Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book two: Southern skies

XI. New Zealand
1901 to 1902

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter


I had been much interested in a book entitled Wealth versus Commonwealth, by Henry Demarest Lloyd, of Chicago. It dealt with the growth of trusts in the United States, giving details of the plants and the capital they controlled. One day I was struck with a review of a book by the same author, the title of which was Newest England. According to the reviewer, the book dealt chiefly with New Zealand, and to a less extent with Australia; but New Zealand was the country meant by the title “Newest England”. It presented the latter country in glowing colours, describing the achievements of labour legislation. One chapter was entitled A Country Without Strikes, meaning that the method of arbitration resorted to was successful in avoiding labour disputes. To my agreeable surprise, a few days after this, Henry Demarest Lloyd, the author, who happened then to be in London, called upon me. I soon commented upon the review I had read in the Daily Telegraph. He was naturally interested, and said he would send me a copy of the book. We talked of Australasia, and he was enthusiastic about the prospects there.

At this time the Clarion, the socialist weekly, was flourishing and exercised considerable influence. I had a great admiration for the editor, Robert Blatchford, and the group of friends that ran the paper. It so happened that the editor’s brother, Montague Blatchford (now dead) whose home was then in Halifax, was staying in London for a few weeks, and I saw a good deal of him. The Clarionwas publishing a weekly article from a former member of its staff who had emigrated to New Zealand in order to give opportunities to the younger members of the family. He wrote in glowing terms of his new homeland, describing the prospects of the country as positively glorious. I admit this had a considerable effect upon me. It gave a stimulus to my natural desire to see the new world. Whenever Monty Blatchford and I met, we were keen on discussing the latest from New Zealand. Demarest Lloyd’s book coming along at this time added fuel to the fire, and I was soon so engrossed in New Zealand affairs that I was alive to the probable consequences — that I should not be satisfied till I went there. I felt increasingly that they surely must have hit upon better methods in New Zealand than we had, or there could never be so many emphatic statements as to the absence of poverty and the relatively high standard of working-class life. Anyway, I concluded, experience of such a place ought to be of some value; and after all, it was desirable in my own interest that I should have actual experience of the newer countries. I felt the truth of: “What should they know of England, who only England know?”

At this stage, another circumstance befell which added to my interest in New Zealand affairs. Mr Chapman, a cabinet minister of New Zealand, paid a business visit to this country, accompanied by Mr E.M. Smith, New Zealand member of parliament for New Plymouth, in the Taranaki district. I met him at a lecture on New Zealand, given at the Imperial Institute. At the close of the lecture, after commenting appreciatively as regards the pictures that had been shown, I remarked to Mr Smith that what I wanted to hear about was the industrial development of the country and the conditions of working-class life.

“Certainly, certainly,” said Mr Smith; “it’s a shame to give the time to such stuff as we have had to listen to. I’d have given them something different if I’d had the platform.”

“Hello,” thought I, “now is my chance.”

So we talked at considerable length, and I gathered that his chief object in coming to England with Minister Chapman was to bring specimens of the finished metal products made from the iron-sand in the Taranaki district of New Zealand, where his home was. He told me they had brought these specimens over. They could be seen at the agent general’s office, and he invited me to go there, when he would be on hand. I visited the office in Victoria Street, met Mr Smith again, and saw the specimens in considerable variety.

They were much like the hardware products of a Wolverhampton firm, and included a pair of scissors — all products of the iron-sand, of which there were millions of tons waiting to be shovelled up without any mining or any digging. As a result of the talks that followed, Mr Smith promised to give a lecture on New Zealand to the Cosmopolitans already referred to. I undertook to get the lantern, to act as chairman, and attend to matters generally. Mr Smith’s lecture proved most interesting. It was the custom of the Cosmopolitans to have discussion after their lectures, and lively interchanges of opinion generally took place. On this occasion, Mr Smith was on my right hand, and nearby, on my left hand, was a tall, vigorous, well-dressed man of a decidedly dark complexion, but very different from a negro or a mulatto. I leaned over to Smith and asked:

“Is this dark-looking gentleman a friend of yours? Is he a Maori?”

“No,” replied Smith, “I’ve been noticing him; I thought at first he might be a Maori, but he’s not. I don’t know him at all.”

I asked the stranger if he would like to join in the discussion. He thanked me heartily, and smilingly said he would be very glad to, adding:

“Let me take this opportunity of saying how glad I am to meet you. I know your name well, though I have never had the pleasure of meeting you before.”

Thereupon he handed me his card, on which I read: J. Ojijatekha Brant-Sero.

