Royal New Zealand Navy and the 1951 Waterfront Strike

After the election, Prime Minister Sidney Holland sought to break the power of the Waterside Workers Union one of the most militant and communist dominated of the unions in New Zealand. Discontent and unrest reached a peak in February 1951 and the ship owners locked out the watersiders after a stopwork.


As a general rule, armed forces are reluctant to get involved in domestic industrial disputes due to the risk of violence and the political consequences for the armed forces that by convention in democracies should be apolitical. During the Second World War army troops were used to main dairy factories in the Waikato when the union when on strike. This was covered by the 1943 Emergency Regulations. Up until 1951 the Royal New Zealand Navy itself had not had any direct involvement in industrial action. This would change with the election of the National Government in 1949. The legislation that would be used was the Public Safety Conservation Act. Section Two of this act allowed the government to declare a ‘state of emergency’ if industrial unrest threatened power generation, transport, water, fuel or supply of food to the community. These were the so-called ‘essentials of life’. This also a time of good being sent in bulk which required more men on the wharf to manhandle them. There was not system of shipping containers that is so familiar in the 21st century.

As we now know, the Soviet Union through its front organisations in Australia and New Zealand attempted to seize power in Australia through the Communist Party by control of the powerful unions such as the waterfront workers. In New Zealand the action was more directed to disrupt the New Zealand economy and prevent the flow of our goods to overseas markets. A primary goal was to interdict the supplies to the United Nations forces then locked in combat on the Korean Peninsula. This was a way for the USSR to support the North Korean and Chinese forces facing a well supplied enemy and was an example of the Cold War in action where the Soviet Union used proxies to try and destabilise western powers. There is a lot of emotive rhetoric around the 1951 Strike such as ‘reds under the beds and ‘McCarthyism’. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 intelligence evidence appeared in the West that indeed there was an active campaign of industrial unrest being waged by the Soviet Union in 1949-1951 to destabilise the Western Powers and support for the United Nations in Korea.

The Beginning of the Unrest

After the election which the National Party won, Prime Minister Sidney Holland sought to break the power of the Waterside Workers Union one of the most militant and communist dominated of the unions in New Zealand. Holland had seen that in 1949 the Australian watersiders had been isolated and defeated after communist-inspired unrest by the mineworkers was broken by the government and the Labor Party had split over the communist influence. As the disruption grew on the New Zealand wharves Holland used his powers under the Public Safety Conservation Act in September 1950 but a settlement was reached without the test of strength that both sides sought and there was no need for deployment of the armed forces. This did not let matters rest and both sides knew that there was to be another full-blown clash and strike.[1]

1951 Strike

Discontent and unrest reached a peak in February 1951 and the ship owners locked out the watersiders after a stopwork.[2] The battlelines were drawn between two very distinct camps but as time and history would prove, the majority were against the strikers. On 22 February 1951 Holland invoked his powers under the legislation and declared a state of emergency and the powers took effect on the 26th. The three services [Army, RNZN and RNZAF] were ordered to deploy personnel to carry out the duties of the striking watersiders. Formations of men arrived for work on the 27th at Auckland and Wellington. This inflamed the situation and strikes broke out in other ports, freezing works and the mines in support of the watersiders. 300 officers and ratings from HMNZS Philomel were sent across the harbour on 27 February to man the Auckland wharves. This party also included some men from HMNZS Tamaki that could be spared without disrupting training. This situation faced the Naval Board when the  Navy was fully stretched to keep two of the Loch-class frigates on station with the UN naval forces operating off Korea.[3]

To keep supplies of the ‘essentials of life’ moving the government set up Essential Suppliers’ Committees at the ports. The Army, with its three district structure provided the organisational support. The service personnel would be the labour force for these committees. A RNZN officer commanded the service personnel in Auckland. By 31 March 3,200 regular personnel were deployed in support of the committees. 43% of the men were from the RNZAF who worked in freezing works and cool stores and loaded Army trucks for transport to the wharves.

