Friday, December 25, 2015

Auckland's Anti-Eviction Committee, 1931

NZ Herald 13 October 1931

From out of the desperation of the Great Depression of the late 1920s to mid 1930s, the scarcity of relief work drove the Auckland Unemployed Workers Movement to form an “Anti-Eviction Committee” at a meeting first at the Trades Hall, then at St Matthews Hall, on 13 June 1931. A rent strike had been called, as a protest against the suspension of No. 5 scheme relief work (a work scheme that had been in place, and used by local authorities, since the late 1920s), and the committee was created to prevent the eviction from their homes of unemployed men and their families.

The Anti-Eviction Committee had their first outing, and a success, when an eviction was prevented in Riordan’s Lane on 19 June. It turned out the owner said he hadn’t been aware of what his agent had been doing in terms of the eviction, cancelled it, and came to terms with the tenants.

But then, in October, came Norfolk Street. A woman with her children was unable to pay her rent, and the bailiffs had been called. The day before the eviction finally took place, a Communist canvasser name John Henry Edwards had been arrested for inciting a disturbance of the peace outside the house. He would later feature as an inciter at the 1932 Queen Street Riot.

Auckland Star, 13 October 1931, p. 8

Despite all the best efforts of the Anti-Eviction Committee, though, the eviction at Norfolk Street still took place.

Under dramatic circumstances, court bailiffs backed up by a large posse of police, forced their way into a house at 21 Norfolk Street, Ponsonby, this morning and evicted the tenant, a woman with five children. Inside the house were fifteen men, said to be communists, armed with batons of all sorts. They were all arrested on charges of assaulting a bailiff in the execution of his duty, vagrancy, and unlawful assembly, and will appear at the Police Court to-morrow morning.

Since last Thursday, the house had been swarmed by the Anti-Eviction Committee and its supporters waiting patiently in anticipation of the bailiffs’ visit. At one stage there were alleged to be close on 40 men in the house, but when the eviction was not carried out yesterday, as expected, the majority went to their homes last night. The rent of the house was 22/6 a week but the woman could not pay and the Anti-Eviction Committee, who took up the cudgels on her behalf, offered the landlord 14/10, which they said was the standard sum laid down for working men by Judge Frazier, of the Arbitration Court. This offer was refused and a distress warrant for the woman's eviction was issued.
NZ Herald, 14 October 1931

It was just after ten o'clock this morning when the bailiff, followed by Inspector Shanahan, Senior-Sergeant O’Gradv Sergeants Felton and Lambert and a number of constables knocked on the door and demanded admittance. The distress warrant was read over to the occupants, who were told that if they did not open the door force would used. The occupants refused. Iron bars were used to wrench the hinges off the door. On top of the house, as a gesture of defiance, the Red Flag fluttered in the breeze. There was a crash as the door was forced from its hinges, and the crowd in the street, which by this time had swelled to upwards of 500, booed.

A dishevelled man of about 30, who resisted slightly as he was escorted by two constables to the waiting Black Maria, was the first to be brought out of the house. He tried hard to free himself, but the powerful grip of the constables was too much for him, and as he was bundled into the van he cried, “So this is democracy.” Police had crowded into the house by this time, and the armaments of the occupants had been seized. Not a baton was drawn by the police. One by one the men were brought from the house guarded by constables. Some resisted slightly and shouted, while the crowd booed.

Detectives, who were scattered among the crowd, closed in on one man, who struggled as he was bundled into the Black Maria. As each man was pushed into the van, the door was banged tight, while those inside hurled expletives at the police. When the last of the men who walked casually down the path with a cynical smile on his face had been put in the van, the muted strains of "The Red Flag" drifted from out of the Black Maria. One or two “comrades” on the outskirts of the crowd joined in half-heartedly. The van drove off. There was an odd cheer and somebody clapped.

Then the eviction began. Bailiffs, playing the new role of furniture shifters, moved to and fro in endless procession until all the furniture had been removed from the house. And the crowd stood moodily round, alternately booing, cheering, and laughing. In the long grass in the front of the house a cat lay curled asleep in the sun.

Down the street came the Black Maria again, and once more the crowd were on their toes with excitement, anticipating that there were to be more arrests. But the van had come back for "exhibits.” Policemen carried batons, which had been sawn into handy lengths from fruit trees in the front of the house, and threw them in the van. There was a cheer as one carried the Red Flag out. Another brought out a slasher and some brought iron bars concealed in newspapers. So the van drove off with the "armament"' of the anti-eviction committee.

An hour had passed, and the furniture of the house was piled on the footpath in front of the gate. The bailiffs had done their job. Out of the front door came the woman, poorly clad, but smiling. There was a cheer as she came down the path.

"This is civilisation in New Zealand,” cried a well-known Communist, in broken English, as he pointed to the pile of furniture. He was silenced by the sub-inspector of police, who warned him. "Learn, remember and study. It might be your turn next," shouted the Communist. Again the crowd cheered.

Another man appealed to the crowd for assistance for the woman. Hats were taken round the street, and into the grateful hands of the woman was placed £2 12/6. “Never mind. We're not beaten yet,” she cried. It was announced to the crowd that a woman in Ponsonby Road had offered a temporary home to the evicted woman and her five children, four of whom are under ten years of age. The eldest is 15.
Once again the Communist with the broken English raised his voice. "If I’m to be hung, well, let me be hung, and to Hell with it!” he shouted.

The eviction was over. Bailiffs had one last look round the house. lnside were bare and deserted rooms. Foodstuffs lav jumbled in the kitchen sink. A photograph of a fire brigade engine lay broken on the floor. The place suggested squalor and poverty. The barricades which had been erected over the back door were pulled down. The front door was screwed and nailed into position again. The cat among the grass ambled slowly away. In the street the crowd murmured. The bailiffs walked away.
Auckland Star 13 October 1931, p. 9

After this, the Anti-Eviction Committee appears to have faded away, or the newspapers lost interest in them. Today, the residents at 21 Norfolk Street are probably unaware of the brief historical spotlight their house had, one day in October 1931.

Google Earth April 2014


  1. Great read. Similar happened here and went on for some time.

  2. The treatment of working class families was appalling, especially when the court bailiffs and mobs of police forced their way into houses and attacked helpless women and children; of course eviction was easy. Where were they to go? on the streets?

    The charges against the men inside the house, presumably supporting the homeless woman and all her children, were equally ridiculous - they were communist, they had bats, they were armed with batons and were unlawfully assembling.

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