2011 ASSLH conference – The Aftermath of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout


‘We never recovered from that strike’: The Aftermath of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout and Supporting Strikes

 Grace Millar



The 1951 waterfront lockout and supporting strikes lasted five months and involved 20,000 workers.  As one of New Zealand’s largest industrial disputes it has received considerable historical attention, but the main focus of research has been on the beginning of the dispute. The limited historical work on the end of the dispute and the aftermath has focused on union structures, rather than the people of labour history.  

The social history of the dispute continued long after the 15th of July, the end-date on the union’s loyalty cards.  This paper will explore the longer-term effects of the dispute on those who were locked out and those on a supporting strike. It will discuss the many different experiences recorded in the fragments of autobiography that have survived. This paper will argue that our historical understanding of the effects of industrial disputes needs to be expanded beyond the workplace, to families that had to deal with the long term effects of five months without wages.

Grace Milllar is a PhD student at Victoria University of Wellington researching  ‘Families and Communities in the 1951 Waterfront Dispute’


In 1999, forty-­eight years after her husband had gone on strike as part of the 1951 waterfront dispute, Maureen Martin said: “We never recovered from that strike as far as money goes because we had to pay back money to Jack’s mother what we had borrowed.”1 The financial costs were just one price those involved had to pay; the dispute also took its toll on working-­class health and relationships. This paper will explore the long-­term costs of 151 days locked-­out or on strike, and illustrate what we can learn about industrial disputes by examining what happens after the return to work.

The 1951 waterfront dispute is one of the most widely written about industrial struggles in New Zealand history. For five months from mid-­February 1951, watersiders were locked-­out and miners, seamen, freezing workers and others went on strike in support of the watersiders; in total 20,000 workers were involved. It began as a dispute over wages, although the details of the conflict are not relevant to this paper. It ended in July 1951 with the watersiders defeated, the government and shipowners conceding nothing and the New Zealand Waterfront Workers’ Union destroyed. The aftermath of the 1951 waterfront lockout and supporting strikes has received much less attention than its origins. While some historians have made arguments about the effects of 1951 they have focussed on the political and industrial aftermath, rather than the lives of participants.2

Watersiders’ jobs were the first cost of the lockout-­-­ 5,400 watersiders, or 71 per cent, had to find other work in the second half of 1951, only 2,200 former members of the watersider’s union kept their jobs.3 However, the ability to work on the waterfront again was not evenly distributed geographically. In some ports such as Auckland and Napier only workers who worked as strikebreakers ever worked on the waterfront again.4 In Lyttelton, six hundred of the eight hundred former watersiders needed to find other work.5 Even in Wellington, where the government struggled to find strikebreakers, fewer than half the watersiders got back on the wharf? 1,300 had to find other work.6 While most watersiders found new work easily, some workers were blacklisted. For example, R. Muir, a trained lithographic tin-­printer, wrote to the Department of Labour that he was unable to get work in the industry, despite a labour shortage.7 Some watersiders had to move cities to get new work.8

Other family members took up paid work during the dispute out of necessity. Those most likely to have their life permanently influenced by this work were young adults who had not yet left school. Their first employment and school-­ leaving were shaped by their families’ financial crises. This is evident in oral history narratives of children whose plans to go to university were interrupted by the dispute, as they could not stay at school and had to get paid work.9 If the 1951 waterfront dispute coincided with as major a life transition as leaving school and getting a new job, then the cost of the dispute on a young adult’s life was magnified. Wives of those locked-­out or on strike also took paid work during the dispute. Historians have argued that the dispute acted as a catalyst and women started paid work that they would not otherwise have undertaken.10 However, many left their jobs after the dispute ended, suggesting that paid work was only an improvement for some women.11 Watersiders and their family members had to take on new roles and lose old ones, because of the dispute.

