Watching the watchers, Ian F Grant

Dead Letters: Censorship And Subversion In New Zealand 1914–1920
Jared Davidson
Otago University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781988531526

Dead Letters contains intriguing detail about a random cast of now-forgotten people who were considered likely subversives in New Zealand during WWI. For their stories to be told at all, we have to thank both the pedantically plodding public-servant compilers of long-buried files and author Jared Davidson, an archivist by trade, for his skill in researching and giving human faces to the consequences of a government obsessively prying into private lives at times of perceived national crisis. 

The very varied cast of characters that Davidson examines, often with a novelistic touch, are 

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. 

Behind the disturbing implications of what they were doing, there was an almost comic public-service banality to the setting up of the country’s censorship operation in Wellington at the beginning of the war. In documents Davidson uncovered, it was faithfully recorded that the censors’ office had four office tables, five office chairs, a Bar-Lock typewriter, an electric iron, duplicating carbon paper, reams of unlined foolscap paper, foolscap envelopes, gummed strips (for resealing opened envelopes), rubber stamps, lead pencils, Banel pens, sheets of blotting paper, iodine, a French dictionary, Lloyd’s Register of Shipping, Kelly’s Dictionary of Merchants, Manufacturers and Shippers of the World, the New Zealand Directory, Wises Wellington directory and a box of pins. 

It was also dutifully recorded that the Wellington censors were responsible for stopping all mail to and from enemy countries, and that they opened and read over 19,000 letters a month from neutral countries, examined an average of 930 letters a month to prisoners of war in Europe, and over 3,000 letters to and from internees in New Zealand. “By November 1920,” writes Davidson, “this amounted to well over 1.2 million civilian letters, postcards and packages opened and examined by the New Zealand military.” 

The origins of this censorship were, of course, in Britain. The General Post Office was established there in 1657, tasked with, as well as delivering the mail,  weeding out any attempts to threaten the country’s government and stability. Subsequently a Secret Office was formed to “intercept, read and decipher coded correspondence from nations abroad”. Secrecy surrounded the Secret Office for nearly 200 years until, following embarrassing revelations in the 1840s, it was closed down. Freedom of the post had supposedly been protected by a 1711 Act and could only, the public had every reason to believe, be overruled by a Secretary of State warrant. There were few warrants issued during the remainder of the century and when war broke out in 1914 there was a dearth of knowledge in Britain about postal censorship.

In New Zealand, letter-writing was, of course, the principal form of communication throughout the 19th century. Davidson notes that “by 1880 … nearly 24 million letters had been posted between 856 post offices, iron pillarboxes and town letter carriers.” And, in 1914, “110 million letters and 5 million postcards were sent – around 160 items per person in New Zealand”. 

There were some instances of postal censorship quite early in colonial New Zealand. During the Northern Wars of 1845–46, letters thought likely to contain treasonable material were opened. The 1858 Postal Act allowed the governor to direct postmasters to intercept mail, and in 1863 Governor George Grey used opened mail to justify, on largely spurious grounds, the military invasion of the Waikato. 

Before the Post and Telegraph Department was established in 1881, there was limited postal legislation, with provincial councils having their own offices while central government controlled overland postal services. There was a flurry of censorship laws passed from the 1890s, but this was primarily concerned with the spread, through the post, of material deemed to be indecent, immoral or obscene.  

The South African War had demonstrated to Britain and its colonies the desirability of developing a scheme of wartime censorship and, in late 1913, the Committee of Imperial Defence suggested that censorship of all inwards and outwards mail would be required in time of war. However, there was no subsequent action.

In New Zealand at the time, the conservative Reform government was much more concerned with keeping a covert watch on organisations like the “Red” Federation of Labour, with its support of increasingly restive, poorly paid workers, as well as its opposition to a growing militarisation of New Zealand society. The government was also concerned about the views of the Anti-Militarist League, the National Peace Council and the Passive Resisters Union.

The frustration of thousands of workers, hog-tied by an arbitration system that had prevented strike action without providing adequate compensatory wage rises, boiled over into the 1913 Great Strike, a near general strike from November to mid-January 1914.

In April 1914, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Gibbons arrived in New Zealand – a youngish man going places, which had already included periods battling the Boers and serving in the Intelligence Branch in India. I had known of Gibbons from my research into WWI newspaper censorship, but Davidson gives flesh and blood to a pivotal figure in his book. Not only had he been appointed chief of general staff which, with the looming and actual war, meant the organisation of military camps, the training of reinforcements and the supervision of war policy, the time-consuming role of chief censor was added to his responsibilities. 