The Royal New Zealand Navy had an important role to play. Warships were a flexible way of getting men to ports to work and keeping them fed and accommodated while there. In March 1951 the cruiser HMNZS Bellona was ordered back to New Zealand from exercises to provide crew for handling strike-bound cargo on the wharves. Her crew worked the Wellington, Auckland and New Plymouth[4] wharves alongside Army and RNZAF personnel. Her “presence in the capital” was important in at least two ways. She “represented a 6270 ton (7801 tonnes) slice of authority” and could house and feed the men working on the wharves.  The sailors worked long hours when compared with the waterfront workgangs. Once the strike was broken in July 1951 the ship and its men returned to normal duty.[5]

 As coast shipping was shut down, on 5 March 200 officers and ratings were transferred to twenty vessels of the coastal fleet to man them and get the ships moving. In mid-March Wrens were sent over to man the cafeteria and tea stands to release cooks for other duties. The frigate HMNZS Taupo and the survey vessel Lachlan were sent to Westport and the men worked in the mines on the West Coast. One rating was killed while working in the mines. The Museum has in its collection a carved wooden figure of a rating pushing a coal truck that one of the men on Taupo made. The peak manning figure for the RNZN was 930 officers and ratings[6] or about 50% of the total manpower.

The armed forces response was effective and the men moved 778,193 tons of cargo during the 151 days of the strike. The difference in speed and efficiency was noticed during the strike but a claim has been made that the service personnel did not have to handle difficult cargoes during the strike. Nevertheless, the difference in working output was still noticeable to all sides in the strike and exposed some home truths about work practices followed by the unions. This turned out to be a public relations disaster for the unions. The effect on the operations of the Armed Services was dramatic. The Army and RNZAF essentially stopped any other operations or training during the deployment while as has already been noted, the Navy was just barely getting by. It should also be noted that the Army was also supporting KAYFORCE in Korea.

The strike continued to July 1951 and by this time the government saw that the unions were collapsing and just as in Australia, the watersiders became isolated as the radical Trade Union Congress was not supported by the less militant Federation of Labour. The Labour Party remained neutral during the strike and sat on the fence. This action was replayed during the recent industrial action at Auckland ports. The watersiders gave in and the strike ended on 26 July. This was fortunate for the services as men were becoming resentful as being used as ‘scab’ labour and a ‘political instrument’ to break the unions. While this feeling was expressed it was not widely felt in the armed services.

In the aftermath of the strike Holland called a snap election in September 1951 and won an increased a majority. The Government paid five shillings per day as a gratuity to every service personnel that had worked during the strike. The Ship owners also showed their gratitude and gave a considerable sum each to the three services. The RNZN share was divided equally into a payment into the welfare fund and for the construction of a pool at HMNZS Philomel. The 1951 strike has entered into the labour history of New Zealand as the great teat of union power versus the government. It has a romantic quality to it that it doesn’t deserve and it was a very difficult time in New Zealand’s history and a time when the war by proxy that was a feature of the Cold War was fought on the waterfront, in the mines and in the freezing works by service personnel.

 Oral Histories from the Royal New Zealand Navy:

Lieutenant Commander D.B. Herlihy[7]

In March 1951 due to the waterfront strike, Bellona was ordered back to New Zealand from exercises to provide crew for handling strike-bound cargo on the wharves. Her crew worked the Wellington, Auckland and New Plymouth wharves alongside Army and Airforce personnel. Her “presence in the capital” was important in at least two ways. She “represented a 6270 ton (7801 tonnes) slice of authority” and could house and feed the men working on the wharves.  The sailors worked long hours when compared with the waterfront workgangs. Once the strike was broken in July 1951 the ship and its men returned to normal duty… we doubled, over doubled the output.  I think primarily because the wharfies used to always “spell”.  They had a couple of gangs “spelling”, they never worked particularly hard.  Of course it was a novelty for the Services.  We used to work quite hard, as we were trained people and because we were being properly supervised and had officers working with us, we used to work extremely hard.  Also as it was a change in duties so to speak, it was quite interesting and novel. Oh no not really, no not at all.  It was no problem at all.  We never really had any hiccups at all when we were working, we slotted straight into it.