Workers’ bodies and their families’ bodies paid the price of the dispute. In one Auckland executive meeting, towards the end of the dispute, five of the twelve members who were granted release to take other work had one or more ill family members.12 The relationship between ill-­health and the dispute was complex, and it is hard to untangle the health problems of being on strike or locked-­out with other health problems of the working-­class.13  However, the volume of health problems described by those involved in the dispute suggests that the problems were at least exacerbated by five months without work or income.14 Stress took a non-­physical toll as well; the most common health problem mentioned was nerves or a nervous breakdown. James Parker said: `I have been to two doctors that I am on the verge of another Nervous breakdown is their own opinion’.15 A doctor described Mrs Hart’s condition as follows: `She has recently been subjected to stress and hardship and is showing signs of another nervous breakdown’.16 The doctor made the connection with the dispute clear: `I am of the opinion that the only way that this can be prevented is by the removal of her present source of worry’.17

Ill-­health brought further costs. Breadwinners who had to find lighter work after the dispute did not have the same opportunities to work overtime and their families’ material condition was permanently affected by their health.18 Hospitalisation was a significant cost and risk, particularly for mental-­health conditions, as this autobiographical short story demonstrates: `My grandfather, also a wharfie had a breakdown. It was an awful time for nana. For all of us. Stupid Aunti Myrt in that way she had of exaggerating told the hospital that granddad was dangerous. Which was a lie! Nana said the trouble was he kept going on the wharves and staring at the ships and she worried he might get in the way of the soldiers’.19 The narrator then goes on to tell her mother’s and grandmother’s experiences of her grandfather’s hospitalisation, how scared he was of treatment, and how distressing it was for them. This story articulates both the repercussions the dispute could have on someone’s well-­being and the impact on their family. At worst the dispute had a permanent effect; some watersiders did not survive the lockout. Tommy Gregory stated that he knew three men who had committed suicide during the dispute, and Ted Thompson made similar statements.20 The health costs of the dispute could be catastrophic.

One of the generally accepted truths of the dispute, repeated in oral histories and written accounts, is that it caused divorces.21 This popular account appears to have some truth to it. The figures in the divorce records provide weak support for the common claim that watersiders’ marriages fell apart as a result of the dispute.22 The Society for the Protection of Women and Children also stated in their annual report: `The past year, particularly during periods of industrial dispute, produced an increase in the number of wives seeking the society’s assistance in the face of threatened or actual break-­up of their homes’.23 For some, marital relationships were one cost of the dispute. There is also oral history evidence that the dispute affected marriages that went on to survive the dispute. Children’s stories about their parents’ relationship during the dispute are more revealing than their parents’ stories. When Kevin Forde was asked whether his parents seemed more stressed during the dispute he replied: `Oh yes – stress – oh yes – sometimes there were some real arguments – real good arguments. We used to scarper up the bedroom and out the road’.24 Maureen Fairey did not know at the time what was causing conflict between her parents, but has made a sense of it as an adult: `I don’t know that [Maureen’s mother] ever forgave Dad for the waterfront lockout. I’m not saying she didn’t agree with it, but I think she thought he probably took too strong a position in that he didn’t go back – like he didn’t take any other work on at that time and she -­ I know it affected – because she was always short of money -­ I think it really affected their relationship’.25 Both interviewees’ parents remained married.

Marriages were not the only relationships to deteriorate because of the dispute. Over and over again, those giving oral histories describe local conflict with those who were working as strikebreakers. Johnny Mitchell describes a fight with his strikebreaking neighbour in Freeman’s Bay, Gwendolene Pawson talks about physical fights with the children of scabs at her Napier Catholic School, while Kevin Ford describes ‘getting a hiding’ from his father if he played with the neighbouring son of a strikebreaker in Bluff.26 Community relationships were fractured as a result of the dispute.

