Robber barons, worker rebels, Gavin McLean

British Capital, Antipodean Labour: Working the New Zealand Waterfront 1915-1951
Anna Green
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 187713399X

A few weeks ago, a retired port agency manager asked  me who was “this Anna Green lady” and did I know anything about her politics? He’d read her book with interest but he did not feel it described the shipping industry that he had served for 50 years, representing overseas shipping lines at one of our major ports.

I do not know Anna Green’s politics but I am not surprised by the question. New Zealand’s maritime historiography is still Boy’s Own territory, the preserve of mainly middle-aged and elderly male “rivet-counters”.
Their view through the porthole is remarkably narrow. They are strong on dates, tonnages and brake horsepower, good at compiling lists, but weak on economic analysis and largely blind when it comes to social or industrial issues. New Zealand’s only general survey of the field, David Johnston’s New Zealand’s Maritime Heritage, for example, gave just two lines to the 1951 lockout and precious little to working conditions ashore or afloat.

British Capital, Antipodean Labour does provide a very good description of the physical process of loading and discharging cargo at mid-20th century New Zealand ports. But the real value of the book is that historian Anna Green has put the shipping lines back into the picture of an industrial battleground whose historiography has until now been dominated almost exclusively by studies of the unions and the government.


What, you might ask, was the importance of the shipping companies? Wasn’t this a clash between Sid Holland’s National Party and the militant trade unions? Yes, and no. We have, after all, been fed a diet of left and right wing analyses of “the Big Blue”. Certainly, Holland and his ministers were itching for a showdown and there were many on the waterfront who were also willing to take a stand. But, wait, as the infomercials say – there’s more.

That extra comes from examining the position of the shipping lines, which has until now been either ignored or underestimated. They were no mere bit players, as the Labour Government discovered when it had to renegotiate the three-year freight contract due to expire in September 1939. The lines demanded 15% more, even though they were doing so well that Lord Essendon, Shaw Savill’s chairman, warned his henchmen that he did not want to do anything that might lead to the lines’ books being inspected. “I do not much care for the sake of verifying of having an independent umpire in London who might ask for all kinds of particulars,” he confided. He just hoped that their New Zealand manager “did not literally tell them we have the whip hand and can name our own terms from 1st September 1939”.

Shaw’s man did not spill any beans but Minister of Finance Walter Nash felt Essendon’s lash when he travelled to Britain to renegotiate the conversion of a loan. The Minister of Finance had rejected the lines’ demands, but they had no intention of acquiescing. They resented Labour’s import restrictions (which they feared would reduce trade) and its waterfront reforms, which had created a bureau system instead of the corrupt, ramshackle system they had run until 1937.

So Essendon went to see the Governor of the Bank of England, with whom Nash would soon have to plead his case. Essendon suggested that “as a consideration for the loan that is required, it might be possible to negotiate some amelioration of the import restrictions, which in turn, would make it easier for the Shipping Companies to agree some amelioration of their freight proposals.” The bank did that and when it was through with Nash, passed him on to the Conference Lines (Shaw Savill, New Zealand Shipping Co & Federal, Port Line and Blue Star Line) who unilaterally imposed a 10% freight increase.

If that establishes the Conference Lines as robber barons, it is not far from the truth. Green argues that they largely created the industrial mess on the wharves by running their stevedoring operations as undercapitalised cash cows. Stevedores organise and supervise the loading and discharge of ships, and it was an extremely profitable business. In 1937 Shaw Savill said that “stevedoring paid the S.S. and A. Co. so handsomely that they would not lightly abandon it.” Yet despite the profitability of stevedoring, the lines paid their supervisors badly and went to counter-productive lengths to cut costs. Green argues that in pursuit of maximum profits, the shipping companies engaged in a policy of minimum investment on the waterfront. Anxious to secure a fast turnaround in port while employing the cheapest possible labour, they came into constant conflict with the waterside workers, culminating in the extremely damaging dispute of 1951.


New Zealand waterfront management was appalling. Until 1937 stevedores selected labour by the “auction block system”; men gathered at the wharf for the morning and afternoon “calls”. It was open to petty graft, and the workers detested the casualisation at a time when the rest of the country was moving to permanent employment. In the late 1930s, new labour bureaux spread work more evenly among union members and removed the foreman’s power of victimisation. In 1940 the government created the Waterfront Control Commission (later the Waterfront Industry Committee). The Commission brought in a new system of co-operative contracting, which loaded and discharged vessels at an agreed price. The profit from each job was paid back to the workers and their unions as an efficiency bonus. Hypocritically, the Conference Lines, who did everything in their power to stamp out competition in their industry through the use of Conferences, screamed about the WIC’s labour monopoly.