Chief Petty Officer Claude Mason-Riseborough[8]

We set off to go to Tasmania, heading for Launceston.  We never made it, the 51 Wharf Strike and General Strike had started and Taupo was diverted to Westport.  Captain Bourke, he was a 4 ringed Captain, Captain Bourke literally took command of the West Coast.  It was found that the Unions would not co-operate or work with the Navy or produce the answers required to keep coal coming out of the Port of Westport.  The ships company of Taupo moved in and did it.  It was required that at very short notice, there were 119 of us aboard Taupo.  The Captain wanted maximum amount of coal to go out of that Port that we could produce.  It doesn’t matter where it came from, it had to go, and he had it started moving almost immediately.  `Jolly Jack’ had to turn around and learn how to drive Railway Locomotive engines, huge great coal trucks carrying about 20 ton of coal, big steam cranes, the biggest steam cranes in the world they told me down in Westport, they could have been.  They lifted out whole truck loads of coal at a time.

It was a matter of getting up and learning how to run the “incline” railways, especially the Deniston one which I think should have been the eighth wonder of the world.  You had a full eight ton of coal in a railway truck, which is sent down a very steep incline, about three quarters of a mile to a mile before it reached the bottom and the weight of it tearing down pulling up an empty one on the other side of the track.  When they passed it was quite a sight to see, when they passed at a combined speed of nearly 100 miles an hour, it was worth seeing.  I was lucky enough to go to Deniston and there we had to learn the intricacies of getting first of all this 8 ton of coal in a position to let it go down, while they hooked on an empty one at the bottom.  Our Chief Stoker who was going to work a huge brake on which an endless wire, a 6 inch flexible wire to which the truck was secured.  He received information from the people in the area how to operate this brake, when and what measurement he was to slow it down and so and so forth.  The first one we sent off and everything was done perfectly and off it went, singing away there about 50 miles an hour down hill, with the empty one coming up which we could see coming, looked like a matchbox to start with, then started to look like a real railway truck.  He had been given the wrong information instead of coming over the crest at 20 miles an hour it came over doing about 60.  It hit, went up in the air about 40 feet, broke the wire, smashed the gear, hit the brake shed and went down the side of a steep incline and mangled up, the steel truck was all mangled up and made a terrible mess.  That was our first effort of running that particular incline and we learnt our mistake; don’t take any notice of the locals.  We eventually ended up by sending 70 a day down there, which is an enormous amount of coal.  In fact we were putting down about 500 ton a day down that incline when we finished which matched up just as good as the locals.

We went on later to do Molten, the Molten thing which is a different kettle of fish where they had hoppers, 8cwt hoppers, all joined and clipped on to another moving wire and I thought, I had as usual, I had better learn to clip this thing on before I get anyone else to do it.  I found that having started I learnt how to clip on a chain on to a moving wire and then join it onto one of those 8cwt hoppers, I couldn’t find anybody else that could do the job satisfactorily so I was stuck with it. Lachlan came to relieve us and gave us a break after about 5 or 6 months.  My relief turned out to be a `Towny’ of mine from Napier, also ex `Achilles’ and River Plate.  Fortunately he was very deft and had the hang of it very well after a 4 day change over. Although I suggested that there was no point in breaking our record of 270 a day, they did just that.  Unfortunately he injured his fingers in the process. There is always danger in most aspects around coal whether mining it or transporting by `inclined’ ropeways or loading the colliers. It was during just such a job as the latter, when at night, P.O. Eddy was severely injured and later died.  It was especially sad as he was one of only two in the ship who was a `native’ of Westport

I look back now and consider it was a great experience on the West Coast.  I even managed to do a bit of gold sluicing on Sundays where the miners worked in the Depression days of the 20’s and 30’s.  Most certainly, it was a change from normal Naval life.[The sailors] absolutely loved it.  It was such a change and of course most matelots like a beer.  If anyone knows Westport, knows that every second doorway in the main street is a pub in Westport.  Many of them had “up homers”.  People eventually – although we had sort of taken their livelihood from them – but miners for every form of transport, – they eventually realized that we were there doing a job under orders and they became quite friendly and took a lot of chaps into their homes etc.

It must be realized that a certain amount of sabotage took place initially.  Such as spiking the big wheels and the lines, spiking the railway lines inside the tunnels etc.  We always had to send out patrols to make sure that everything was in order and rectify anything that had been sabotaged.  On one or two occasions buckets full of shingle were thrown at the trucks going up through the hilly roads and that sort of thing.  It all petered out after a while.  When the time came for us to leave I think that the whole of Westport turned out to give us a farewell. Some of the chaps married girls eventually from down there.  In my case I was made welcome in the home of the Franklin family.  Mr Fred Franklin himself was initially one of the drivers of the big steam cranes on the jetty.  He gave us a great deal of assistance during that strike.  The coal owners, the mine owners had provided us with a bottle of beer at the end of every day for every man in the ship.  Fred Franklins name was added to that list, because he had been so much help to us.  He always got his bottle of beer, like everyone else.

