A photograph of mounted special constables during the waterfront strike in 1913 shows that there was some internal conflict in New Zealand leading up to the war. The impact of the strikes of 1912–14 and the changes in society during the war had a lasting impact on the political scene of this country

Mounted special constables during the 1913 waterfront strike

Mounted special constables during the 1913 waterfront strike, by Sydney Charles Smith, 1913. Alexander Turnbull Library. 1/2-049059-G.


Before the war in Europe broke out, New Zealand was already coping with internal conflict. Workers felt they were being treated unfairly by the Arbitration Courts, which was seen to favour employers. This lead to a series of strikes by miners, waterfront workers, and their supporters between 1912 and 1914, including the Great Strike of 1913. Many of the strike leaders were arrested for sedition, that is, inciting people to disobey rules or laws. 

These strikes threatened this country’s political and economic stability. Strict laws were put in place so that the strikes couldn’t continue. Some civil liberties, such as publishing anything that promoted rebellion against the New Zealand or British governments, were removed during the war to ensure that there was a constant supply of food, transport, and soldiers that could be sent to the front. It also meant that it would be easier to defend New Zealand territory if that became necessary. 

Most of the unions involved in the strikes were affiliated to the recently formed United Federation of Labour. The events influenced many of the unionists associated with them to go into politics, and some of these people later became leaders in the New Zealand Labour Party. Peter Fraser, who would later be Prime Minister, was one of those who was arrested and served 12 months in jail for sedition after campaigning against the government’s policy of military conscription. Fraser believed that conscription of men should only occur with conscription of wealth also. This was considered seditious as it encouraged people to rebel against the government’s conscription policies. Many of the Union leaders believed the First World War was an ‘imperialist war’ and that conscription was forcing the working classes to fight for the wealthy. After the war, unions and the Labour movement gained strength, leading to the first Labour government in 1935. 

Key questions 

What can we observe? 

What do we already know? 

How might people view this image in different ways? 

Possible discussion questions 

Why were these strikes significant to the events of the First World War in New Zealand? How do you think the beliefs of the unionists might have influenced people’s feelings about the war? Did people protest during the war? How and why? 

How else can people draw attention to something they think isn’t fair? 

What are some ways that strikes impact on the rest of society? 

What are some ways that war impacts society? 

What does it mean to have “civil liberties”? 

How did removing civil liberties ensure there was a constant supply of food, transport, and soldiers that could be sent to the front? What civil liberties might have been removed in order to guarantee this? Do you think this was the right thing to do? 

What do civil liberties look like in New Zealand today? What did they look like in the 1910s? Are they the same in other parts of the world?


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