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Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920

Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920

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Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920

377 pagine
4 ore
Oct 18, 2019


In 1918, a miner on the run from the military wrote a letter to his sweetheart. Two months later he was in jail. Like millions of others, his letter had been steamed open by a team of censors shrouded in secrecy. Using their confiscated mail as a starting point, Dead Letters reveals the remarkable stories of people caught in the web of wartime surveillance. Among them were a feisty German-born socialist, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent. Military censorship within New Zealand meant that their letters were stopped, confiscated, and filed away, sealed and unread for over 100 years. Until now.
Oct 18, 2019

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Dead Letters - Jared Davidson

Praise for Dead Letters from other historians

The system of censorship put in place during the First World War in New Zealand has until now received very little attention. In this important book Jared Davidson makes great use of previously unused archival material to reveal a fascinating story of interesting characters, and offers thought-provoking insights into the New Zealand home front experience during a terrible global struggle.


Dead Letters up-ends our comfortable ideas of a united society pulling together during wartime. Instead, thousands of New Zealanders were targets of what we would consider outrageous invasions of privacy by their own government because of their politics, lifestyles or simply birthplace. Davidson’s wonderful writing carries readers along through a world of activists, free-thinkers, conscription dodgers and those who simply would not conform to society’s norms. For all its colour and scandal, Davidson’s book is a sobering reminder of the power of governments during wartime to not only intercept private communications, but to affect relationships. As Davidson says, every letter in the censorship archive is a letter that never arrived, a connection broken.


In ‘national emergencies’ the state penetrates more deeply than ever into the privacy of individuals, especially those opposed to or disquieted by official policies. Davidson’s examination of letters confiscated by official censors in First World War era New Zealand provides a fascinating account of the complex relationship between such dissentients and their surveillers. Along the way, Davidson’s investigative skills reveal a great deal about people whose lives conflate the ordinary and the extraordinary.


These intercepted letters reveal dark and wonderful corners of New Zealand history. Davidson has done a superb job of rescuing long-suppressed voices from official oblivion.


Dead Letters brings welcome light to a murky part of New Zealand’s past, revealing the history of wartime censorship and giving voice to accounts long left silent. It will prove an important book in study and discussion of state power, wartime society and non-conformity.


The letters under discussion are anything but dead. Revelling in the texture, the handwriting, the smell, the very tangible form of the surviving correspondence, Dead Letters conveys the thrill of discovery as well as the indignation of injustice. … In telling the history of the letters’ authors and addressees, alongside the context in which correspondence was conducted, the chapters unfold an extraordinary, sometimes tragic, sometimes farcical, often funny insight into who and what it was that challenged police and defence authorities.


Jared Davidson is to be congratulated on a terrific achievement, one that (almost miraculously, after years of centenary commemorations) tells us something different and enlarging about the war experience of New Zealanders. Most memorably, through nine chapters, all equally successful, the text shines a light on a dozen or so individuals whose lives will forever inhabit the awareness of those who meet them in the pages of this work.


Published by Otago University Press

Level 1, 398 Cumberland Street

Dunedin, New Zealand

First published 2019

Copyright © Jared Davidson

The moral rights of the author have been asserted.

ISBN 978-1-98-853152-6 (print)

ISBN 978-1-98-853193-9 (EPUB)

ISBN 978-1-98-853194-6 (Kindle)

ISBN 978-1-98-853195-3 (ePDF)

A catalogue record for this book is available from the National Library of New Zealand. This book is copyright. Except for the purpose of fair review, no part may be stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including recording or storage in any information retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.

No reproduction may be made, whether by photocopying or by any other means, unless a licence has been obtained from the publisher.

Published with the assistance of Creative New Zealand

Editor: Gillian Tewsley

Design: Jared Davidson and Fiona Moffat

Maps: Allan J. Kynaston

Author photo: Simon Jay

Front cover: Chief Post Office mail room, Wellington, 1920.

AAME 8106 W5603 Box 126, Archives New Zealand, Wellington

Frontispiece: Opened and confiscated letter addressed to Auckland music teacher William Henry Webbe. AAYS 8647 AD10 Box 10/19/9, Archives New Zealand, Wellington.