Chief Petty Officer W.M. Gibbs[9]

Then of course the wharf strike, there was quite a lot of humour in that.  We all started off like tigers with the Commander in charge, Lieutenants in charge of every hold.  We finished up with four bloody Chief G.I.’s in charge of a ship.  Because they had a Chiefs gang and I was the only Chief senior enough to take charge of the Chiefs gang, being the Chief G.I.  We could run six holds no trouble.  The fascinating thing was that we had to drop our numbers so much from what we had been told, because we were just getting in each others way.

The Stevedores Company told us how many men were needed for each job.  We found that we were just getting in each others way, and coming up, blokes who were even allergic to work were coming up and saying “haven’t you got anything for me to do Chief”, “oh go and have a smoke”, “I don’t smoke”.  You couldn’t let them go up town, or the Commander would have frowned on that. To my mind yes, it must have been, because the blokes were just getting in each others way.  We couldn’t work any great deal of spelling.  I mean they couldn’t let one man up town doing their shopping or anything like that.

Most of them seemed quite happy.  They enjoyed themselves going around.  We started in Wellington on the Dominion Monarch, and we had, they didn’t like the cement in New Plymouth, they didn’t like that at all, the sailors, nasty stuff.  In general they seemed to enjoy it alright.  There were so many people trying to find things that kept them on the ship instead of working in the hold or something like that, but they were pretty happy though.  There were some pretty silly things at first.  If a winch was steam then it had to be a Stoker P.O. that operated it, or if it was electrical it had to be an Electrician that operated it.  Well those blokes had never learned what happened to a weight on about 120 foot of wire you know.  There were some rather funny things.  In fact I lowered a sling full of meat on top of one of my workers in the hold one day.  I heard him yell from underneath about a sling full of carcasses of lamb, lifted it up a couple of feet and he came out from underneath very quickly.  It was easy to get a few things wrong.  I mean how many of us had played with two winches, knew the exact angles at which to start easing out on this one and taking it up on this one.  It didn’t take long to catch on, once we had had a couple of shifts and the routine was there it became fairly easy.

 Commander C.R Vennell[10]

Yes it did, the famous 1951 Strike.  Not only were the Watersiders on strike of course, but the Coalminers and also the Seamen in the Merchant trade.  The Merchant Navy Officers were still working.  The Navy apart from having people working on the wharves and in the mines were also manning the coastal shipping at lower deck level.  It was a very big task indeed, and the time came when we ran out of sailors and stokers to send, and began to send people like me, Sub Lieutenants and such and other Officers who could be spared.  I had this rather delightful experience of a few weeks serving in a ship called the Perry which was a converted Schooner, and whose role was transporting explosives from ships at the powder grounds around the coast to mainly the coalmining ports, Westport for instance.  That was my “before the mast” time in the Merchant Navy.  We fed like fighting cocks, the scale of victuals was excellent, the pay was excellent.  Unfortunately one didn’t actually get the pay, we continued to receive our Naval pay, but the Shipping Companies had to pay in what they would have paid us into what became a Naval Welfare Fund.  It has since paid for things like the Philomel swimming pool. I don’t remember any thing as formal as that, I think we just went, and we did what we were told by the Officers.  In fact we all got on very well. I think my status was Deck Boy, one did tricks at the wheel unsupervised and things like that.  We took our turns as cook, I was a dab hand at making Macaroni Cheese in those days by following the instructions on the packet.  The lads became fed up with my Macaroni Cheese, the time came when they threw it over board. I don’t think in society at large, certainly among those affected, the strikers didn’t approve of us at all.  I think popular feeling was against the strikers, particularly the Waterside workers for whom there was very little sympathy.  They seemed to have the most wonderful racket going in terms of not working very hard and getting high pay. They tell a different tale, and now its one of those classics of our social history and is viewed rather differently.