Health and relationships both suffered as the result of the dispute, but the financial loss identified by Maureen Martin at the beginning of this chapter was the most widely felt cost. The Department of Labour kept track of how much those who were locked out or on strike had lost in wages: 

Industry27 Number of
Total loss of
Average loss of
Watersiders 8,381 £1,500,697


Seamen 1,730 £202,401


Miners 3,772 £894,839


These figures, particularly the watersiders’ wages, were substantial underestimates, as they are only based on ordinary rates and do not include overtime or rates for specific cargo.30 They give a sense of the catastrophic hole in the family economy that the dispute had created. One of the main ways that people filled this hole during the dispute was by borrowing money and not paying bills. Landlords, family members, the union, grocers, banks, electricity companies, and everyone else whose credit had been necessary for survival during 151 days locked-­out or on strike had to be repaid.

The main archival evidence of this debt is the Auckland branch of the seamen’s union receipt book, which details seamen’s repayments of their debt to the union.31 The receipt book can be used to reconstruct some seamen’s debt. R. Blackburn recorded the highest debt? he repaid £40 over two and a half years.32 Twenty-­two seamen repaid more than £20, forty-­six between £10 and £20, and just over a hundred repaid less than £10.33 These figures have to be taken with caution? seamen did not necessarily repay all their debt to the same branch, and so the figures are only a minimum amount that the men borrowed. The receipt book cannot be taken as a full record of debt and repayment for these 175 men and the information in it is more usefully read as case-­studies with different levels of detail.34 For example, some seamen made very large single payments, D.Gee and P. Mortimer both repaid £28/10/0, one in 1953 and the other in 1954. Others were not able to attack their debt so easily, and made many payments, D.Bernard made nine payments of between £2 and £10, between October 1952 and December 1956. J. Rahui also made payments of between £2 and £10, but he only made four in total and had repaid his debt by the end of 1951. Seamen’s individual payments were large? although the lowest was 4s 3d, only eight of 315 individual payments were under £1.35 Some repaid their debt relatively quickly, but others had to make payment after payment.

Repayment of debt took time. The first seaman to repay his debt in full to the seaman’s union was J. Devitt? he made three payments totalling £14/12/0, and paid off the last of his debt in October 1952. Five other seamen repaid their debt in total in 1952 paying between £3 and £15 each. The next final payment occurred in 1955 and five more followed? the last payment was made in 1964.36 Seamen cannot be taken as representative of other workers involved in the dispute, as both their debt and their earning patterns were markedly different from other workers. However, these differences made seamen more able and motivated to pay off debt to their union. In general other workers would have been slower to repay their debts than the seamen. Therefore these final dates are, if anything, earlier than those for others involved in the dispute.

Not everyone could repay their debt, and the fabric of the home was under threat for those who could not. Hire-­purchase companies could and did repossess furniture.37 Mortgage and rent debt was even more hazardous. Mr R. Cecil was served eviction papers in July 1953 as he was behind on his rent. He had been behind on the rent since the dispute, and then had another period of unemployment when his wife died and he had to care for his children.38 Debt, particularly housing debt, was a constant threat, and any other tragedies, or difficulties pushed families closer to the edge.

Few adults, even those who go into detail about what they owed, talk about the process of paying the debt off, or how long it took. The only record of the effect of dispute debt is in children’s accounts. Two men who were boys at the time of the dispute in different cities tell very similar stories of a time when the debt was paid off. Kevin Forde, aged 7 in 1951, said: `Things started to pick up a bit. That’s when we started to go the movies – I know that – we never went to the movies while – for years. Then all of a sudden we were going the movies’.39 William Dougherty also talked about being able to go to movies only when he was older.40 Their stories stand as acknowledgement of the effect repaying debt had, well into the 1950s.