Concern about workers and their more militant organisations was replaced, to a considerable degree, by a deep-seated antipathy, promoted by politicians and a generally compliant press, to anything or anyone with German links or associations. New Zealanders with German names or links to Germany were now prime targets of the postal censors. Such was the depth of feeling that companies and families changed their names and councils renamed streets. 

Wartime, and the perceived threat to the state, strengthened the resolve to muzzle anything defined, however loosely, as a threat to the war effort and the supply of able bodies to the military machine. This, as Davidson explains, included “pacifists, socialists, unionists, military defaulters, aliens (those not a British nationality), Irish Catholics, Māori and anyone else hostile to the British Empire”. 

Walter Tanner, a well-connected property clerk in the Post and Telegraph Department, was secretly appointed deputy chief postal censor, and it was he and his Wellington-based team who processed all the letters and parcels sent to them from postal staff throughout the country. In addition, he kept in touch with London censors and wrote quarterly reports to their superiors.

Davidson makes it very clear that during WWI those with the authority to impose rigorous censorship believed they were doing their patriotic duty. At the same time, Gibbons, solicitor-general Sir John Salmond, who was enthusiastic about jailing or deporting suspected trouble-makers, Defence Minister James Allen, and Police Commissioner John O’Donovan, who had the responsibility for surveillance, searching premises and arrests, were not troubled that their actions gave the state the power, as some would put it today, to control the narrative. There was a common, usually unspoken, commitment to stifle any growing social disenchantment and to provide a necessary buttress to ensure the well-being of society.  

However, despite the conscientious efforts of Tanner and his censors, there were gaping inconsistences in their work. Shipping movements, which might have aided the Germans, were pounced upon when any information, however oblique, appeared in newspapers, but it appears, according to Davidson, that shipping news in letters rarely caused raised eyebrows, let alone punitive action from Tanner and his team.

In November 1920, the censorship of domestic mail officially ended in New Zealand, but did it ever really end? It had become an effective way of keeping an eye on those believed to be malcontents, especially those particularly at odds with the Reform and then National coalition governments. Not surprisingly, successive governments since then have felt the same way. 

A book my wife Diane and I published in 2011 under a hastily imagined imprint, the author’s experience suggesting secrecy was expedient, showed to us that mail is still being opened, often quite blatantly, today. A Thorn In Their Side was Commander Robert Green’s painstaking, long-time investigation of the murder in 1984 of his aunt Hilda Murrell, a renowned rosarian who was also a prominent anti-nuclear activist when there was about to be a planning enquiry into a new nuclear power plant at Sizewell in Suffolk. Green, who had been a senior naval intelligence officer at the time of the sinking of the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano during the Falklands War, was very close to his aunt, and it was suspected by the British intelligence community that he had shared politically embarrassing information with her. Today, eight years after publication of the book, mail sent to Green and his wife Kate Dewes in Christchurch is still tampered with, often crudely enough to warn them that they are still under surveillance.

Dead Letters is both an absorbing read, given the author’s narrative skills, and a salutary reminder that censorship, legitimised at times of war, can quickly become a routine procedure with the primary purpose of protecting the interests of those in power.

I can certainly identify with the excitement Davidson must have felt coming across nuggets of fascinating information in the surviving files of the New Zealand Army Department’s Secret Registry, originally set up before 1912 for the military to store highly confidential material. It became the final repository of more than 50 letters and extracts from many others confiscated during WWI.  

By taking and keeping these letters, the State has preserved the resistance they represented in a way that would not have happened if they had not been intercepted. As Davidson writes: “The unintended consequence – and a satisfying form of poetic justice – is that the letters are now available to a far larger audience.” 

Rather than highlighting any of Davidson’s case histories, I will leave it to readers of this impressive book to discover for themselves the letters he uncovered and the absorbing detail he has painstakingly pieced together about the individuals who wrote them, the people they wrote to, and the way their lives were affected, sometimes tragically.

Ian F Grant’s newspaper history Lasting Impressions: The Story Of New Zealand’s Newspapers, 1840–1920 was published last October and reviewed in NZRB Winter 2019. He is working on the second volume that will cover the 1921–2020 period.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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