Ebook conversion 2019 by meBooks

‘This is the crime of war: it reduces human beings to abstract numbers.’ – Ha Jin, War Trash







1A scheme of censorship



2The only Germans among the worms

3To hell with them all

4For dearer the grave or the prison

5The camp in the bush



6Might is right

7My Dear Doctor

8Yours for Direct Action

9Patriotism will not pay my bills

10 A new form of government








If we are tempted to think of threats to privacy solely as a problem of the digital age, we should think again. Jared Davidson’s Dead Letters opens the lid on the extensive and systematic postal censorship of private letters in New Zealand in the years c.1914–1920.

Privacy, it seems, counted for little in the face of the threat of war. Moreover, Davidson suggests it was state interests more broadly that justified interference in everyday correspondence, not solely the protection of military matters. What was learned in wartime years served as the foundation of a longer running machinery of state surveillance. Among the millions of pieces of mail passing through the postal system were those that were opened, read and sometimes detained by censors working in back offices. The letters that remain from this Secret Registry form the heart of this story, and Davidson sets out to reveal that heart.

The letters under discussion are anything but dead. Revelling in the texture, the handwriting, the smell, the very tangible form of the surviving correspondence, Dead Letters conveys the thrill of discovery as well as the indignation of injustice. The archivist can also be a purveyor of secrets. Throughout, Davidson is at pains to unveil what has been hidden. Revelation is a key plot here. So, too, is resistance and dissent. In telling the history of the letters’ authors and addressees, alongside the context in which correspondence was conducted, the chapters unfold an extraordinary, sometimes tragic, sometimes farcical, often funny insight into who and what it was that challenged police and defence authorities.

Who was it, and what was it that the state found dangerous? Those suspected of socialist, anarchist, IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) convictions – perhaps not surprisingly. But also casual labourers, and those who were simply unconvinced that war was being fought for larger ideals rather than for profit. Suspected enemy aliens, and those who wrote too much, too often or in the wrong places also fell into the net. And most extraordinarily, perhaps, is a woman who preferred to dress in masculine attire, but whose health institution had been opened with fanfare by none other than Prime Minister William Massey as recently as 1912.

Exploring this group of people from letters caught in the web of state censorship enables Davidson to write a history from below. That goal frames the study and brings its actors – nonconformists, dissidents, political activists – into the light of a radical heroism. Dead Letters expands the view of dissent during wartime, and the scale of state action. Beyond the pacifists and conscientious objectors were ordinary and not-so-ordinary citizens, workers, correspondents for whom the war was a provocation, or whose simple existence was inconsistent with a narrow-focused view of social order and patriotic effort. It is a history that is simultaneously deeply human and seriously chilling. As Davidson notes, the state was ‘run ragged’ keeping tabs on all those who might threaten the smooth preservation of social order at home and a united war effort abroad. The world of agitators, nonconformists, socialists, anarchists, Irish nationalists, questioners of authority, visionaries (including a dairy farmer poet and prophet seeking news of Bolshevism) and a ‘Von der boch’ stirring questions of the ethics of war capitalism in Waitara, is a New Zealand beyond the pieties of the war memorial.

Dead Letters takes us to the ordinary world of everyday correspondence as well as to the extraordinary world of political dissent and state secrets. The letters that frame each chapter convey the everyday nature of exchange, the ways in which mail sent and received served as threads between families, between lovers (present, past, hoped for), between couples, between comrades, and between strangers. Mail was connection, vital to keeping relationships, political ideas and social movements alive. And in that force lay its danger, a danger appreciated by a number of correspondents. Even as they wrote, many knew their words were likely to fall into the censor’s hands.

Dead Letters reminds us that the First World War was fought in conditions of political turbulence. It is an important reminder, as the historical discourse of 1914–18 has come to be strongly characterised by rather too neatly drawn themes of consensual patriotism, duty and sacrifice. That turbulence existed on both sides of the Tasman. It is telling how many of the letters were addressed to contacts in Australia. While proximity partly accounts for this pattern, it is also a reflection of the contrasting political circumstances in which the war was fought in New Zealand and Australia. For a number of correspondents, Australia would serve as a place of flight or refuge.

