Jim Edwards, the Communist Party of New Zealand, and unemployment struggles in the 1930s

James Henry Edwards arrested in Norfolk Street after an Anti-Eviction occupation, 1931.

The history of the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) is worth knowing. Although the Party was never more than small, it was the largest and most influential political formation there had been to the left of the Labour Party until the short-lived Alliance was founded in 1991. Stalinised communist parties world-wide had a dual nature: awful Stalinist politics, but at the same time they attracted dedicated class fighters. In Aotearoa/New Zealand’s case, one of the best of these was Jim Edwards. His ‘finest hour’ was in the 1930s unemployment struggles.

The young Jim Edwards worked his passage from England to arrive in Aotearoa/New Zealand in the midst of the Great Strike of 1913. He scabbed initially. ‘In that 1913 strike it began to dawn on me that I was on the wrong side, a traitor to myself and to my class. I began to do a bit of thinking for myself. And in 1914 I joined the Socialist Party.1

In 1916 Edwards took part in the opposition to conscription. It was illegal under the Military Service Act to speak against conscription. The Conscription Repeal League conducted a free speech campaign. Edwards spoke at an anti-conscription rally in Wellington and was charged in January 1917. Instead of paying a £10 fine, he opted for two months in jail where he met Labour leaders, including Peter Fraser, a future prime minister.

After serving his sentence Edwards evaded conscription for over a year. He and his wife Nellie had to often change their address, but he was eventually arrested and drafted into the Medical Corps. In the early 1920s Edwards and family moved to New Plymouth where he joined the Labour Party and twice stood for the local council. Edwards states that he acted as propagandist for the strikers during the railway strike of 1924.2

Edwards moved to Auckland where he worked as a door-to-door bookseller. In 1927 there was an international agitation to save Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti from execution. The two anarchists were widely seen as framed for murders they did not commit. Edwards became secretary of the Sacco and Vanzetti committee. Then he helped found the Labour Defence League in Auckland.

After the 1929 crash and sudden rise of unemployment in 1930 Edwards became involved in the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM or UWM). He became dissatisfied with the Labour Party that was then the parliamentary Opposition.

‘The economic system was obviously on its last legs. Instead of being delighted with the collapse of capitalism, most of the worker’s ‘leaders’ seemed to be getting worried about it. I found too that I was not the only one dissatisfied with the party. The best and most active members were getting out and joining the Communist Party.’3, 4

Edwards hesitated, but in January 1931 he applied for CPNZ membership and was accepted without having to go through the probationary membership stage that was the practice at the time.

The years 1931 and 1932 saw clashes between the unemployed on one hand and the police and their political masters on the other. The issues were unemployment relief and evictions for arrears of rent. The charismatic Jim Edwards became an unofficial leader. On one occasion there was an unemployed march to Auckland Town Hall, but the mayor refused Edwards’ request that a delegation be received. Edwards told the crowd “They will not see you, boys. So we’ll see them.” The unemployed crowd stormed the council chamber. The police barged into the tightly packed space, but Edwards gave the order that they be surrounded and their batons taken off them. After speeches the demonstrators left.

In February 1931 there was a riotous clash between unemployed demonstrators near Queen Street, Auckland, where the unemployed fought back with bricks. Edwards had been unaware of the demonstration taking place until he came across it. He went about arranging the legal defence of those arrested, but when he turned up at the court expecting to act as an advocate he was arrested himself. A sailor got a prison sentence, but the rest escaped a custodial sentence. Edwards was bound over to keep the peace.

‘A meeting was called in the Trades Hall next morning. I received an ovation when I went in. I did not know the clapping and cheering was for me. But the joker beside me whispered, “That’s for you Jim.” Thus my leadership of the unemployed movement was assured.5

An Anti-Eviction League was formed In Auckland. ‘When a family was to be evicted league members would rally the support of the neighbours or occupy the house to prevent the bailiffs from getting in. If they did not always manage to stop the eviction, they often obtained a delay so the tenants could find other accommodation.6

One notorious action was the occupation and barricading of 21 Norfolk Street, Auckland, by the Anti-Eviction League. The police made a number of arrests. A sailor received a 3-months sentence and 14 others, including Jim Edwards, got one month.7 It was not only in Auckland where the UWM was active; there were anti-eviction actions in Vivian Street and Frederick Street in Wellington, for example.8