Commodore M.J. McDowell[11]

The dominating feature of course of this period in TAUPO was the wharf strike which spread to the mines on the West Coast and we were involved in that.  The First Lieutenant was Dick Hale who was a good friend of mine and was a marvellous help to me, eventually got me into managing two mines in the Buller Gorge, and that was an experience that I don’t suppose most Service Officers or Managers or people will get.  It was quite an experience.

 Well, I did my best to get away from the ship, but Paddy wouldn’t let me go for a long time.  Eventually with Dick’s help I did get away.  I was managing two mines, Heaphys in Happy Valley in the Buller Gorge.  Of course the owners of these mines put themselves out on a limb for a bit, because when the strike was over they weren’t going to get much help from the locals.  This particularly applied I guess to Happy Valley which did depend on employed miners to help them.  I think Moynahan was the name of the person who ran that mine.  There was such events as somebody put sugar in the big diesel engine, a little bit of sabotage, that sort of nature.  The problem for these miners was of course, that we got out ten times as much coal in the short period as they did otherwise.  Any planning for the length of the life of a mine went up the spout.  We also pulled out a lot of other stuff besides coal.  I think it was I that stopped the Ferries in the middle of Auckland Harbour, because they were trying to burn the overburden from Happy Valley or somewhere.  The Heaphys were a bit different, they were a family, and they all clubbed together to work as a family, and they weren’t affected so much by outside help.  All this was done by about six of us.

Our team included an ERA, an Electrical Petty Officer I think, Steward and a couple of A.B.’s and myself.  We all slept together in the Berlins Hotel in the middle of the Buller Gorge – owned by the Heaphys.  I had a room to myself and the others all dossed in another room.  I think one of the P.O.’s might have had a room to himself too, and we sort of became part of the Heaphy family.  We heard great tales of things like the Murchison Earthquake and people performing prodigious tasks, like leaping over a counter with a till in their hands.  It was quite an experience.

We used to play golf with the striking Miners on a Sunday afternoon in Westport; that was the one day that we had off.  Sometimes when we were actually doing the mines, we had to work on a Sunday and do our maintenance but we tried to get a day off if we could.  But, oh there were numerous incidents which occurred, some of which were amusing.  When the ships were empty and before we had gone to the mines, there was a very influential Chief Engineer in Westport who seemed to be able to tell the Mayor and every one else what to do, and we found ourselves dealing with him a good deal.  One wondered sometimes whether, in fact, his heart was wholly in our cause.  It seemed as if it was with some satisfaction and glee that he informed Captain Bourke, “now the ships were empty, there is nothing more that we could do, and the miners are going on strike”.  Captain Bourke said “well we will go to the mines in that case”; it’s reported that he said that he said “well Captain I have to tell you there will be bloodshed”, to which Paddy’s response was “well my men are trained in bloodshed”.  That’s one of the remarks that I later heard on the West Coast some years later when I visited in TUI.

Another thing that happened once was that things were slowing up a bit, at the Heaphys, and there was a requirement to fill a ship with coal and I was asked to talk on the telephone to Captain Bourke.  As I spoke to him on the telephone, he said “I ought to tell you I think that we are going to close up the operations up there very soon, and we probably don’t want any more coal from there”.  The following morning at about 4 o’clock, the trucks were roaring, and the Heaphy family was out emptying the bins to get the coal down to the railhead and on down to the ship to make sure that they met Captain Bourke’s deadline – which of course was what he wanted to happen.  They had heard on the extension line what his plans were.  Of course it was a lot of nonsense, that was his way of doing things.  Any way that few months was an experience which I have never forgotten.

Petty Officer Writer James Colin Richards Claridge[12]

As I say we came out in the RANGITATA which took five weeks and then I went, of course, to PHILOMEL where I served from July 1950 until January 1951 and was then drafted to TAUPO the Loch Class frigate.  One of the main things that she did, she got involved in the General Strike and we were sent to the West Coast to ensure continuity of coal supplies from the area. I was there, indeed, I was down there during all that period and we used to get relieved by LACHLAN at times.

Paddy Bourke was Captain. One of the nicknames for Paddy Bourke I remember from amongst the locals was Burger Master Bourke, the Governor General of the West Coast. Dick Hale was the First Lieutenant and Ted Thorne was the Coms Officer, the Gunnery Officer was an RN bloke called David Smith and Roy Ansley was the TAS bloke aboard, I can’t think of many others, but a happy ship that was. I did a little bit, but not much, because I used to be looking after all the admin procedures.