“Ignore the long name and call me Brant-Sero!” said he.

Our stalwart friend was dressed very correctly in frock coat, and had quite a refined appearance. I called upon him to speak. I remember clearly how all eyes were turned upon him, as, with good delivery and a pleasant voice, he said:

“I am very glad of the opportunity to briefly join in this discussion, and I first wish to say how delighted I am to meet our chairman, after being familiar with his name for years. The advertisement in the paper brought me to this meeting. I am very glad I came, for I have been most interested in the address given by Mr Smith, on the industries of New Zealand. But I can see that you are all wondering who I am, so I will tell you. I am a Mohawk Indian.”

We looked at each other and at the speaker, and Mr Smith showed the liveliest concern to know more. Brant-Sero continued:

“I have listened with great interest to the description of New Zealand, its beauties and its industries, Mr Smith has referred to it as the Gem of the Empire. Well, that’s what is said about my country, Canada, and if the chairman will provide a lantern for me as he has done for Mr Smith, I will undertake to bring some slides, and to give you an address, which I think I can make interesting and informative on the Indians of America. I will tell you of their methods of government on their reserves, etc, if this meets with your approval.”

Of course, his offer to lecture was at once closed with, to come off a fortnight later. Strictly on time, our accomplished Mohawk friend was at hand with his lantern slides. A most enjoyable and instructive evening was passed. The lecturer told many things about the race he belonged to, describing their habits and the education that was provided for them; speaking also of the matriarchate and of the possibilities for a higher education. He showed most interesting pictures, including his own photograph in full dress as a Mohawk Chief — and a very fine and picturesque figure he looked. Brant-Sero afterwards joined a theatrical company, and was on tour for years, spending a good deal of his time in Germany. Ten years later we learned of his death — lung trouble.

Back to Mr Smith and the iron-sand. As by this time I had practically made up my mind to visit New Zealand, I saw more of Mr Smith, and he gave me a small bag of the iron-sand, which I actually carried to New Zealand, using it frequently to inform others of the natural advantages of such a place.

I left England for New Zealand on December 5, 1901, and arrived at Wellington, New Zealand, forty-seven days later, traveling on the SS Ruapehu, of the New Zealand Shipping Line.

The Boer War being on at the time when we arrived at the Cape, it was under military law, and we were not allowed to land; but some passengers were taken on board there, especially time-expired soldiers returning to Australia. One of these young men was going to his home in Gippsland, Victoria, where his father was running a farm. One day I noticed him diligently studying the chart, so I enquired:

“What are you studying, Jem?“

“This beats me,” he replied. “Here’s this little dot of a country,” pointing to the British Isles, “takes all our stuff from Australia, it gets all from New Zealand, and they tell me in Africa that it takes all theirs too. They must be a lot of hungry beggars in your country, eh?”

Jem had not given much attention to the difference in population; and he was so much amazed when he compared the sizes of the countries mentioned, that some of his remarks were more forcible than polite. But he was a real good type, and I met many such in the years that followed.

In the usual way many evenings at sea were occupied in giving impromptu concerts, but these were varied by a number of short addresses by various passengers that way disposed, and at one of these the iron-sand was in evidence.

I had no difficulty in getting into touch with the labour and socialist forces immediately on arrival at Wellington. In less than forty-eight hours I was addressing the Wellington Trades Council. Two days later, I addressed the local branch of the Amalgamated Engineers. The following day, Sunday, I spoke to a crowded gathering in the Opera House. I now undertook a systematic study of the social, industrial, and political conditions of the dominion. I hastened to join the local branch of the ASE. It was simply a matter of what is termed getting my “clearance“from the branch I had been a member of, and being accepted a member of the branch nearest to my new place of residence.

By repute I knew Mr Edward Tregear, the head of the Labour Department in New Zealand, whose office was in Lambton Quay, Wellington, the same thoroughfare in which the ASE branch held its meetings. I called at the Labour Department and was favoured at once with an interview with Mr Tregear, who was most polite and helpful, as I believe he always was to all who called on him. I knew that Mr Tregear had written an interesting article on New Zealand conditions, for the Amalgamated Engineers’ Monthly Journal, then just in circulation, I was not a little surprised to find that Wellington at that time had a number of unemployed. When attending the branch meeting, I saw and heard a number of unemployed members claiming donation or unemployed benefit. Later, I took occasion to ask if there was any explanation why there were so many unemployed members. The branch chairman promptly replied:

Yes, there is a simple and full explanation; it is that the engineering firms in Wellington insist upon an unjustifiable percentage of boys and youths in the trade, and take every opportunity to dispense with the services of men in favour of the cheaper labour of the young fellows.

