Thursday, December 7, 2017

'My Dear Doctor': Hjelmar von Dannevill

Hjelmar Dannevill. From the file 'Dr von Dannevill, October 1914 - June 1917' [Archives Reference: AD 10 Box 9 17/26] Archives New Zealand The Department of Internal Affairs Te Tari Taiwhenua

Below is an excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Between the Devil and the Sea, on the remarkable Wellington figure of Hjelmar Dannevill. During the First World War her private letters were confiscated and Hjelmar was eventually interned on Matiu Somes Island for a brief period - one of the few women to be interned during the war. Her sexuality and disruption of gender norms was a major factor.

A Visit to Miramar

On 21 May 1917, Police Matron Beck and Detectives Boddam and Cox left the tram and made their way towards the Lahmann Home’s impressive entrance. Built in 1907 by the director of a short-lived amusement park called Wonderland, the grand wooden building had been purchased in 1911 by Dr Edith Huntley, a well-known advocate of women’s health and the first woman councillor of Miramar. But it was Hjelmar Dannevill who answered the door. She was dressed in her distinctive style—collar, shirt and waistcoat, an immaculately tailored jacket adorned with a pocket watch, and a long skirt that reached to her leather boots. Hjelmar was known to have smoked from a pipe, but not on this occasion.

Once inside the detectives found a picturesque foyer of dark red walls and stained wooden panels. Great bowls of scarlet gladioli and vases of feathery-looking ixia dotted the space, and Boddam noted the staircase that led to the Home’s second floor and its exterior balconies. ‘After informing her who we were in the usual way’ wrote Boddam, ‘I requested her to accompany us at once to the office of the Commissioner of Police, who desired to interview her.’[i] After confiscating a bag of letters, books and other papers, Hjelmar went quietly, saving Boddam the task of using the warrant for her arrest.

As Hjelmar boarded the tram surrounded by Police she must have pondered her sudden change in fortune. Five years earlier she and Dr Huntley had been the hosts to over two hundred women of high society. The December 1912 opening of the Lahmann Home was a grand affair. Guests toured the grounds with cups of high tea accompanied by the music of the Miramar Band, while those inside were treated to performances on the grand piano.

It was also a chance to rub shoulders with Wellington’s elite, including the Prime Minister himself. Earlier that afternoon Massey had announced his pleasure at opening the Home, one he believed was ‘the first of its type in the British Dominion and the first in all the world to be entirely conducted by women.’ It was a place where those ‘suffering from chronic disease or permanent weakness might be afforded all the relief possible’, a place where ‘business men, professional men, or even politicians, if they happened to be overworked, could be given an opportunity of recuperating.’ ‘Someday’, joked Massey, ‘it might be necessary for me to come to the home, but, as you can all gather from appearances, that time was not yet. (Laughter and “hear, hear!”).’[ii]

If Massey had ever checked in to the Home he would have experienced the relatively novel treatment of naturopathy, an alternative medicine on the rise. Modelled on the teachings of German physician Heinrich Lahmann, the Miramar retreat offered a natural care system of massage, hydrotherapy, a vegetarian diet, and plenty of fresh air. Lahmann himself was a staunch advocate of animal rights, refusing to use them in laboratory experiments. The Home was probably equipped with air baths as per Lahmann’s teachings, but it also provided less natural cures: electrical therapy (which some brave guests were ‘treated’ to on open days). A central-city office on Willis Street also offered electrical treatment for those pressed for time.

Hjelmar and the Lahamnn Home seem to have been an accepted part of the Wellington community. She was the host of a number of talks, known as an ‘At Home’, where women gathered at the retreat for music and more tea. ‘Dr Edith Huntley wore a dress of shot violet and green velvet with trimming to match. Dr von Dannevill was in navy blue’ reported one gossip column.[iii] Well into 1915 she spoke publically at women’s events, such as the Moral and Physical Health Society’s annual lecture or to the Pioneer Club, whose upper-class audience included Anne Salmond, the wife of Solicitor General Salmond. At ease on stage or behind the grand piano, no one cared, or cared to mention, Hjelmar’s masculine attire.

But by 1917 attitudes against difference had hardened, and spurred by Edward Bond’s complaints, not even Hjelmar’s high-society friends could save her. She now found herself at the Lampton Quay Police Station and face-to-face with the Commissioner of Police.

O’Donovan interrogated her at length about her past, her nationality, and her gender, hoping to find holes in a story that even today seems impossible to corroborate. The transcript—neatly typed and amended with question marks and notes such as ‘long pause’—fills most of the Army Department file. It reads like Bruce Chatwin story, dancing across European cities to New York, then south to Brazil, Argentina and Chile before sidestepping over to the African continent. India, Russia, China, Canada—almost every major country featured in Hjelmar’s travels.

‘What were you doing in all these places?’ asked O’Donovan.

‘Teaching anything I could, music, languages, first-aid, anatomy’ she replied, adding that she had trained as a musician in Leipzig before attending Zurich University to study medicine. ‘I got recommendations from one place to another. I also began doing journalistic work for various papers.’[iv] O’Donovan questioned her over what papers, which newspaper agents, and in what languages, before eventually discovering the nature of her later work—the study of venereal disease.