For some, the obligations formed during the dispute lasted even longer than the repayment of debt. Gratitude and obligation continued to shape relationships where support and credit had been extended and accepted. Ian Church, the son of a Port Chalmers watersider, was sent to Salvation Army Sunday school after the dispute because of the help his family had received. The most commonly felt obligation was towards those who had extended credit. Kevin Forde, whose father was in Bluff, emphasised how important this was to those who had gone through the dispute:

I do know once when the watersiders started their own sort of grocery shop up on the wharf in Bluff that had cheap groceries and I brought a bagful home for Mum and Mum was delighted of course she said ‘oh that’s good.’ And Dad came home early one day and said ‘oh the grocer’s been early this week have they?’ They usually came on Monday take an order and deliver on Thursday or Friday or whatever day it was. And Mum said no Kevin got these from the grocery store on the wharf. They’re a lot cheaper than Charlie Denny – that was our grocer – and Dad took one look at me one look at my mother, picked them up and he said come follow me. I followed them out and he threw them in the rubbish bin and he said that if I bring anything home like that again I’ll be put in the rubbish bin and I’ll be out the gate. He said ‘the grocer carried me for three months, and half them bastards down there, and they started a store up against him. He wasn’t a very happy chappy. 41

This confrontation happened in the 1960s, a decade after the waterfront dispute had ended. This watersider felt the obligation of credit so strongly that he insisted that all family goods must be bought at the same store, whatever the expense. In 2011, a child of a locked-­out watersider in Port Chalmers mentioned the importance of using local shops sixty years after the dispute, because families remembered how important credit had been.42 The loyalty some watersiders showed towards their grocers hints at the significant effect debt had on relationships.

As we have seen in this paper, for those involved in the dispute there were employment, health, relationship and financial costs. However, these costs had two common features: firstly, they were unevenly distributed and secondly, they were an individual responsibility not a collective one. We have already seen that the need to find new work was unevenly distributed geographically. But all the costs were unequally distributed. For example, those who asked for permission to withdraw from the dispute because of their health often indicated that they had a history of ill-­health. James Parker and Mrs Hart’s doctor both refer to their worries about ‘another’ nervous break-­down.43  Others who describe ill-­health during the dispute state that they were already ‘under the doctor’.44 On the other hand, those who were most robust before the dispute were unlikely to suffer health effects.45 Debt was also distributed unevenly? the amount of debt an individual or family incurred during the dispute depended on the level of resources they had at the start. Ted and Ida Thompson who started the dispute with a modest mortgage, some savings, and a large vegetable garden came out debt-­free, but few people started with that level of resources.46 Just as the amount of debt a family had varied, so did the type of debt, and interest-­bearing debt was hardest to pay off. Those who had deferred paying debt during the dispute – either hire-­purchase or mortgage – would automatically face having to pay more interest at the end of the dispute. Families and individuals started the dispute with different levels of resources, and hardship exacerbated this division.

After the dispute the health, relationship and financial costs of the dispute became privatised and individualised. During the dispute itself union relief committees were set up to help protect the financial position and health of members and their families, and the Ladies’ Auxiliary was concerned about the relationships of those involved in the dispute. However, after a short transition period in July any costs from the industrial action were pressed back behind closed doors and were an individual responsibility. Mrs Thorby discovered this when she wrote to the Auckland waterside executive a second time, requesting his comrades visit her husband in hospital? the previous request had been ignored.47 In stark contrast to the collective interest that existed during the dispute, afterwards the survival of families, their ability to meet their bills and to repay their debt was an individual concern? in fact at times the union was creditor.

The ideas explored in this paper do not only apply to the 1951 waterfront lockout and supporting strikes, they suggest a way of extending our understanding of industrial disputes. The historiography of strikes and lockouts has tended to focus on industrial repercussions, when they look at the aftermath at all. The historiography of the 1926 miners’ lockout in Britain demonstrates this nicely.48

Historians have noted that the financial stress in mining communities in 1926 was exacerbated because many families had not repaid their debts from the 1921 lockout.49 This distress is treated as important because of its implications for future industrial action, not for its effects on the miners and their families. One account mentions, almost in passing, that some families were still paying off debt from the lockout in the 1970s, almost fifty years later.50 This should change our understanding not just of the 1926 miners’ lockout, but of Welsh mining communities in the decades that followed. However, so far this idea hasn’t received the attention that it deserves. If historians assume that industrial disputes end when workers return to work, and that what happens behind closed doors is not part of the dispute, then they cannot understand the nature of industrial conflict and its effects on working-­class life.