Letters are powerful mapping devices. In the correspondence within Dead Letters we find the coordinates of political dissent in early twentieth-century Aotearoa New Zealand. Letters, in that they are written in one place yet destined for another, provide us with a precise geography of connections. What emerges from this unique collection of ‘dangerous’ letters is a map of radical New Zealand c.1914–1920 and its connections with the wider world. To the more obvious nodes of the main city centres of political action we can now add a host of places where dissent was at work: Mangōnui, Waitara, Eketāhuna, Raetihi, suburban Dunedin, Ngākawau, Swanson, Utiku, Bunnythorpe.

Dead Letters provokes interesting and important questions: if the Secret Registry tells us something of who the state found dangerous in the early twentieth century, who falls under that heading in the early twenty-first century? Who do the letters in the registry belong to? They are in state custody as part of the public record, but they have arrived there by a breach of postal delivery service. Under what conditions can, or should, the state intervene in private communications?

Dead Letters presents these questions while celebrating, exulting even, in a history of resistance, of historical actors who stood against tyranny, authoritarianism and capitalism. And the author is aware of the ultimate irony of the study: that to tell such a history is possible only because of the censorship and detention of letters through the system of surveillance. We are, at once, critical of and indebted to the state machinery of censorship.

We have come to understand the First World War as a critical point in the shaping of modern citizenship. But what do the exercise of censorship and the beginnings of an apparatus of state surveillance tell us of the constraints of citizen rights? If the development of the modern nation state is also a history of what Edward Higgs terms ‘the information state’, how might sanctioned censorship be imagined as a necessary activity of twentieth-century governments? In regard to privacy, specifically, how might we link the advent of near-universal literacy, the enormously powerful reach of global postal systems and the legislatively guaranteed confidentiality of private correspondence with the social relations forged under capitalism?

How do we understand a history of privacy in both collective and personal forms? The story of privacy in Dead Letters is one in which the collective was at stake. For the censor, as for the censored (the socialist, dissident, nonconformist, ‘alien’), it was the collective that counted. In the early twenty-first century, privacy has taken on more of an individual aspect, a property right to be protected from identity theft. Dead Letters invites us into a world that challenges the present and the past.






Colonel Charles Gibbon, chief censor.

1/1-013982-G, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington


A scheme of censorship

Had he arrived six months earlier he would have been welcomed with jeers or even a piece of Ghuznee Street ripped up and hurled at him in anger – if his ship had been able to berth at all. Now that the Great Strike was over, the waterfront was safe for men like Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Gibbon. Still, gazing upon Wellington harbour from the steamship Rotorua , Gibbon must have wondered what this assignment would bring. The tall, 36-year-old British officer, whose amicable face offset a saturnine and resolved stare, had been posted to New Zealand as chief of general staff in April 1914. With him were his wife Margaret, his three-year-old daughter Mary, and the honour of the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers. While the scenery was new, the scenario was not: this was his third imperial stint, having fought the Boer at Colenso and Tugela Heights during the South African War of 1899–1902, and served as staff captain of the Intelligence Branch in India.

Gibbon’s military eye took note as the ship passed under numerous gun emplacements and edged closer to the city. At that time New Zealand’s capital was a patchwork of timber dwellings and light industry, fringed by steep hills that squeezed the city against the shoreline. Here the iron gates of the waterfront jostled with brick sheds and towering cranes, lit up so that labourers could work overnight. Beyond them Gibbon could see the narrow streets that led from the reclaimed harbour through the city’s commercial centre, made up of ornamented two- to three-storey buildings like the General Post Office, and up to the military site of Alexandra Barracks, a fortress-like complex that perched ominously over the working-class slums of Te Aro and Aro Valley. Today, the Pukeahu National War Memorial stands in its place, but in 1914 the barracks and its offshoot buildings were home to a number of imperial officers who, like Gibbon, were on loan to the New Zealand military.

It was the formation of a local section of the Imperial General Staff in 1911 that had brought them to the dominion. The exchange of staff and sharing of command structures was designed to forge strong imperial links and, to the joy of lobbyists like the New Zealand Defence League, strengthen the case for New Zealand’s involvement in the empire’s conflicts. It also gave officers like Gibbon a chance to extend their career while taking a break from duties elsewhere. Only it wasn’t a break. With feelings about the Great Strike running high and war clouds looming over Europe, Gibbon knew this was no holiday.