Hjelmar said that around 1890, she had made the acquaintance of a man named Hugo Fischer:

He was very wealthy and had lost his only son by syphilis. I had heard that he was keen, by this disastrous loss, to make investigations all over the world to find out the present state of venereal diseases amongst civilised nations as well as the more primitive races and savages even. He intended these investigations to equip about 7 or 8 people to travel over the globe to make investigations into these diseases. After I met him he began to give instructions in what he wanted carried out. He gave credit to draw on his finances to a very high extent and made a written appointment about the matter we had to send in to him. We had also to promise not to make any copies of any notes, as it naturally concerned a great many intimate affairs of people and the discover of gambling places etc.[v]

Using assumed names, Hjelmar mingled with hospital orderlies, clergymen, Police officers and women across the globe, gathering information on the taboo subject. Employing false names ‘was part of the instructions we had from Mr Fischer… he was afraid the leading power in Austria, the Order of Jesuits, would get hold of [their work].’[vi] This was also one of the reasons she wore men’s clothing—entering into seedy dens and asking questions as a woman was not an option, she argued.

O’Donovan was clearly thrown by her gender variance as much as Ellison and Salmond and repeatedly dwelled on it during the interrogation. ‘Were you dressed as you are now?’ asked O’Donovan.

‘I was not dressed in the same clothing.’

‘You were wearing a man’s hat and coat and an ordinary vest and collar of a man?’

‘Yes I think so, and a skirt.’

‘Did any question arise between you and Mr Ellison as regards whether you were a man or a woman?’

‘He said there was no objections to my wearing men’s clothing so long as he knew I was a woman.’[vii]

And later: ‘Did you ask Mr Ellison to certify that you were a woman?’

‘You mean in writing? No.’

‘If Mr Ellison said you were anxious to get a written document from him to say you were a woman would you say that was incorrect?’

‘I did not ask him for a document. I simply asked him for his advice. Dr Huntley thought perhaps it would be best to have a paper in order to identify myself when I came into touch with a rude crowd or investigating policemen and so on, as I had before, to be protected.’[viii]

As a result O’Donovan asked Hjelmer if she would submit to a medical examination, which she did. ‘I hereby certify that I have this day examined Dr H.W. Dannevill, and that the anatomical configuration shows that she is of the female sex’ reads the impassionate medical note.

Hjelmar’s sex was now recorded but O’Donovan was still not convinced of her nationality. Although she claimed to have been born somewhere near Copenhagen in 1862, she could not recall the name of the town nor produce any documentation.

However she did possess documents of a different kind—the confiscated letters shared at the start of this chapter. The file contains no further information on the letters or their writers. They were found amongst Hjelmar’s papers, which were eventually returned to her except for the four letters (including the two above). Three are from women, and in a possible explanation for why they were detained, hint at sexual activity between women.

‘I never wanted you so much as now’

Applying a contested, historically specific category such as ‘lesbian’ to an earlier period is problematic. Lesbian identity is a late twentieth-century concept, and the historical past was a very different sexual place. Women who loved and/or had sex with women, cross-dressed, or resisted heterosexuality did not necessarily have a language to describe themselves as lovers of women. They understood their desires, behaviour and experiences within the social context of their own time.[ix]

Yet these letters, and their wider context centred on Hjelmar and the Lahmann Home, point strongly to lesbian sexuality. Besides some of the leading prose, Katherine’s letter suggests that like Mary Bond she abhorred the thought of her husband visiting her (‘I dread the man intensely’). Could it be that her sexual desire was non-heterosexual? Was she one of many women whose sexuality had been suppressed by Victorian social mores?[x]

Affection is also there in another letter from Helene of Timaru. Its cramped script matches the letter shared at the start of this chapter, but as it is undated and on different paper it was probably written at a different time. Remarkably, it contains a dictated letter from a toddler in the care of Helene named William Stewart—who was none other than the son of Mary Bond.

In the letter written on behalf of William, Helene notes how much he is like his mother and recounts how he calls Dannevill ‘Docket’:
What about the boat Docket? On Wednesday carried the boat down + cleaned it out, and put it in the water. I did get in the boat Docket see!! Mrs Peuko put me on the boat. What shall I tell Docket? Kisses the paper (I kiss Docket!)… when are you coming down mummy + Docket to Peuko’s house? I good boy + do a lot every day.

He then signed off, in his own writing, with ‘William Stewart. I love you Docket.’[xi]

In her second letter Helene longs for the company of Hjelmar. ‘It always comforts me to read your dear loving words and to recall their sweet accompaniments’ she wrote. ‘I wish you were here now, how I long to lay my head against your shoulder and feel the thrill of spirit answering spirit. I do call you at night and early in the morning. I can sometimes feel that I am in your arms.’ In what could be suggestive prose or code, Helen recalls how she liked ‘to think of the iris buds opening… Think of me as they do, my most precious one.’[xii] Her letter also highlights the kinship felt between these women, when she asks,
Do you feel bound to spend your Christmas at Miramar, or could you not bring Molly and well as Mary Stewart and come here for a fortnight? Or as long as you like. Molly could have a tent and a verandah bed. Do answer this question Dear one! Will you! Sit down at the cocoa interval and send me a line. And I hope it will be yes if not, as soon after as possible. You must have a holiday and I do want you so! And we could make you comfortable and happy. My love to Mary Stewart.[xiii]