Strikes and go-slows became more common after the war as pressure piled up and the men found themselves working ever-longer hours: “punch drunk with work”, as union leader Jock Barnes put it. Between 1945 and 1950 the main issues were over dirt rates (22 %), WIC order negotiations (21 %) and danger rates (18 %). In 1948, in the highly publicised Mountpark dispute, a judge had to order the Union Company to alter the unsafe hatches on its charter ship. Next came strikes over handling lampblack, a cargo so dirty that even National Party leader Sidney Holland admitted it was terrible to handle. There was politics on
both sides, but the underlying issues arose from poor management, antiquated gear and dangerous practices and, above all, wearyingly long hours that forced men to offer resistance through habits such as go-slows and “spelling”.

The employers had their divisions – the coastal lines were more amenable to negotiation than the Conference Lines – but the labour movement was thoroughly riven between the small, militant Trades Union Congress and the conservative Federation of Labour. In February 1951, when the watersiders were locked out after imposing an overtime ban in support of a wage claim, they lacked public support, a clearly articulated grievance, and much of a strategy.

The rest made dramatic history. “The government proclaimed draconian emergency regulations, that prevented donations to strikers and their families, censored publications and banned meetings, even those involving opposition politicians,” Barry Gustafson claimed. For 151 dramatic days, ships lay idle, or were worked with military and non-union labour resources – employers called them “free labour”, unionists called them “scabs” – but the unions lost ground, gagged by the National Government’s extraordinarily repressive measures and by the use of service personnel. By late March 1951, 3,200 service personnel were working on the wharves or elsewhere in the distribution system. Naval personnel manned coasters, and ratings from HMNZS Taupo and Lachlan mined coal on the West Coast. Servicemen handled 778,193 tons of cargo during the emergency and performed well, despite a growing feeling that the armed forces were being used “as a political instrument”.

On 11 July the national executive of the deregistered union told its men return to work. The dispute had involved 20,000 workers at its peak and cost the country £40 million. New port unions emerged, but the watersiders gradually rebuilt their union structure. The 1951 lockout solved nothing. Nor could it, given that even the Conference Lines quietly acknowledged that they had been the cause of much of the trouble. From the safe distance of London’s Leadenhall Street boardrooms, Shaw Savill’s managing-director, Basil Sanderson, worried about the health of his scabs. “Past tactics of spelling and knocking off work upon every conceivable pretect [sic] was inevitable consequence attempt to make men work unconscionably long hours,” he telegrammed.


There are a few errors in Green’s book. The Union Steam Ship Company did not, as she states on p16, handle “only coastal and trans-Tasman trade”. Certainly, those were the mainstays of its business, but in 1951 its long-distance interests were a half share in the Vancouver mail liner Aorangi, six freighters running across the Pacific and another two or three to South-east Asia. Its bluewater fleet was as large as one of the smaller conference lines, the Federal Steam Navigation Company (a New Zealand Shipping Company associate also strangely overlooked). The graph on p55 also lacks the grey line, so catch the tiny errata slip, inserted loosely, when it falls to the floor the first time you open the book. The book’s origin in an earlier thesis also means that more recent scholarship, on accounting history and conferences, has been omitted, although it only confirms the general argument of British Capital, Antipodean Labour.

Indeed, I feel that this slim little book will have a wide impact on business, industrial and political history. The Conference Lines are now fading from memory, but they dominated our economic lifelines to Europe for over a century and even today, when 99% of exports and imports by volume travel by sea, three consortia, P&O Nedlloyd and Sealand-Maersk and Constship, still virtually control the trade. If we ever get around to writing the histories of some of our biggest businesses such as the Meat and Wool Boards, Leadenhall Street, London (traditional home of the Lines) will be as important as Parliament Buildings, Wellington.


Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian and critic. Later this year, Captain’s Log, his maritime history of New Zealand, and  Rocking the Boat?, his  company history based largely on Conference Lines’ archives, will be published.


Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Health, Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review
Search the archive
Search by category