1   Oral history interview, Maureen Martin, interview with Liam Martin, September 1999, Alexander Turnbull Library, Oral History Centre.
2   Michael Bassett, Confrontation ‘51: The 1951 Waterfront Dispute Wellington: Reed, 1972)? Christine Meade, ‘New Zealand Waterfront Unions, 1951-­1967: A Study of the Repercussions of the 1951 Strike on the Wharf Unionists, and of Union Organisation from the Defeat of the N.Z.W.W.U. until the Formation of the New Zealand Federation of Watersiders’, (MA thesis, University of Otago, 1980); Pat Walsh, ‘The Legacy of ‘51,’ in The Big Blue: Snapshots of the 1951 Waterfront Lockout, David Grant, ed. (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2004).
3   The numbers of watersiders who returned to the wharf, and other similar figures in this section have been obtained by comparing two sets of Department of Labour figures. The base figure is the Department of Labour’s number of members of the Waterside Workers’ Union on 1 January 1951, and the comparison figure is the Department of Labour’s calculations of number of watersiders after the dispute. At times the numbers are contradictory in the smaller areas, however overall they are the best figures available to make these calculations. Numbers have been rounded to the nearest 100 to reflect the imprecision of the calculation. Strike Returns Department of Labour Files, AANK W 328513 3/5/398, Archives New Zealand.
4   Strike Returns; Department of Labour Files, AANK W 328513 3/5/398, Archives New Zealand.
5   Strike Returns; Department of Labour Files, AANK W 328513 3/5/398, Archives New Zealand.
6   Strike Returns; Department of Labour Files, AANK W 328513 3/5/398, Archives New Zealand.
7   R. Muir to Minister of Labour, [November 1953], Department of Labour Files, AANK W3580 947 85, Archives New Zealand.
8   Dennis Brown, oral history interview, interviewer Grace Millar, 12 October 2011, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
9   Pete Gorman, ‘Wharfies: The Watersiders of Port Chalmers’, 2007; Melanie Nolan, ‘Shattering
Dreams About Women in the Lockout’, in David Grant, (ed.), The Big Blue: Snapshots of the 1951
Waterfront Lockout (Christchurch: Canterbury University Press, 2004), 75-­6.
10   Andrea Hotere, ‘The 1951 Waterfront Lockout in Port Chalmers’ (BA Hons thesis, University of Otago, 1989), 109; Nolan, `Shattering Dreams’, 770
11   Hotere, `The 1951 Waterfront Lockout’.
12   Auckland Waterside Workers Union Executive Minutes, 26 June 1951, 94-­106-­11/01, Herbert Roth Papers, Alexander Turnbull Library.
13   A similar idea has been explored in reference to the 1926 lock-­out in Wales: Sue Bruley, ‘The Politics of Food: Gender, Family, Community and Collective Feeding in South Wales in the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout of 1926’, Twentieth Century British History, vol. 18, no. 1 (January, 2007; S. Thompson, ‘That Beautiful Summer of Severe Austerity: Health, Diet and the Working-­Class Domestic Economy in South Wales in 1926’, Welsh History Review, vol. 21, no.3, (2003).
14   For example, Mrs Thorby to R. Jones, [1951], Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­106-­11/02, Alexander Turnbull Library.
15   James Parker to R. Jones, [1951], Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­106-­11/04 Alexander Turnbull Library.
16   Stuart MacKay, ‘Doctor’s Certificate’, 1951, Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­106-­11/04, Alexander Turnbull Library.
17   Ibid.
18   O. M. Bull to R. Jones [1951], Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­106-­11/03, N. Coole to R. Jones, [1951], Herbert Roth Papers, James Parker to R. Jones, [1951], Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­106-­11/04, Alexander Turnbull Library.
19   Tui Trees, ‘Lockout’, Richard Scott Papers, 8572-­25, Alexander Turnbull Library.