Are these letters evidence of sexual relationships between women or simply an example of romantic friendships? Late nineteenth and early twentieth century letters between women could be used to convey loving feelings or to discuss plans and fantasies, without necessarily meaning a sexual relationship. The power and intensity of love between women can be portrayed strongly in words, which sometimes included expressions of sensual and physical affection.[xiv]

Feminist historian Lelia Rupp suggests there are three behavioural features or characteristics that relate to lesbian historical evidence: romantic love between women, transgender identities, and sexual acts.[xv] Hjelmar’s letters and her non-binary gender seem to lean towards such evidence, but there is little consistency in historians’ understandings of women’s cross-dressing and its links with lesbian sexuality.[xvi]

Regardless of what we call her lived reality, there were many ways in which gender bending and same-sex relationships were policed before, during and after the First World War. The New Zealand government did not criminalise lesbian sex acts, writes Historian Alison Laurie, but outlawed lesbians through a complex web of regulations and strategies. The state could punish women who transgressed against gender-codes by cross-dressing or with unacceptable sexual behaviours through connecting lesbianism with promiscuity and prostitution. In doing so, ‘the law contained and controlled women’s access to public spaces and to self-determined sexual expression… where these methods proved inadequate on their own, lesbianism was contained by the medical profession who from the earliest times classified it as a disorder.[xvii]

Wartime simply added fuel to the flames. ‘Imperialism, while extolling the self-sacrificing single man who gave his life to tame some remote part of the empire, called for women to return to their traditional roles… independent women were accused of sex hatred and pilloried for preferring their own sex to men.’[xviii]

Not long after Hjelmar’s arrest, such a stance was taken to the extreme in Britain when MP Noel Billing claimed that Germany possessed a ‘Black Book’ of ‘forty-seven-thousand English men and women’ involved in lesbianism and other so-called deviant acts. According to Billing, the British Empire was about to collapse from within—one blackmail at a time. Billing argued that ‘in lesbian ecstasy the most sacred secrets of State were threatened.’[xix]

This was the socio-legal setting in which Hjelmar’s letters were detained, and what she challenged with every collar or waistcoat she wore. Indeed, clothing itself was crucial to how gender was read by others. Victorianism expected women to demonstrate a meticulous personal daintiness. Their gestures were to be free of any sign of masculinity and their clothes and hair were to have ‘a precarious fragility.’[xx] From the late nineteenth century the plainer, more masculine style worn by ‘new women’, such as students, teachers, and office workers, had begun to challenge this view. But when gender variance intersected with male-defined ideas of sexuality, it was seen as a potential enemy of heterosexuality, gender order, and the nation itself.[xxi] In a patriarchal society, such cases had to be controlled.

The war had facilitated a deep intrusion into Hjelmar’s personal relationships by the state, and what it found unsettled Salmond. ‘Although the question of sex has now been settled by medical examination, the further information received and now submitted to me in no way alters the opinion which I formerly expressed, but rather confirms it’. After speaking with Gibbon, he ordered the immediate internment of Hjelmar. She was formerly arrested as an enemy alien on 26 May 1917 and escorted under guard to Matiu Somes Island. She was one of the few women to be interned in New Zealand during the First World War.

A number of newspapers carried the mild sensation of her arrest and usually finished with a comment on her attire. ‘The internment of Dr Hjelmar von Dannevill, which was effected yesterday, did not surprise the Wellington people’ reported the Evening Star. ‘The voice of gossip has insisted for a long time past that this lady, who claimed to be of Danish nationality, would find more congenial company on Somes Island.’[xxii] Her ‘eccentricities’ included wearing ‘her hair short’, a ‘hat, coat, vest, collar’, and ‘boots of a masculine pattern with a woman’s skirt.’[xxiii] The Northern Advocate quipped that the ‘quaint little figure’ who ‘would have passed for a boy easily were it not that she announced her sex by wearing one of the most characteristic garments of woman—a skirt’, would be missed.[xxiv]

Mr JA Fothergill of Dunedin felt compelled to write in support of Hjelmar, noting with regret that the reports on her internment ‘hardly does the citizens of Wellington justice… there must be hundreds of grateful patients (of whom I am one) throughout New Zealand who owe the doctor thanks for unwearied skilled attention and deep sympathy.’ That she wore ‘a masculine style of dress is merely a proof that her mind had risen superior to and emancipated from, the tyranny and vanity of fashion.’[xxv]

Although she was interviewed again—this time by the military—no personal file of her time on Matiu Somes Island has survived. This may be due to her short amount of time in the camp. Two months into her internment, Hjelmar is said to have suffered a severe nervous breakdown. Ironically, with the permission of Defence Minister James Allen she was transferred to the Lahmann Home to recuperate. NZ Truth was bemused and ridiculed the government for interning her in the first place. Rumour had it that her arrest was due to her losing a handbag ‘alleged to have contained incriminating correspondence with Europe,’ read the story.[xxvi] In the end, the rumour was not too far from the truth.