I commented upon the fact that in the monthly issue of their own Journal that had just arrived from London, there was an article by Mr Tregear of the Labour Department, eulogising the labour conditions of New Zealand, and extolling the arbitration act. This article had evidently been arranged for by the editor of the journal, Mr G.N. Barnes, the general secretary of the union. The impression likely to be created in the minds of readers of the journal in various parts of the world was that the one place above others where labour conditions were comparatively good was New Zealand. Was it true that the Wellington branch was hostile to the arbitration act? The chairman replied that such was the case; they definitely and emphatically refused to resort to the act, as they had no confidence in being able to get their grievances as engineers effectively dealt with by persons in other occupations who knew nothing about engineering, and they were intending to organise more perfectly and use the power of the union to better their position.

Shortly after this I was in Christchurch, and I called upon the secretary of the Christchurch branch of the Amalgamated Engineers. He informed me of the local conditions, and invited me to attend the branch meeting that evening. I did so. In due course I was called upon to address the branch. I again dealt with the conditions of labour and the article in the Journal, eulogising labour conditions in New Zealand, and I referred to the high praise given by Demarest Lloyd, the American writer, to the happenings in New Zealand. I related my experience with the Wellington members, how they declined to resort to the arbitration act. I desired to be informed as to how they fared in this regard in Christchurch.

The chairman requested the secretary to reply to my queries, and to give me such information as would enable me to get a knowledge of the conditions. The secretary then stated that they in Christchurch had had similar experiences to those of their fellow engineers in Wellington with regard to boy labour; instead of having about one boy to three men, it was a common thing in some firms to have two or even three boys to one man. Unlike the Wellington members, they had resorted to the conciliation and arbitration act, and had done their best to obtain improved conditions under the act. They had met with moderate success, as although they had not been able to obtain an increased wage, they had brought up to a higher standard some of the lowest paid shops in the district. This afforded indirect help by reducing the intensity of the competition by the firms employing underpaid non-union men. With regard to establishing a proper ratio of men to boys in the shops, they had requested the courts to deal with this matter, and submitted proposals on the subject; but the employers strongly objected to any legal interference, on the ground that the union could not speak for the whole of the industry in the district, but only for the local members. The plea influenced the court, so that on this troublesome question they were in the same position as the Wellington members. Yet it was an urgent matter, for so many more boys entered the trade than there was room for as journeymen, that when they were out of their apprenticeship and required a journeyman’s pay, a large percentage of them had to leave the trade altogether, whilst others went to England to qualify as sea-going engineers. Thus it was clear that the Christchurch men who made use of the act were in the same plight as the Wellington men that did not use the act, and that the real thing that mattered was one hundred per cent organisation in the union. Then, with or without the act, the trouble would be overcome.

Turning to the clothing trades, I was satisfied that the operation of the act had resulted in substantially bettering the condition of many of the employees, both with regard to working hours and to rates of wages. No doubt equally good changes could have been brought about by organisation, but certainly not in the absence of it. However, I determined not to draw hasty conclusions as to the value of the arbitration act and other labour legislation, and resolved to cover both islands, get in contact with all sections of workers, study the effects of labour legislation, and gauge the strength and character of the trade union movement. In my travels I reached New Plymouth. Mr E.M. Smith, whom I had met in London, had now returned. We renewed our acquaintance, and in his company I had the opportunity of seeing enormous quantities of the iron-sand of the Taranaki coast. Also I saw old furnaces, quite derelict, which, Mr Smith told me, had been used many years before to test the qualities of the iron-sand. The experiments had been successful, but no results of commercial value had followed. Nevertheless, he believed that by-and-by European steel workers would come to appreciate its merits, and that the iron-sand would yet be exploited. I never learned what was the final result of his efforts in conjunction with Mr Chapman, who, I believe, visited Sheffield firms with a view to interesting steelmakers in the sand. Some years later I knew of experiments being made with the sand in Melbourne. They seemed on the point of success, but failed in the end, as far as I could learn, to give encouraging results to experts. Now I observe that, in the New Zealand display shops in The Strand, London, one window is devoted to specimens of manufactured articles, said to be made by a Darlington firm, from the iron-sand of New Zealand.