20   Thomas and Pat Gregory, interview with Grace Millar, 20 December 2010, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project; Ted Thompson, oral history interview, OHColl-­0861, Oral History Centre, Alexander Turnbull Library.
21   Thomas and Pat Gregory, interview with Grace Millar, 20 December 2010, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project; Ted Thompson, oral history interview, OHColl-­0861, Oral History Centre, Alexander Turnbull Library.
22   Divorce Registers 1947-­1956, AAOM, 6042 23, Archives New Zealand.
23   ‘New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children (Wellington Branch Incorporated) Annual Report and Balance Sheet year ended 30 September 1951’, 5, New Zealand Society for the Protection of Home and Family: Wellington Branch, MSX-­3294, Alexander Turnbull Library.
24   Kevin Forde oral history interview, interviewer Grace Millar, 13 February 2011, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
25   Maureen Fairey, interview with Grace Millar, 5 July 2010, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
26   Johnny Mitchell, oral history interview, OHInt-­0219/1, ATL Oral History Centre, Gwendolene Pawson, oral history interview, 6 January 2011, Kevin Ford, oral history interview, 13 February 2011, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
27   The figures for freezing workers are not in a useable form. Department of Labour Files, AANK W 328513 3/5/398, Archives New Zealand.
28   Department of Labour Files, AANK W 328513 3/5/398, Archives New Zealand.
29   Department of Labour Files, AANK W 328513 3/5/398, Archives New Zealand.
30   Department of Labour Files, AANK W 328513 3/5/398, Archives New Zealand.
31 Auckland Seamen’s Strike Committee -­  Financial records, New Zealand Seamen’s Union Records, 80-­307-­22/03, Alexander Turnbull Library.
32   Ibid.
33   Ibid.
34   Ibid.
35   Ibid.
36   Ibid.
37   H. J. Hansen to R. Jones, [1951], 94-­106-­11/03, Herbert Roth Papers, Alexander Turnbull Library.
38   Hon. Secretary to Mr J. S. Reynolds esq., 6/8/53, Johnny Mitchell Papers, Box 2, Folder 1, 89/203, Auckland Museum.
39   Kevin Forde, oral history interview, interviewer Grace Millar, 13 February 2011, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
40   William Dougherty, oral history interview, interviewer Grace Millar, 11 February 2011, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
41   Kevin Forde, oral history interview, interviewer Grace Millar, 13 February 2011, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
42   David Dick, oral history interview, interviewer Grace Millar, 11 February 2011, Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
43   James Parker to R. Jones, [1951]; Stuart MacKay, ‘Doctor’s Certificate’, Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­ 106-­11/04 Alexander Turnbull Library.
44   Al Ruikard to R. Jones, [1951]; G Dudley to R. Jones, Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­106-­11/03, Alexander Turnbull Library.
45   Most of those involved in oral history interviews describe no ill-­health effects of the dispute, for example: Thomas and Pat Gregory, 20 December 2011? Russell French 6 January 2011; William Dougherty, 11 February 2011; Robert Hannah, 11 February 2011; Ian Church, 11 February 2011, David Dick, 11 February 2011 Families and the 1951 Waterfront Dispute Oral History Project.
46   Ted Thompson, oral history interview, OHColl-­0861, Oral History Centre, Alexander Turnbull Library.
47   Mrs Thorby to R. Jones, [1951] Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­106-­11/04; Mrs Thorby to R Jones 24 August 1951, Herbert Roth Papers, 94-­106-­11/04, Alexander Turnbull Library.
48   Sue Bruley, The Women and Men of 1926: A Social and Gender History of the General Strike and Miners’ Lockout of 1926 in South Wales (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010).
49   Bruley, ‘Politics of Foods’, 63; S. Thompson, `That Beautiful Summer’, 564.
50   Bruley, Women and Men of 1926, 139.