[i] Report of Constable Bodamm, date, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[ii]  Dominion, 16 December 1912.
[iii] Freelance, 3 May 1913
[iv] Interview between Dannevill and O’Donovan, 21 May 1917, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[v] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid.
[ix] “Women who loved” Oram and Turnbull,
The Lesbian History Sourcebook: Love and Sex Between Women in Britain from 1780 to 1970, Routledge: London & New York, 2001,.p.1. I am also aware that my own reading of the sources as a heterosexual, cis-male outsider is just as problematic.
[x] See Martha Vicinus
, Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women 1850-1920, Virago: 1985, p. 17
[xi] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office. William Paul Bond was born on 7 August 1913, which made him three in 1916. He died in The US in 1973.
[xii] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[xiii] Helene to Dannevill, undated, Dr Von Dannevill, AD10 Box 9/ 17/26, ANZ, Wellington Office.
[xiv]Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.51. Hjelmar’s masculinity and her blurring of binary genders adds a further complexity. Judith Halberstam argues that ‘many other models existed beyond the either-or proposition of an asexual friendship or a butch-femme sexual dynamic.’ She suggests that theorising a range of multiple genders and sexual desires would better explain female masculinity than the term lesbian. 

[xv] Leila Rupp, as cited by Julie Glamuzina.
[xvi] Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.12.
[xvii] Alison J Laurie,
Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies, Thesis, p. 57-58
[xviii] Vicinus, Independent Women, p.285
[xix] Noel Billing, January 1918, as cited by Alison J Laurie, Lady-Husbands and Kamp Ladies, p.64
[xx] Vern Bullough and Bonnie Bullough, Cross Dressing, Sex, and Gender, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1993, p.155
[xxi] Oram and Turnbull, The Lesbian History Sourcebook, p.14.
[xxii] Evening Star, 29 May 1917
[xxiii] Dominion, 29 May 1917
[xxiv] Northern Advocate, 2 June 1917
[xxv] Evening Post, 5 June 1917
[xxvi] NZ Truth, 21 July 1917

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Wobblies of the World: New Zealand Launch!

Join New Zealand contributors, Mark Derby and Peter Clayworth, plus special guests, for a presentation of this new history of the global nature of the radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World.

Both Mark and Peter are New Zealand historians, who have a strong association with labour and trade union history through the Labour History Project. Their chapters in the book focus on the New Zealand Wobblies Percy Short and Pat Hickey, respectively.

30 November at Auckland Trades Hall
5:30 - drinks and nibbles
6pm- presentation
Facebook event:

More on the book here:

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Beyond the Suffrage Petition - History from Below

Women working in the Roslyn Woollen Mill. MNZ-0704-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library /records/23246571

Making the invisible visible, and telling history from below – these are some of the key themes that have stuck with me from our biographical work on the 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition.

The lives of ordinary, working-class, nineteenth-century women can be hard to find in government archives. The opportunity to rescue their stories and make them visible has been a major success of the project. We now know a lot more about women who may not have been active organisers or community leaders, but who nonetheless added their name to the cause of women’s franchise – women such as Elizabeth Rosevear, housekeeper; Henrietta McKaigue, domestic servant; and Fanny Oliver, the wife of a bricklayer. These are individuals who, by acting together, made history.

This is not only a type of history from below – an historical narrative that emphasises the perspective of common people rather than leaders – but a history by and for below. This has very much been a project of collaboration and crowdsourcing, motivated by love of the documents and the stories they tell rather than for material gain or academic prestige. 

Thanks to the passion and energy of family historians, students, librarians, archivists, and other researchers, these stories are now not only visible, but accessible. Anyone with an internet connection can explore the online database, read the research, and make their own contribution through the comments function. It is only fitting that the suffragists’ struggle for wider participation in society finds its ideals echoed, all these years later, in the way these biographies have been created and shared.

My contribution to 'Beyond the Suffrage Petition', a Facebook Note by NZHistory.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Jack’s Journey - A Soldier’s Experience of the First World War

Sharing this new book, written by my friend and colleague Trish McCormack, which I also happened to design the cover for. Learn more about Jack's journey here.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Dissent during the First World War Conference, 31 Aug - 2 Sep 2017

Thomas Moynihan, conscientious objector, Wanganui Detention Barracks 1918. Archives New Zealand

Hosted by the Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies and the Labour History Project, with support from The Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and The Archives and Records Association of NZ (ARANZ), this two day conference will cover a range of topics on dissent, and how the First World War divided New Zealand society in many ways. In the current commemorative climate little attention has been paid to the perceptions and actions of those who opposed the war. 

More information can be found on the Conference event page, and here is the Conference Programme (pdf).

I'll be speaking at the Conference on Friday morning, and chairing a session in the afternoon. Here's my abstract, which presents work from my forthcoming book:

A War of Words: Domestic Postal Censorship and Dissent
Most histories of the First World War recall the muddied horror of the Western Front. But there was also a war at home, complete with violence, hardship and bravery. It was a war of ideas, and a key weapon in the armoury of authority was censorship.

Between August 1914 and November 1920, over 1.2 million civilian letters were opened and examined by the New Zealand military. Some were stamped and sent on. Others made their way into the hands of Police Commissioners, leading to covert surveillance, dawn raids, arrests, and deportation.