What Gibbon did not know was that he had sailed straight into the middle of a separate but related scrap. Had he browsed any back issues of New Zealand newspapers during his trip he may have read of the 7000 youths prosecuted in 1913 for refusing to comply with compulsory military training.¹ Organisations like the ‘Red’ Federation of Labour, the Anti-Militarist League, the National Peace Council and the Passive Resisters Union were not happy with what they saw as the militarisation of New Zealand society. Through stickers, pamphlets, mass open-air meetings and civil disobedience, their members conducted a novel and disruptive anti-militarist campaign. Passive Resisters Union (PRU) members ignored fines resulting from prosecutions; and when they were jailed, they refused orders and staged successful hunger strikes. Close to 60,000 youths would attend military training before the outbreak of war. Yet at the time of Gibbon’s arrival, the Defence Department still had a fight on its hands.²

After an introduction to the city’s notorious winds, Gibbon met Defence Minister James Allen and his new colleagues, and picked up where his predecessor – now on the way back to England – had left off. Whatever routine Gibbon settled in to, however, was swiftly dashed. Three months after his arrival, New Zealand’s rulers hastened to join what has been called one of history’s most senseless spasms of carnage.³

The First World War would eventually claw its way across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the world’s oceans, taking 40 million casualties with it. It was known as the Great War because of its scale. The label is misleading – there was little great about it. Empire building and the desire for new economic markets, political and military alliances, white supremacy, nationalism and the breakneck development of industry came together in a bitter cocktail. No event before it had changed the lives of so many people, for the violence of modern imperialism had boomeranged on its originators with terrible consequences.

On 5 August 1914 the New Zealand government publicly committed men and materiel to the British cause. Despite the pre-war resistance to compulsory military training, dissenting voices were few and far between. Protests like that of unionist Paddy Webb, who decried war as pitting worker against worker at a meeting at the Globe Theatre in Auckland, were overshadowed by the moment, the media and years of creeping militarism.⁵ The decision of the Upper House of Parliament was not greeted with universal enthusiasm, however. Responses to the war included passive acceptance, sober reflection and the dread of things to come.⁶ Active resistance would come later.

New Zealand’s substantial participation in the First World War changed lives forever, not least Gibbon’s. His peacetime assignment to the Antipodes morphed into the role of chief censor and chief of general staff. Besides censorship, Gibbon was tasked with organising military camps, training reinforcements, staff tours, war policy and spreading the British military’s infatuation with discipline. At this he was brilliant and capable. Diligent to the end, Gibbon’s one regret on leaving in June 1919 was that he had not had a better opportunity to make the acquaintance of the people of New Zealand.⁷ It was a strange remark given his immersion in the private thoughts of hundreds of letter writers. True, he may never have met the people he directed search warrants against, but Gibbon and the military were firmly in charge of wartime postal censorship.

By November 1920, when the censorship of domestic mail officially came to an end, any military rationale for opening and examining people’s private letters had long since passed. Instead, Gibbon had overseen a scheme of censorship used to silence those who had threatened the war effort, the political economy or the state itself: pacifists, socialists, unionists, military defaulters, aliens (those not of British nationality), Irish Catholics, Māori and anyone else hostile to the British Empire.⁸ Writers critical of the government had their mail detained, were put under close surveillance, or had their homes or offices raided. Some were jailed. Others were deported. In an era when post was paramount, the wartime censorship of correspondence heralded the largest state intrusion into Pākehā private life in New Zealand history.

For men like Gibbon, this was entirely justified. Sons and daughters of empire had fought the bloodiest and most industrialised conflict the world had ever seen. New Zealand soldiers were killed or maimed in higher numbers than ever before; loose pens giving away military intelligence might as well have been stabbing them in the back.

Yet censorship was not just about protecting military information – it also protected the state and its interests. ‘It seems to me,’ wrote Deputy Chief Postal Censor Walter Tanner, ‘that in times of danger to the State, when individuals or societies are reasonably believed to be acting against the safety of the State, an examination of internal correspondence is fully justified.’⁹ And while Gibbon’s colleagues argued that ‘care is necessary in the exercise of special powers which the law does not confer upon the Government in times of peace’, such principles, though admirably stated, did not pan out in practice.¹⁰ Like most governments during the First World War, the New Zealand authorities used military means for political ends.