I visited the Coromandel Peninsula, via Auckland, and the famous Waihi gold mining district. Here I had another illustration of the working of the arbitration act. I found the Waihi miners on strike against the act. The men did not want it, but the management did. The union was opposed to the men being brought under the act, so the management easily got over the requirements of the law which provided that societies consisting of two or more employers, or seven or more workers, might register and come under the jurisdiction of the act. The employers had no difficulty about their own side of the case; and as the miners proper were not disposed to come under the act, the owners encouraged men engaged about the mine, other than miners, to form themselves into an organisation to meet the legal requirements. By this means a case was cited and an award granted.

I will here record my next experience at Waihi, which was five years later, when I revisited New Zealand from Australia. Again there was a dispute at Waihi. The men had been on day work. They had applied for an award under the court, and a wage of eight shillings and sixpence per day was awarded for all day-work men at mining proper. To evade the payment of so high a wage, the manager gave all the day-men notice to finish their jobs, after which he put up advertisements to the effect that he would let the work out to contract parties. This resulted in competition for the jobs, in the men undercutting each other, and in “racing, or slogging” so that many were thrown out of work altogether, and in other cases the prices were cut, in some instances as much as twenty-five per cent. Thus the award ceased to operate, and the standard of the men was seriously reduced.

I had opportunities of studying the conditions under which dairy farming was conducted in the Taranaki area. This is one of the best dairy districts in New Zealand. Some farmers are, naturally, very well circumstanced; but in a very large majority of cases the children of school age had to help at milking before leaving for school in the morning, and the same when they returned, the reason being that the children’s parents could not do all the milking themselves, and could not afford to pay for labour to do it. The cost of land had been run so high by speculation that only by utilising child labour was it possible to make ends meet. I met some farmers and others who denied that such duties had any ill effects on the children, and a few who even claimed that it did them good; but the conclusion I came to after careful investigation was that in thousands of instances it proved a positive hindrance to the child’s mental and physical development.

On my return visit to New Zealand, I again visited Taranaki, but found no improvement whatever in the condition of the children on the dairy farms. I saw more clearly than ever that many of the New Zealand farmers were simply running farms for a period, until they were able to sell at an advantage, and that they were more keen on making a deal of this sort and scoring financially than they were upon establishing permanent homesteads. It was not pleasing to learn that the farms had already changed hands so frequently that, good as the land was, and excellent the yield, it took a farmer and his family all their time, and seven days a week at that, to pay interest on capital, for, in addition to paying interest on the purchase value of the land, in many instances they had to get farming implements on the hire system and to pay ten or twelve per cent on the amount.

I had an interesting run to the west coast, visiting Greymouth, Westport, Blackspoint, Denniston, etc. New Zealanders regard this as the chief coal-mining district of the southern hemisphere. They claim that the coal of this region is unequalled in Australasia, and is as good as the best steam coal of Wales. On my first visit, now twenty years ago, I had arranged to meet the miners at Coalbrookdale. To reach the place, one traveled from Westport by train to the foot of an enormous hill. The two mines, Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge, were on the top of the hill, a drift in different directions on reaching the plateau leading to the mines. Proud Salopians must have baptised the mines, judging by the names, but I did not learn that such was the case. However, at that time, the only way to get to the top of the plateau was by bridle track. No main road led there, though one was in course of construction. It was about three miles by the track, and I ventured to do it on horseback. I certainly had a good meeting; practically all the mining township was there. I reckon they would have been there equally if I had been the opposite kind of character, or indeed anything in between. The fact is, the people wanted some diversion from the dull monotony of being stuck on that hilltop without variety of any kind, other than an occasional social or concert amongst themselves. I was told that some of the miners’ wives present at the meeting had been brought there twenty years before, and had never been off that hilltop the whole of the time. They had a co-operative store there, and if they walked down the bridle track there was nothing worth seeing, just a railway station — and then there was the trouble of getting back up the track. The result was that their knowledge of the world was confined to a stony plateau leading nowhither. What an outlook! That place seemed to me the most completely shunted off from civilised society and from humanity generally of any I had ever seen.

Many will have heard of the remarkable fish known as Pelorus Jack. There were stories galore told of this fish in New Zealand. Some of them were doubtless exaggerations, but the facts in connection with the creature were sufficiently interesting to require no embellishment. It was commonly reported that a large fish, said to be some sixteen feet long, met every vessel in the Pelorus Sound. Vessels leaving Wellington (which is situated at the south end of the North Island), en route for the west coast of the South Island, cross the Cook Strait to Picton as the first port of call, continue their voyage to Nelson via Pelorus Sound and the French Pass, the latter being a very narrow passage separating the mainland from D’Urville Island. It was said that when a vessel reached the sound, it was met by a “pilot” fish, which went a little ahead of the ship direct to the French Pass. There the marine pilot suddenly disappeared, and would not be seen till the next vessel came along. To give special point to the story, it must be understood that this was the only fish of the kind ever seen in these seas. It was of the dugong genus and therefore not really a fish but a mammal.