Employing a microhistory approach to a secret collection of confiscated letters, this paper explores domestic postal censorship, state attitudes towards dissent, and the people whose letters were originally blocked by military command. It suggests that wartime censorship was rooted in a need for imposing class discipline and maintaining capitalist/statist relations during what was a potentially turbulent time. Like the phenomenon of disaster capitalism, this expanded and made permanent ways of monitoring dissent for years to come.

Monday, July 3, 2017

New authors page

I'm the first to admit how poorly I've been maintaining this blog. Most of my time has been spent on writing a book, which is not far from being finished. Hopefully I'll be able to add more to this blog from the book, and from other musings.

One thing that is new is my authors page, which I've set up over at There's no blogging happening there, but it is where I record my past and present work in the hope of making it more accessible.

In the meantime, if you want to read interesting history blogs with changing content, I've been enjoying The Many-headed Monster and The Age of Revolutions.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


The #HandsOffOurTamariki kōrero last night was both distressing and amazing. So much was said and it’s hard to summarise. But if I had to, what I took away was this:

Children are being removed from their whānau and dying in alarming numbers. Both Māori and Pākehā children have been killed in unsafe environments, but we only hear of the Māori cases. Māori are then blamed for these deaths and the bad decisions of CYF. This blame has allowed Anne Tolley and the state to ignore the local and international reports about how bad CYF are doing, and how they need to work closer with iwi/hapū. It’s allowed them to create a new Ministry, and strip out the clause for children to remain with iwi/hapū. The end goal is to privatise child care (like what is happening in the UK). This will lead to a ‘care pipeline’ where multi-nationals like Serco profit from the removal and incarceration of Māori.

The ultimate cause of this is colonisation, which attacks Māori so that capitalism can make a profit from the harm that stems from colonisation. It’s a vicious cycle of dispossession and exploitation, and one that is ongoing today. Until Māori are truly in control of their lands, lives and power, it is ridiculous to talk of a post-colonial society. If this is the context, then the struggle for the care of tamariki needs to be a struggle about sovereignty as affirmed in te Tiriti o Waitangi, and as it existed on the ground in this land before 1840.

Further reading is available on the Facebook page, but this article by Kim McBreen is an excellent overview:

Friday, September 23, 2016

Domestic Postal Censorship in WWI: RNZ Nights interview

I was lucky enough to have my current research featured on RNZ Nights. From the description:
Not many people know that domestic postal censorship existed - yet from the outbreak of the First World War until November 1920, the private letters of mothers, lovers, internees and workmates were subject to a strict censorship. A team of diligent readers in post offices around the country poured over 1.2 million letters. In some cases, people were arrested and deported because of their private thoughts, or mail was used to hunt down objectors hiding in the bush.
You can check out the feature here, or listen below:

There's also a partial transcript on the site.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

'The Colonial Continuum' wins the 2016 Michael Standish Prize

I am stoked to announce that my paper, 'The Colonial Continuum: Archives, Access and Power' was awarded the 2016 Michael Standish Prize. This award, first offered in 2001, is named in honour of Michael Standish, architect of the 1957 Archives Act and the first permanent Chief Archivist of National Archives. The prize recognises an outstanding essay, by a New Zealand archivist or records manager, dealing with some facet of archives or records administration, history, theory and/or methodology, and published in a recognised archives, records management, or other appropriate journal.

You can read the paper on my blog here, or download a PDF version at

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the paper, who helped look over drafts, and those of you who have shared it, promoted it, or quoted it. It really means a lot and I am thankful for all of your support. And of course, thank you to ARANZ for the recognition of my paper and the generosity you showed me at the Wellington Symposium where it was awarded.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Dissent during the First World War: by the numbers

In this guest post for the Te Papa blog, I ask how historians and others have measured and defined dissent, sedition and conscientious objection to military conscription during the Great War. See the original post here.

Socialist Cross of Honour no. 5 awarded to J K Worrall, courtesy of Jared Davidson

Socialist Cross of Honour no. 5 awarded to J K Worrall, courtesy of Jared Davidson

To foil the demonstration planned for his release, Wellington jailers freed William Cornish Jnr an hour early. No matter—his comrades threw two receptions for him at the Socialist Hall instead. The first, held in August 1911, saw Cornish Jnr receive a medal from the Runanga Anti-Conscription League for his resistance to compulsory military training. The following night he received a second medal (like the one you can see above)—the Socialist Cross of Honor.

It is not known how many of these unique medals were produced. By 1913 the Maoriland Worker had 94 names on their anti-conscriptionist ‘Roll of Honour’ and 7,030 objectors had been prosecuted. Te Papa holds #29, awarded to E.H Mackie, and at least one more exists in a private collection.

As this and other examples show, dealing in numbers can be dangerous. Not only is there endless room for error, we risk being guilty of what novelist Ha Jin calls the true crime of war: reducing real human beings to abstract numbers.[1] Nonetheless, this post deals with the number of people who objected to the First World War—those known as conscientious objectors and military defaulters.

‘Conscientious’ Objection
How we define and count conscientious objectors is inherently political. For the state, ‘bona fide’ objection was extremely narrow, limiting it to members of religious bodies that had, before the outbreak of war, declared military service ‘contrary to divine revelation’. Defence Minister James Allen and the majority of his colleagues believed socialist or anti-colonial objection, or anti-authority types who wanted nothing to do with the state, were not genuine.

