarters, in Buckle Street. I took cover behind a fence in the storm centre. Shortly, stones, bottles and palings were hurtling in the direction of the barracks. The specials stood the onslaught for a while, then they charged the mob. The sinister note of a revolver was heard and through the darkness fire-arms flashed and thundered ..." [17] Lawlor maintained that it was the specials that had used revolvers, and that his story as published had been edited to present the police in a more favourable light.

According to one official report: "In Wellington several conflicts took place between the strikers and the police, in the course of which two civilians were wounded by revolver shots and several of the special police by the throwing of missiles ...". [18]

Mark Derby has uncovered a memorandum from the Director of Equipment & Stores, Defence Department, to the Commissioner of Police, Wellington, dated 20 February 1914, stating that, of the 275 revolvers lent to police from Defence stores during the strike, only 18 had been returned. Conceivably, the missing revolvers had fallen into the hands of the Wellington 'specials'. [19]

Thus in Wellington, if not in Auckland, it seems that at least some of the specials had firearms. However, clearly the strikers themselves used ruthlessly whatever weapons came to hand.

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The aftermath

As previously mentioned, 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. The Domain camp was closed down completely on 11 December 1913. [20]

Major Lush’s attempts during the strike to organize a permanent Farmers’ Union Constabulary Corps – a kind of anti-strike militia - seem to have come to nothing. [21]

However grim the situation may have been during the strike, as far as some of 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. [22]

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[1] For background information on the Great Strike, see: Erik Olssen, The Red Feds: Revolutionary Industrial Unionism and the New Zealand Federation of Labour, 1908-1913, Auckland, 1988; James Bennett, '"Rats and Revolutionaries": The Labour Movement in Australia and New Zealand, 1890-1940, Dunedin, 2004; Revolution: the 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand, ed. Melanie Nolan, Christchurch, 2005.

[2] 'Strikes Spread ...', 'Onehunga Men Idle', [etc.], NZ Herald, 31/10/1913, p. 8; 'Scenes on Wharves', 'Cargo to Be Worked: Organising the Farmers' [etc.], NZ Herald, 1/11/1913, p. 8; 'The Strikes ...', NZ Herald, 3/11/1913, p. 8.

[3] Olssen, op. cit., p. 191; John Crawford, ‘A Tale of Two Cities …’, in Nolan, op. cit., see pp. 130, 135; Bruce Farland, Farmer Bill, Wellington, 2008, pp. 129, 140, 462.

[4] 'The Strike: Our Patriotic Farmers Will Protect Their Own Interests: Enthusiastic District Meetings’ [etc.], Pukekohe & Waiuku Times, 4/11/1913, p. 2; 'The Strike: Our Patriotic Farmers Proceed to Auckland', Pukekohe & Waiuku Times, 7/11/1913, p. 2.

[5] The Camp Gazette was published in 13 issues between 24 November 1913 and 12 December 1913, with a fourteenth and final ‘souvenir’ issue on 23 January 1914. The final issue included a 'Complete List of Mounted Special Constables Serving in Auckland During the 1913 Strike' (Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 14, 23 January 1914, pp. 3-5).

[6] Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 6, 29 November 1913, p. 5, col. 1; Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 13, 12 December 1913, p. 1.

[7] Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 7, 1 December 1913, p. 2, col. 4; ‘Complimentary’, Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 9, 3 December 1913, p. 1.

[8] Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 4, 27 November 1913, p. 3, col. 3.

[9] [Advertisement], Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 5, 26 November 1913, p. 6, col. 4; [Advertisement], Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 10, 4 December 1913, p. 5, col. 2.

[10] ‘Semple and Webb at Waikino’, Maoriland Worker, 8/11/1912, p. 7; [Editorial], Grey River Argus, 14/11/1912, p. 4; Henry Holland, The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike, Wellington, 1913, [caption] opp. p. 104; ‘Unique Scene in Wellington Court’, New Zealand Truth, 15/11/1913, p. 6, etc.; see also John Webster. ‘A Massey Cossack Writes Home’, New Zealand Legacy, vol. 21, no. 1, 2009, pp. 5-6.

[11] W.B. Sutch, Poverty and Progress in New Zealand: A Reassessment, Wellington, 1969, p. 165.

[12] Chris Trotter, No Left Turn, Auckland, 2007, p. 90.

[13] 'Dynamite Found', Evening Post, 27/10/1913, p. 8.

[14] 'The Strike: District Farmers Doing Well: Bad Time on Sunday: A Fusillade of Missiles...', Pukekohe & Waiuku Times, 11/11/1913, p. 2.

[15] H. Roth, 'General Strike in Auckland', Here & Now, no. 55, Nov. 1956, pp. 15-17; Dean Parker, 'Red Auckland', Metro, no. 269, Nov. 2003, pp. 82-90.

[16] 'The Strike: District Farmers Doing Well', op. cit.

[17] Pat Lawlor, Confessions of a Journalist, Wellington, 1935, pp. 20-21.

[18] 'Report of the Department of Labour', AJHR, 1914, H.11, p. 13.

[19] Mark Derby, 'Wellington at War - the 1913 Strike', New Zealand Geographic, no. 80, July-Aug. 2006, pp. 34-45; 'Revolvers on Loan to Police', [facsimile displayed at] '1913 Strike- War on the Wharves', curated by Mark Derby, Museum of Wellington City & Sea, 22 August- 25 November, 2006 (see NZ Police, Memo. no. 261, 1914, Archives New Zealand, AAC W3539, Box 21, 526 p, 113/1968).

[20] ‘Presentations’, Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 13, 12 December 1913, p. 1; ‘ … Concert’, ibid., p. 2.

[21] [Notice], Camp Gazette, vol. 2, no. 1, 25 November 1913, p. 3; ‘Farmers’ Union Constabulary Corps’, Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 7, 1 December 1913, p. 2; [Editorial], Camp Gazette, vol. 1, no. 10, 4 December 1913, p. 2; ‘Local News’, ibid., p. 3, col. 3.

[22] 'Mauku Farmers' Union Helps the Strikers', Pukekohe & Waiuku Times, 7/8/1914, p. 2.

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Publication record: first published as ‘Massey’s Cossacks: More Sinned against than Sinning’, in New Zealand Legacy, vol. 20, no. 2, 2008, pp. 22-3. Revised for publication on the Manukau Libraries website in March 2010.

Copyright © Bruce Ringer. This text may be used freely for the purposes of private study or research. For other purposes the permission of the author is required.

© Auckland Council