1932 saw the introduction of relief camps. The unemployed were separated from their friends and families to be sent to camps in remote areas. ‘The rate of pay in the camps was very low and conditions were primitive, with inadequate food, leaking tents, and a lack of washing facilities.’9

The UWM was set up on the initiative of the CPNZ. Its first National Secretary was a CPNZ member and the movement was closely connected to the CPNZ. ‘The Labour Party newspaper, the New Zealand Worker, was soon to attack the N.U.W.M. for its ‘Communist Leanings’. The N.U.W.M.’s advocacy of direct action, strikes and defiance of Labour Party leadership directives, rapidly earned it the opposition of the trade union leadership.’10

Thousands of unemployed assembled at the Auckland Town Hall, 20 April 1932

Speaking of 1932, Edwards says, ‘More and more of the unemployed looked to the Communist Party and militant methods to try to force change. The party’s outspoken opposition to Government policies, and often the Labour Party as well, brought it new members and identified it as the most effective champion of the poor and unemployed. This in turn led to hostility from the unions and the Labour Party.’11 In fact, the CPNZ had only 62 members in 1930, 129 in 1932 and 353 by the end of 1936.12

The CPNZ faced considerable oppression. After a police raid in Wellington in 1929, five members of the central executive were prosecuted for sedition and received a £50 fine or three months in prison. ‘Three more members of the party central committee were arrested in 1930, four in 1932, and all seven members of the central committee were imprisoned in 1933. In addition, large numbers of rank-and-file members were arrested over the same period. Some incidents amounted to petty harassment by the police, including charges for obscene language, posting bills, selling papers on a Sunday, and dispersing typed papers without the name of a printer. But more serious charges were also laid: two issues of the Red Worker and a pamphlet were also declared seditious in 1932, and those responsible for its publication were gaoled for more than twelve months. The definition of sedition was broad and included promotion of ‘ill will and hostility between different classes.’13

In April 1932 events moved rapidly. The government’s actions had become even more draconian. Relief camp work was made even worse and public service pay was cut for a second time. There was outrage. The Post and Telegraph Employees’ Association instructed its executive to explore the possibility of a general strike.

‘In Dunedin, crowds rioted on 8 April, smashing the windows of the relief depot and attacking the mayoress’s car. On 11 April a crowd attempted to storm the hospital board office but were driven back by police batons.’14

On the night of 12 April Edwards and others addressed a large crowd in Auckland. A vote was taken in favour of a relief workers’ strike to start the following day. ‘That day, Wednesday, 13 April, the Auckland branch of the UWM declared a relief workers’ strike in protest against the rural work camps and in sympathy with striking Huntly relief workers. The strike was widely supported by the unemployed, including the Auckland Provincial Unemployed Workers’ Association.’15

For the evening of 14 April the Post and Telegraph Employees’ Association called a ‘Monster Public Meeting’ at Auckland Town Hall to be preceded by a ‘Monster Procession’ of civil servants and the general public. The unemployed organisations took part in a great display of working-class unity. The crowd was estimated at 15,000. Jim Edwards, the head of the UWM contingent, led the chanting. ‘Standing on safety zones, I yelled to the crowd as they marched, ‘Shall we go into the slave camps? And the roar would go up: ‘NO!’ Then I would yell, ‘Shall we fight?’ And the yell would go up: ‘YES!’16

Jim Edwards addressing demonstrators, 20 April 1932

The Town Hall filled then the police closed the doors on the thousands still outside. Edwards, finding a fracas developing between police and enraged demonstrators, attempted to keep the situation peaceful. Putting himself between the crowd, which he faced, and line of police he raised his arms in a gesture of peace. Edwards was about to address the crowd when he received a blow to the head from the police behind him. A riot erupted. The Queen Street shops were looted, their plate glass windows being smashed in. On the following day a crowd gathered on Karangahape Road and more shop windows were broken.

In May there was a riot in Wellington.