More recently, conscientious objection has been limited to men called up for military service but who explicitly rejected it before an appeal board. Yet refusing to appear before a board or evading the military was still a conscious—if less visible—act. Whether we call these men ‘conscientious’ objectors or simply objectors doesn’t change the reality of their stance. It also misses those not eligible for military service.

Prophet Rua Kenana was arrested for sedition. Should he be counted as an objector? P12 Box 37/50, Archives NZ
Prophet Rua Kenana was arrested for sedition. Should he be counted as an objector? P12 Box 37/50, Archives NZ

Only 273?
The starting point for most counts is a list compiled in March 1919.[2] Initiated by Defence Minister James Allen, it was produced by the Religious Advisory Board, whose job was to establish which objectors still in prison were considered genuine and who were not.

Detail from the Religious Objectors Advisory Board list. AD1 Box 743/ 10/407/15, Archives NZ
Detail from the Religious Objectors Advisory Board list. AD1 Box 743/ 10/407/15, Archives NZ

The Board considered 273 men—socialists, Māori, members of religious sects—and recommended that 113 religious objectors be left off the military defaulters list due to be published that year. The remaining 160 were among the 2,045 defaulters gazetted in May 1919, all of whom lost their civil rights until 1927. 41 names were added later.[3]

However the March 1919 list leaves out a large number of objectors not considered by the Board. Apart from a few exceptions, it does not include:
  • objectors released from prison before March 1919: comparisons of Army Department returns for 1917-1918 found that at least 28 objectors previously in prison were not on the March 1919 list.[4]
  • objectors at Weraroa State Farm, Levin: between 21-28 objectors were interned on 7 January 1918, and a further 32 were due to be sent but never were.[5]
  • those who underwent punishment at Wanganui Detention Barracks: between 8 April 1918 and 31 October 1918, when the camp was shut down due to the mistreatment of prisoners, 188 men had been processed at Wanganui.[6] Some, like Irish objector Thomas Moynihan, were eventually coerced into joining the Medical Corps after suffering extreme physical abuse.
  • Māori military defaulters: while the 273 includes at least 13 Māori, 89 others were arrested as defaulters. A further 139 were never found and arrest warrants for 100 of these went unexecuted.[7]
  • those convicted for disloyal or seditious remarks: under the War Regulations 287 people were charged, 208 convicted and 71 imprisoned for disloyal or seditious remarks. Only one or two of these are in the Advisory Board report.[8]
This suggests that at least 670 objectors were imprisoned within New Zealand.

Rotoaira Prison for Conscientious Objectors, Waimarino district 1918, J40 Box 202/ 1918/8/6, Archives NZ
Rotoaira Prison for Conscientious Objectors, Waimarino district 1918, J40 Box 202/ 1918/8/6, Archives NZ

Then there are:
  • the objectors transported overseas: in July 1917, 14 objectors (including Archibald Baxter and Mark Briggs) were forcibly transported out of the country and subjected to severe punishment.[9] A further 145 objectors were transported or due to be transported between December 1917 and August 1918; 74 of these were transported.[10]
  • those who served in a non-combatant role: at least 20 objectors were performing non-combatant roles by 31 July 1917.[11] Between September 1917 and January 1919 a further 176 objectors were transferred to the Medical Corps at Awanui—161 from Trentham and 15 from Featherston.[12] Many ended up on hospital ships or the Western Front.
  • those who deserted from training camps: historian Paul Baker notes that 430 men deserted between 1917-1918 and 321 remained at large in September 1918.[13] One military publication puts the total number of deserters at 575.[14]
  • objectors exempted from military service: at least 73 religious objectors were granted exemption; some of these ended up at Weraroa Farm or in other non-combatant service.
Historian Paul Baker notes, in his 1988 book about New Zealanders, conscription and the Great War, that 1,097 defaulters were convicted by 1918 and that 538 were arrested.[15] It is hard to know how many of these are included in the numbers above. But a more accurate number of those who were convicted or came under state control for wartime objection is somewhere between 1,500, and 2,000 people, with an upper figure of 3,000.

Evading the State
Then there are those who managed to evade the state completely. Arrest warrants for a further 1133 defaulters were still outstanding at war’s end, and there were many who never registered with the state in the first place.[16] Government statistician Malcolm Fraser estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 men never registered and couldn’t be conscripted.[17]

Stereograph of a camp site in bush area, with unidentified man standing next to camp fire, West Coast region. Photographed by Edgar Richard Williams. Ref: 1/2-144082-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.
Stereograph of a camp site in bush area, with unidentified man standing next to camp fire, West Coast region. Photographed by Edgar Richard Williams. Ref: 1/2-144082-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

Some of these objectors kept a low profile, hiding in bush camps or working on rural back blocks. Others simply left the country. On 11 November 1915, 58 men of military age departed for San Francisco amidst angry crowds.[18] As border control tightened objectors were smuggled out in ship’s coalbunkers by sympathetic seamen—an underground railway of working-class conscripts leaving for less hostile shores.[19] Up to six men might be smuggled out per voyage and even if only a few ships were involved, over several years hundreds may have evaded the state in this way.[20]

According to Baker, the number of men who deliberately evaded service and who were never found was between 3,700 and 6,400.[21] This doesn’t include objectors classified unfit for service like Bob Heffron—later Premier of New South Wales—who allegedly smoked 12 packs of cigarettes prior to his medical (he was later smuggled to Australia in a ship coal bunker).