Some of them used to go into some of these huge coal bins and actually stand in there and shovel it all out in to trucks.  It was real hard work you know and they used to work all night if a ship was coming in.  It is surprising how things escape your mind about exactly what was going on.  One thing that stands out tremendously about going into Westport was the blooming bar.  I see some recent items on the news about the bar down there.  One of the sad things was that a Seaman Petty Officer called Bill Eddy, who was doing something in the railway sidings with a truck, got crushed between two and actually died.  Even though the people had been a little hostile when we were sent down there in the beginning, you know scabs and this kind of stuff, we couldn’t avoid it, we were told to go there by Sid Holland, they all turned out in numbers for Bill Eddy’s funeral, even the Unions were strongly represented.  You have probably heard about Eddy being killed down there.  I think that was the only casualty. We had our own little steam engine called “Paddy’s Puff Puff” ?

 Bill Heenan[13]

Of course a Loch Class frigate was totally different to being a boy under training on a cruiser.  It was a very interesting initial period on Taupo of course, because we went to Australia and as I said we were actually heading up the river to visit Launceston in Tasmania and when we got there we had to turn around and come back to Wellington and this was because of the wharf strike.  Arriving in Wellington our first job was to unload a cargo boat that was full of Italian ladies shoes, cartons and cartons of those.  After that we were sent to Westport.  So I joined the Navy and all of a sudden I was working in coalmines.  Some of us, not me included, but several of them went to work in private coalmines for private contractors for the owners.  I was working up at the Granity area in the Stockton incline.  Because even being a West-coaster I had never had anything to do with coalmines all the time I was at school and I found that rather fascinating and interesting. It was hard work, but we thoroughly enjoyed it.

We were tied alongside Westport in the river the entire time. And of course because we were working during the wharf strike the locals did not take too kindly at all.  In those days the hotels were six o’clock closing.  I don’t know I was too young to drink in those days, but after six o’clock it was a case of batten down the hatches, because they would come down the wharf and let us  have full broadsides of empty beer bottles. But all over the ship, broken glass every where.  We had one of our chaps Pilkington who was an Englishman and he was a conscientious objector and wouldn’t work in the mines.  He ended up frog-marching up and down the wharf with a rifle above his head doing jankers all the time.  The locals started to talk to him and say, “What is he doing?  Why is he doing that?  We would say because he wouldn’t work in the mines, that is punishment.  If you don’t work you are doomed.  So if you refused to work in the mines we would all be doing that sort of thing.  Slowly but surely the locals did come around.

In actual fact from the Taupo’s crew if my memory serves me correct, four of our crew married local girls. We were there until the end of the strike.  We were joined by the [HMNZS] Lachlan who came in at the end of the strike sort of thing.  No we were there for two or three months and again the memory is not what it should be, but we were there a very long time.

One thing I would like to just put in here, getting back to that wharf strike part, probably for the first time in my naval career or our naval career as boys we were treated as men.  We were doing a man’s job there and even although because of our age we weren’t allowed to officially drink until we were 21 sort of thing.  Because we were working in the mines everybody got a bottle of beer a day and they even issued that to the seaman boys.  I was quite popular because I couldn’t stand the taste of beer and used to give my bottle away. One really unfortunate thing there was the death of Bill Eddie, he was caught between the buffers of a couple of coal trucks on the wharf and was unfortunately crushed and died.  Because it wasn’t made easy by the fact he was a local boy  I believe at that stage his parents were still there in Westport.

[1] Note that at this time, many of the essential goods and services were still transported around New Zealand by coastal shipping. There was no extensive network of air transport in existence in 1951.

[2] Depending on which side of the strike one stood it was either a strike [ship owners] or lockout [watersiders].

[3] At that time the frigates HMNZS Rotoiti & Tutira were operating off Korea.

[4] For example, she spent five weeks at New Plymouth.

[5] Grant Howard, The Navy in New Zealand: An Illustrated History, Wellington: Reed, 1981, p. 143.

[6] The Army had 1170 men and the RNZAF 1425.

[7] DLA 0005

[8] DLA 0009

[9] DLA 0024

[10] DLA 0045

[11] DLA 0068

[12] DLA 0099

[13] DLA 0264