A warrant was issued for Jim Edwards’ arrest in connection with the Queen Street riot. Bandaged and bloodied he went into hiding until giving himself up at the end of May. Edwards was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour and actually served one-and-half years. Released in January 1934, after a short while he resumed his political activities. He toured the country in an effort to build an Aotearoa/New Zealand section of International Labour Defence and was active in the Auckland Free Speech Council, which in 1935 led to another court appearance. On that occasion he was discharged.

Edwards stood as a Communist Party candidate for Auckland Council in the May 1935 local elections. He polled 4,162 votes, a mark of his personal popularity. The Party wanted Edwards to stand in the general election later that year, but he refused. He was not the only party member to rebel against the stupidity of CPNZ ultra-left sectarianism.

‘The majority of New Zealand workers and many small business people and small farmers were ripe for a change and that change came in December 1935, with a sweeping victory for the Labour Party.’

‘The official Communist Party policy was that of neutralism between Labour and the National government under Coates and Hamilton. Electors were invited to vote for a Communist candidate or where none was standing, to invalidate the ballot paper.’

‘The Auckland Communist section, from loyalty rather than conviction, officially followed this central Committee policy but many Party members privately (some openly) voted Labour and at least one branch worked on the Labour candidates [sic] election committee.’17

In 1936 Edwards resigned from the CPNZ. Rather ridiculously the Party responded by expelling him. The CPNZ’s Stalinist top-down straitjacket methods were not for Edwards. He was too much of an individualist to follow orders. But it was the freedom he gave himself, by not strictly following the party line, that enabled Edwards to be a charismatic platform speaker who could connect with an audience.

Edwards’s behaviour brought criticism upon himself. ‘I was always suspect. I did all the things they disagreed with, I laughed at their rigidity. I connived with the bourgeoisie, thus my friendships with Sir Ernest Davis, Father Holbrook of the Roman Catholic Church, Tom Halliday of the Presbyterian Church.18

To his credit Edwards did not seek a political career as a Labour politician: he could have done. After leaving the CPNZ he carried on as an organiser for the NUWM. Then he took up the fight against fascism and for peace. In 1940 Edwards enlisted in the Army, in which he remained until being discharged in 1947. The truth is that Edwards degenerated politically, and physically as a heavy drinker. He took little part in the 1951 waterfront dispute and died in 1952, aged only sixty years.


1 Jim Edwards, ‘Break Down These Bars’, as told to David Ballantyne and edited by Graham Adams. In fact, by this time the Socialist Party had merged with the United Labour Party to become the Social Democratic Party. In 1916 the SDP changed its name to the New Zealand Labour Party upon the addition of remnants from the former United Labour Party.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 E H Carr, ‘Twilight of the Comintern, 1930-1935’. After declining in the last years of the 1920s, communist parties in several western countries began to grow in the 1930s under the impact of the Depression and the threat of fascism. For example, the British party’s membership climbed from 2,550 at the end of 1930 to 6,000 in November 1931.

5 Edwards, op. cit.

6 Ibid.

7 Elinor Chisholm, ‘Individual and collective action for healthy rental housing in New Zealand: an historical and contemporary study’. Thesis, University of Otago.

8 Ibid.

9 Edwards, op. cit.

10 Paul Harris, ‘The New Zealand Unemployed Workers Movement, 1931—1939: Gisborne and the Relief Workers’ Strike’, New Zealand Journal of History.

11 Edwards, op. cit.

12 Kerry Taylor, ‘The Communist Party of New Zealand in the Third Period: 1928-35’.

13 Ibid.

14 Edwards, op. cit. Hospital boards were attacked because they dispensed the niggardly rations to the unemployed.

15 Ibid. The Auckland Provincial Unemployed Workers’ Associationwas set up to rival the communist

-influenced UWM.

16 Ibid.

17 S W Scott, ‘Rebel in a Wrong Cause’. Sid Scott was a former General Secretary of the CPNZ

18 Edwards, op. cit.


James Henry Edwards arrested in Norfolk Street after an Anti-Eviction occupation, 1931.
Source: http://riots1932.weebly.com/jim-edwards.html

Thousands of unemployed assembled at the Auckland Town Hall. Auckland Weekly News, 20
April 1932, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS 19320420-56-1.

Jim Edwards addressing demonstrators. Auckland Weekly News, 20 April 1932. Auckland
Libraries Heritage Collections, AWNS 19320420-46-2.