When the number of those who evaded the state is added to the number of objectors convicted or who came under state control, the total figure is closer to 10,000 (or 5.3% of those eligible for military service). If we add this to the opposition of those not conscripted or not eligible to be conscripted—women like Sarah Saunders Page and Te Kirihaehae Te Puea Hērangi; anti-militarists like Carl Mumme; miners striking against conscription; or Dalmations resisting state-imposed labour—the figures suggest a significant number of wartime objectors who, for whatever reason, refused to ‘play the game’.
Jared Davidson, June 2016

[1] Ha Jin, War Trash, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2004.
[2] ‘Territorial Force – Religious objectors advisory board’, AD1 Box 743/ 10/407/15, Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o Te Kāwanatanga (ANZ).
[3] Paul Baker, King and Country Call: New Zealanders, Conscription and the Great War, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1988, p.209.
[4] ‘Returns – Defaulters dealt with under Military Service Act’, AD1 Box 1039/ 64/28, ANZ; ‘Territorial Force – Religious objectors advisory board’, AD1 Box 734/ 10/407/15, ANZ.
[5] ‘Territorial Force – Employment of religious objectors on State farms’, AD1 Box 734/ 10/407/2, ANZ lists 21 names, while ‘Weraroa farm of conscientious objectors’, AD81 Box 5/ 7/14, ANZ records ‘about 28 men’.
[6] ‘Territorial Force – Defaulters undergoing detention and imprisonment’, AD1 Box 738/ 10/566 Parts 1 & 2, ANZ.
[7] Baker, p.220.
[8] Baker, p.167.
[9] ‘Territorial Force – Conscientious objectors sent abroad’, AD1 Box 734/ 10/407/3, ANZ.
[10] ‘Returns – Defaulters dealt with under Military Service Act’, AD1 Box 1039/ 64/28, ANZ.
[11] ‘Territorial Force – Religious and conscientious objectors’, AD1 Box 738/ 10/573, ANZ.
[12] Baker, p.205.
[13] New Zealand Expeditionary Force: its provision and maintenance, p.50.
[14] ‘Territorial Force – Religious objectors return of’, AD1 Box 724/ 10/22/15-20, ANZ.
[15] Baker, p.208; p.75.
[16] ‘Returns – Defaulters dealt with under Military Service Act’, AD1 Box 1039/ 64/28, ANZ.
[17] ‘Military Service Act, 1916 – Military Service Act – Statements as to probable number who have not registered’, STATS1 Box 32/ 23/1/84, ANZ. Of the 187,593 who registered, 819 stated religious or conscientious objections to military service, and a further 260 stated political objections (although a majority of these favoured conscription). 1739 did not sate a reason. See Baker, p.58-63.
[18] Baker, p.48.
[19] Conrad Bollinger, Against the Wind: The Story of the New Zealand Seamen’s Union, Wellington: New Zealand Seamen’s Union, 1968, p. 22
[20] Baker, p.204.
[21] Baker, p.208; p.224.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

'Fighting War: Anarchists, Wobblies & the New Zealand State 1905-1925' now available

Fighting War: Anarchists, Wobblies & the New Zealand State 1905-1925 is now available from

Using government archives and contemporary publications, this pamphlet unearths the story of some of the men and women in Aotearoa New Zealand who opposed the state, militarism, and a world at war.

Anarchists, ‘Wobblies’ (members of the Industrial Workers of the World) and their supporters did not stand against militarism because they were pacifists, but as members of the working class who refused to fight working class people from other countries. For them the world was their country; their enemy was capitalism. Their fight for a free society led to an intense cultural struggle—one that questioned the war, the nature of work and authority itself. This battle for minds had material results. Intense state surveillance and a raft of legislation not only deter- mined who could read what, but led to jail time or deportation from the country. In a time of smothering oppression and social pressures, they held on to their beliefs with courage, ingenuity and resolve.

Published by Rebel Press.

Author: Jared Davidson
Release Date: May 2016
Dimensions: 148mm x 210mm
Pages: 33
Binding: Stapled and folded
ISBN: 978-0-473-35388-9

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Voices Against War: new website on conscientious objection

"Bob Semple release from prison,” Voices Against War, accessed May 18, 2016,
Voices Against War ( is a recently-launched website dedicated to sharing the voice of anti-militarism and conscientious objection in wartime Canterbury. Featuring a wide array of stories and supported by photographs, ephemera and more, the website is a bold and much-needed counter to the carnival of commemoration that is WW100.

What I like about the website is its inclusion of women and pre-war anti-militarism. In most accounts, conscientious objection seems to fall out of the sky after the Military Service Act was passed in August 1916. Yet as the website (and my own work) shows, 1916-1918 objection was the continuation of resistance that had been temporarily submerged by the initial fervor of war. By including women, the website also widens the picture of wartime dissent—more often than not portrayed as the domain of those men eligible for military service only.