On my first run to the west coast, since the boat went through Pelorus Sound at night, although I had in mind the fish story I made no attempt to see Jack. I knew that on the return journey I should be in the right neighbourhood in full daylight, and I had made up my mind to be on the lookout. Some ten days later we approached the pass about noon. I was on deck, in conversation with a fellow passenger, when the dinner gong was sounded. I remarked to my companion that I should not go down then as I was anxious to see the notorious fish. He exclaimed:

“What! Pelorus Jack! Oh, there is plenty of time for food. I have seen him often enough; come along, and I’ll come back with you. We shall be in time.”

I was reluctant to go below, but I did. We were only about halfway through the meal when another passenger came from deck, saying: “He’s just gone.”

“What has just gone? The fish?”

“Yes, we had a fine view of him.”

I was much annoyed with myself for having been persuaded to leave the deck, the more especially as I had promised friends I would observe the fish carefully and report. I was to go to Australia in a week or two, and perhaps would never be passing through the sound again. Besides, I was not too sure that after all it was not a case of leg-pulling, and might be a pure fabrication. However, five years later I was making this trip again. The boat was on the same schedule as five years previously, and would therefore be in Pelorus Sound some time after nine o’clock. But I was taking no chances.

I said to the steward quite seriously, watching his eyes as I spoke to him, not yet being satisfied as to whether it was a joke or not (for I found no one in Australia who took any other view of it): “Steward, can you tell me what time we shall be in the part where that fish is said to appear?“

“Yes, sir, soon after nine, about nine-fifteen as near as I can say.”

“So; well, I am anxious to see it; but in case I might be in conversation and overlook the time, will you please be on hand and let me know?“

“Certainly, sir, leave it to me.”

It was a starlit evening; the day had been a fairly warm day. I didn’t wait for the steward. I put on my overcoat about nine o’clock, and sat in the cabin for a while. A passenger sitting near asked why I had my overcoat on. I said: “Oh, I’m going to the bow of the boat shortly to see that fish.“

Scornfully he said: “What! Pelorus Jack?“


“Why, there’s no fish!“

“Oh! Surely there must be some foundation for the stories that are told about it!“

“Well, I’ve done this trip seven or eight times in as many years, and I’ve seen no such fish.”

I was just reflecting: “Confound it! It is leg-pulling after all,” when the steward looked in, and speaking to me, said: “We are well in the sound, very near to where Jack appears! Better be on the lookout.”

I made for the bow immediately. Not another person was there save the lookout man, and he seemed anything but the typical sailor. He was some three yards from the bow, walking sharply from port to starboard. I remarked: “I hope I’m not too late to see the fish?“

He, very abruptly: “Oh no, he’ll be here directly.”

Not another word, and as I stood right at the bow he went further back, but kept up his quick march, port to starboard, starboard to port. I spent about five minutes before speaking again, when I turned to him: “I see no signs of anything, I hope I haven’t missed him.”

“Oh no, he’ll come all right; he ain’t been yet.”

I turned right into the bow, both elbows resting steadily on the rail, and just got my gaze settled, when, right suddenly, a few yards ahead, was a great splash and a swirl, and I saw the fish as plainly as possible. I could have clapped my hands with satisfaction. The fish blew like a whale, but not so heavily, and continued this about every half-minute. He allowed the boat to overtake him, got right in the swirl, and may have brushed up against the hull. He seemed immediately under me for a few seconds, then he darted off for a dozen yards in front, and appeared to revel in the water as though the big boat were chasing him, but stood no chance. I watched without moving until he disappeared suddenly, as though he had dropped underneath. I had been watching him disporting himself for seven minutes, when he vanished without even a swirl in the water.

The sight of this fish, with the wonderful effects of the phosphorescence, was most striking; so entirely different from anything I had ever seen, that I felt grateful for having been privileged to see it. At the same time I felt quite indignant that there was not one other person besides myself, the lookout man, and the officer on the bridge, that had seen it, or apparently cared to see it. I was leaving the bow and going down the stairs into the well-deck, on my way back to the saloon, when a passenger coming in the opposite direction said: “Can we see that fish tonight?“

I really had a difficulty in replying becomingly, I was so affected by the (as it seemed then and still seems to me) literal pig-headedness of humans not to show more interest in such an exceptional natural phenomenon. In any case, I was exceedingly pleased that I had had the good luck to secure such a splendid view of Pelorus Jack.