Of the 24 pages of quarterly reports written by Tanner, a mere 12 lines mentioned the censorship of naval or military information of any value to the enemy. Those convicted of publishing such information were fined up to £10. Anyone who criticised the actions of the New Zealand government was fined £100 (close to $20,000 in today’s money) or was given 12 months’ imprisonment with hard labour. By the end of the war, 287 people had been charged or jailed for seditious or disloyal remarks under the War Regulations.¹¹ Per capita, this was far greater than in Britain, where 422 people of a population of over 42 million were convicted or jailed for sedition under the Defence of the Realm Regulations. In fact, arrests for sedition in Britain were lower still, as this figure included offences such as evading censorship, spreading false war news or using fraudulent passports.¹² The land Gibbon had left behind was more tolerant of criticism than the New Zealand administration.

In August 1914, all of this was yet to happen. As Gibbon took stock of his new role, the writers whose lives would be forever altered by his handiwork were also coming to grips with a world at war. Among them was a feisty German-born socialist, a Norwegian watersider, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, a cross-dressing doctor, a nameless rural labourer, an avid letter writer with a hatred of war, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent. In time their letters were stopped, confiscated and filed away, never to be seen by their intended audience. They are the letters that make up this book. Most of them have remained sealed and unread for over 100 years.

The militarism that had brought Gibbon halfway across the world, forced the country’s youth to drill, and led New Zealand into total war was about to steam its way into people’s private mail. Things would never be the same again.

‘Treasonable correspondence’

While peeking into mail is as old as letter writing itself, postal censorship developed with modern postal services and the introduction of demographic recording of the populace by the state. Britain’s General Post Office was formed in 1657 to deliver mail and to ‘discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs which have been and are daily contrived against the peace and welfare of the commonwealth’.¹³ Following on from the introduction of census-taking and the recording of births, deaths and marriages, the desire to know what people were writing was part of the move to make the nascent labour force more ‘legible’ to the state. And at the peak of the mercantilist era, a Secret Office was formed to intercept, read and decipher coded correspondence from nations abroad.

The Secret Office remained a secret for close to 200 years until Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian nationalist living in London, discovered that his letters had been tampered with.¹⁴ To confirm his suspicions, Mazzini asked his correspondents to put poppy seeds, strands of hair and grains of sand in their envelopes. The envelopes arrived empty. With the support of radical MP Thomas Duncombe, in 1844 Mazzini petitioned the House of Commons, where it was finally disclosed that the government had been opening letters since the reign of Queen Anne. The news was a national scandal and the Secret Office was closed down.

This shadowy office’s functions flew in the face of accepted notions of British liberty. Freedom of post had supposedly been protected with an Act passed in 1711: no letters were to be opened or detained without a warrant from a secretary of state.¹⁵ Between 1712 and 1844, 473 of these warrants were issued to stifle ‘dangerous tendencies’ or ‘treasonable correspondence’.¹⁶ And although the Secret Office was abolished after that date, the power to issue warrants remained in place.

After 1844 only a few warrants of a general nature had been issued, mainly to dampen protest in Ireland. In 1881 and 1882 there were frequent questions in the House of Commons about letters being secretly opened in Ireland. The exact nature of the warrants were carefully concealed by the Home Secretary. ‘This is a power which is reserved for the purposes of the State,’ cried Lewis Harcourt, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and its employment was ‘an act of the gravest responsibility not to be exercised except upon urgent necessity for the safety of the State’.¹⁷ As a result, when war broke out in 1914, the British chief postal censor believed that ‘no one in the United Kingdom had had any experience of a general and continued violation of the privacy of postal correspondence’.¹⁸

New Zealand’s postal service was much younger. Erratic, patchy mail exchange existed in the provinces from the 1820s. The national postal service took off with the advent of British government in 1840, the Local Posts Act of 1856 and the Post Office Act of 1858. Provincial councils created their own offices, while central government maintained overland postal services and a head office in each province. By 1880, a year before the Post and Telegraph Department was formed, nearly 24 million letters had been posted between 856 post offices, iron pillarboxes and town letter carriers.¹⁹ In 1914 alone, 110 million letters and 5 million postcards were sent – around 160 items per person in New Zealand.²⁰

Postal censorship did not factor into the lives of most Pākehā, as early colonial New Zealand was not a tightly regulated society. In 1845, however, mail was subject to state counter-subversion. At that time the enemy within were Māori resisting the Crown’s insistence that it had gained sovereignty over New Zealand. During the Northern Wars of

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