From the site:
When the New Zealand Government announced it was joining Britain in the war against Germany in August 1914, most New Zealanders greeted the news with wild enthusiasm. Volunteers flocked to enlist. It took real courage to go against this feverish tide of opinion but a few brave voices spoke out for peace.

Hundreds of young men chose to go to prison as objectors to conscription rather than compromise their beliefs, both in the pre-war period when compulsory military training was introduced and during the war.

On this website we highlight the stories of some of those courageous individuals who became political prisoners during this tumultuous period. Some served time in the old Lyttelton Gaol, some in the new prison at Paparua and others endured military detention in Fort Jervois on Ripapa Island.

Public sentiment was against the objectors. Usually referred to as ‘shirkers’, they suffered vilification at the hands of the press, discrimination in their workplaces, and in some cases the loss of civil rights for up to ten years. By also telling the story of the anti-militarist movement that began in Christchurch in 1910 we are marking the origins of the Pakeha peace movement in Aotearoa New Zealand. The labour movement was almost wholly anti-militarist and we also tell the story of those men jailed for breaching the government regulations that said it was sedition to speak out against conscription or war.

Women were not directly involved in compulsory military training or conscription, but some were involved in the anti-militarist organisations. They supported the men who were taking a stand, while also taking a courageous stand themselves to uphold what they saw as the British tradition of freedom of conscience. Maori were initially exempted from conscription. Later the Act was amended to include Maori though conscription was imposed only on Tainui Māori.

In telling these stories, many of which have not been told before, we are not seeking to dishonour or detract from the bravery and commitment to duty displayed by the thousands of men who served in the New Zealand expeditionary force. But these stories of Canterbury’s forgotten history have a place too and are an important part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s response to the First World War.
 I encourage you to take a peek, browse the stories, or scroll through the goodies on offer.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Unschooling Camp, Foxton Beach 2016

Our whānau has just returned from a four-day camp for those who unschool or practice natural/child-led learning. Held at Foxton Beach Boys Brigade, it was a great space and an amazingly inspiring time. Best of all, it confirmed for me that exploring the possibility of unschooling could be the right choice for our children (or should I say, they have made the right choice themselves!)

We've been investigating/doing unschooling with our six year-old for a year now, but really the last year has been a continuation of our parenting style/philosophy and the holistic approach that we learned through Playcentre. In a wiki nutshell unschooling is:
an educational method and philosophy that advocates learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschooling students learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, believing that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood and therefore useful it is to the child
Like the idea of anarchism, this does not mean no rules, structure or organisation—far from it! We've actively developed an educational practice to suit our eldest child that we constantly document and review. But it does mean not going to school, which for many is a radical concept. (I'm also aware that for many people, having one adult not engaged in waged labour is either impossible or too much of a struggle. We as a family may have little money on a single income, but we are privileged enough to be able to make it happen).

But as the camp demonstrated to me, the kids and adults were loving the unschooling approach. 'Free' is the word that springs to mind—not in the hippy-happy-joy-joy sense, but in terms of autonomy, independence, self-determined.

Around 200 people from across Te Ika-a-Māui/the North Island came and went over the course of the camp, which included co-operative dinners, the odd activity, and lots of play—in the bush, in the sand, at night, in the hall, at the chess table, in the tents, cabins and grass. Lots of noise and lots of fun! And it meant some well-needed downtime for parents.

A market and child-led concert showed that unschooled kids are social, confident and talented (this is obviously something I needed assurance on, as the question I inevitably get asked is how social unschooled children are). Poetry, performance, guitar, dance, jokes — it really was inspiring to see children free to be themselves; to create, to sing and to collaborate.

I was amazed at the huge amount of respect the children had for each other, and the respect adults had for children as people. From teens to toddlers, their interactions were based in a way of being grounded in reciprocity and respect.

Linked to this was the fact that the camp was a co-creation space, which meant that it was organised and run collectively (while allowing space for those who couldn't or didn't want to participate). As the website notes, 'this encourages trust, openness, flexibility, ease and self-responsibility.' Which is apt, considering what I'm reading at the moment:
Commoning is primary to human life. Scholars used to write of “primitive communism.” “The primary commons” renders the experience more clearly. Scarcely a society has existed on the face of the earth which has not had at its heart the commons; the commodity with its individualism and privatization was strictly confined to the margins of the community where severe regulations punished violators...
Capital derides commoning by ideological uses of philosophy, logic, and economics which say the commons is impossible or tragic. The figures of speech in these arguments depend on fantasies of destruction—the desert, the life-boat, the prison. They always assume as axiomatic that concept expressive of capital’s bid for eternity, the ahistorical “Human Nature.”
Of course it's far-fetched to claim that this camp was perfectly pre-figuring some kind of post-capitalist society. It was not without its faults and complexities (I would have liked a little more acknowledgment of the tangata whenua of that place, and/or pōwhiri). But as a first-time attendee with much to learn, I've come away feeling inspired, and with a connection to others who have similar values and approaches to education. Bring on the autumn camp!

Many thanks to the behind-the-scenes organisers, the parents who made us feel welcome, and of course, the kids.