Anarchy stitched into Wellington's streets

20:54, Jul 13 2013
jared Davidson - author of anarchism book
ORIGINS: Jared Davidson, who has written a book on the birth of Kiwi anarchism, outside 4 Willis St, Wellington.

Anarchy came to New Zealand a century ago this week. The movement arrived via Latvia and Scotland - to a tailoring shop upstairs in Wellington's Willis St.

One hundred years later, the building still has a link to tailoring. You can pick up a man's shirt for $29.99.

But it is probably fair to say there is little anarchism left in lower Willis St today (unless jaywalking counts).

Philip Josephs, a Jewish tailor, started organised anarchism in New Zealand, says Jared Davidson, who has just published Sewing Freedom: Philip Josephs, Transnationalism and Early New Zealand Anarchism.

Anarchists believe in a society without a publicly enforced government.

There are many moments to which the birth of anarchism in New Zealand could be pinned, such as the trade union strikes of 1913, Josephs' arrival in 1904, and the 1908 Blackball strike on the West Coast.

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But a meeting called by Josephs on July 9, 1913 in his first-floor tailor's shop at 4 Willis St, and the formation of the "specifically organised anarchy group" The Freedom Group, are probably the most important moment, Davidson says.

It is thought Josephs, who fled Latvia to Glasgow to avoid persecution, became radicalised as part of the large Jewish working class in Glasgow.

There are large holes in what is known about Josephs, Davidson says.

"These guys, they never kept records. They never thought about being documented in the future."

Even Josephs' own grandchildren, many still alive, "knew he was kind of a leftie but they didn't know much else", Davidson says.

His arrival in New Zealand on March 7, 1904 is known, as is the fact he was ordering and distributing anarchist literature from Britain within three months of arrival. Various addresses - Aro St, Taranaki St, Johnsonville, Willis St, Cuba St - are documented.

Also known is that there was a growing militancy among the New Zealand trade union movement, which would lead to the Great Strike in 1913.

It led to Josephs calling a meeting on July 9, 1913 in his shop to form the Freedom Group.

Davidson reckons about 25 people attended.

Socialist publication the Maoriland Worker previewed the event thus: "A matter that should have an effect in clearing the somewhat misty atmosphere in this city is the movement to form an Anarchist Group in Wellington . . . we understand that this will be our first Anarchist group formed in the history of New Zealand."

A week later it was reported that weekly meetings would be held at 8pm each Wednesday at Josephs' Willis St shop.

"Those interested will always find a warm welcome, and visitors are invited to take part in the discussions," the paper said.

Billed as "where one is equal to another, where no criminals, no officials, and no authority exists", the meetings grew to attract about 120 people and moved to the Socialist Hall in Manners St.

Meetings had "real anarchist style", it was reported.

There was "dancing and ditties", Davidson says. People sat down to decorated tables arranged, in true anarchic style, with no chairperson. There were readings, speeches, and musical entertainment.

But most importantly, there was talk.

Topics included: "Has political action been beneficial to the working class?", "Is religion a barrier to progress?" and "Does woman recognise her independence?"

By the time the Great Strike began in October 1913, the Freedom Group was well established.

The strike, which started with waterside workers in Wellington but ended up with 16,000 unionists on strike nationwide, ended after a militia of farmers on horseback - known as Massey's Cossacks - rode into town to violently break the strike.

During the strike Josephs would discuss his anarchistic beliefs near Queens Wharf in Wellington. The Freedom Group reputedly fought the "Cossacks".

"The activism of Josephs and others like him, whether from the soapbox or through the mailbox, played a key role in the establishment of a distinct anarchist identity and culture in New Zealand and abroad," Davidson says.

Barry Thomas, a modern-day anarchist who spent years living just around the corner from Josephs' former Aro St home, reckons anarchy is still alive.

The "artist-provocateur" and Aro Valley Community Council secretary is trying to introduce a "revolutionary decision-making software" to the council that will mean all can have their say.

The technology, which grew from the recent Occupy movement, is, he says, essentially the great-grandchild of what Philip Josephs started a century ago.

The Dominion Post