Labour History

Rebel Girls and Pram-Pushing Scab-Hunters: Waihi “Scarlet Runners,” 1912

Labour History (2014), 107, (1), 35–51.


A militant band of women who were integral to the maintenance of the 1912 Waihi strike in New Zealand, were chastised by the media for their unwomanly behaviour, and branded the “Scarlet Runners.” This article explores the complexity of working-class and gendered norms for women in a mining community strongly influenced by socialist and syndicalist ideologies.

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1.“The Vag,” Maoriland Worker, 4 October1912. “The Vag” was the penname of Edwin (Ted) John Howard, Canterbury General Labourers Union organiser, active in the New Zealand Federation of Labour (Red Fed). SeeJim McAloon, “Howard, Edwin John,” Dictionary of New Zealand Biography,:The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, accessed August2014, Howard both described Mrs Leach as his comrade in the cause and dismissed her as the “little woman,” illustrating the ambiguity of some Red Fed leaders’ attitudes towards militant women during this dispute. Google Scholar

2.Philip Rainer, “Company Town: An Industrial History of the Waihi Gold Mining Company Limited, 1887–1912”(MA thesis,University of Auckland, 1976). Google Scholar

3.Jeremy Mouat, “The Ultimate Crisis of the Waihi Gold Mining Company,” New Zealand Journal of History 26, no. 2(1992):184. Google Scholar

5.Members also worried that the radical union leadership would be unseated by more conservative and loyalist trade unionists: seeErik Olssen, The Red Feds(:Oxford University Press, 1988), 133. Google Scholar

6.Rainer, “Company Town,” 198. Google Scholar

7. Maoriland Worker, 20 December1912. Google Scholar

8.Dunstall states that the police prosecuted 82 strikers, secured 72 convictions and 65 were imprisoned:Graeme Dunstall, “Governments, the Police and the Left, 1912–1951,”inOn the Left: Essays on Socialism in New Zealand, ed.Pat Moloney andKerry Taylor(:University of Otago Press, 2002), 89. Rainer found that 68 were imprisoned, while theWaihi Daily Telegraphreported 67:Rainer, “Company Town,” 227;Waihi Daily Telegraph, 28 October1912. Google Scholar

9.Bruce Scates, “Mobilizing Manhood: Gender and the Great Strike in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand,” Gender and History 9, no. 2(1997):289. Google Scholar

10. Observer, 2 November1912. Google Scholar

11.Accounts of the Waihi strike have focused on the clash between the Waihi Workers Union, affiliated with the Red Fed, and the company-sponsored breakaway union, supported by Massey’s Reform government and Commissioner Cullen’s police force: seeH. E. Holland, “Ballot Box”andR. S. Ross, The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike(:The Worker Printery, 1913);Olssen, The Red Feds; “Black Tuesday: The 1912 Waihi Strike,” Ministry for Culture and Heritage, accessed August 2014,;Dunstall, “Governments, the Police and the Left,” 87–102. For a broader discussion of miner’s unionism seeLen Richardson’s Coal, Class and Community: The United Mineworkers of New Zealand, 1880–1960(:Auckland University Press, 1995). A fair amount of attention has been given to Fred Evans who was battened to death during a strikebreaker and police raid on the Miners Hall on 12 November 1912 (Black Tuesday). Philip Rainer and Jeremy Mouat emphasise the role of the Waihi Gold Mining Company in the strike and Fran Shor alerts us to the masculinist discourse of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) involved in the Waihi strike: seeRainer, “Company Town”;Jeremy Mouat, “The Ultimate Crisis”;Fran Shor, “Bringing the Storm: Syndicalist Counterpublics and the Industrial Workers of the World in New Zealand, 1908–14,”inMoloney andTaylor, On the Left, 59–72. Google Scholar

12.Holland et al., The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike. Google Scholar

13.Stanley Roche, The Red and the Gold: An Informal Account of the Waihi Strike, 1912(:Oxford University Press, 1982), 95. Google Scholar

14.Maryan Street, The Scarlet Runners: Women and Industrial Action 1889–1913(:Working Life Communications, 1993), 66. Google Scholar

15.In her study of gender during the 1913 Great Strike, Melanie Nolan differentiates between those women who were trade union members and involved in strike actions, women who joined women’s organisations such as the Housewives Unions, and breadwinners’ wives and family members who supported their men on strike:Melanie Nolan, “‘Do Your Share, Like a Man!’ The Issue of Gender in the Strike,”inRevolution: The 1913 Great Strike in New Zealand, ed.Melanie Nolan(:Canterbury University Press, 2005), 238. Google Scholar

16.Street, The Scarlet Runners, 66–67. Google Scholar

17.Street argues that Waihi women were active in running the strike from the start, however, there is pictorial evidence that the Strike Committee was run by men for men, much the same as the union itself.Street, The Scarlet Runners, 66.Holland et al., The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike, opposite 40. My thanks to Philip Rainer for this observation. Google Scholar

18.Temma Kaplan, “Female Consciousness and Collective Action: The Case of Barcelona, 1910–1918,” Signs 7, no. 3(Spring1982):545–46. Google Scholar

19.Ibid. Google Scholar

20.Sally Maggard, “Women’s Participation in the Brookside Coal Strike: Militance, Class and Gender in Appalachia,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 9, no. 3(1987):20. Google Scholar

21.Rainer, “Company Town,” 185. Google Scholar

22.This article drew on the National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past digital collection, which includes 77 publications from all regions of New Zealand. Because this collection is still under construction, some newspapers have not yet been digitised for the period under review, for example, theNew Zealand Herald.I have not conducted a thorough search of newspapers that have not been digitised. Frederick Dawson, editor, sentNew Zealand Truthreporters to Waihi who challenged the activities of the mine’s foreign owners, expressed anger about the incarcerated miners, and spoke with Red Fed and Waihi Union leaders, as well as the police: seeRedmer Yska, Truth: The Rise and Fall of the People’s Paper(:Craig Potton Publishing, 2010), 48. Nisbet McRobie, Waihi correspondent for theNew Zealand Heraldand W. M. Wallnutt, Waihi correspondent for theAuckland Star, opposed the strike. McRobie was one of 28 prominent Waihi gentlemen who petitioned Prime Minister William Massey to save them from “financial ruin” and IWW-style “industrial warfare”: seeRainer, “Company Town,” 186, 222–23. Google Scholar

23.Len Richardson, “Parties and Political Change,”inThe Oxford History of New Zealand, ed.Geoffrey Rice(:Oxford University Press, 1992), 210. Google Scholar

24.H. Roth, Trade Unions in New Zealand: Past and Present(:Reed Education, 1973), 33. The Red Fed was heavily influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was formed by socialists, anarchists and radical trade unionists, who gathered for the first time in Chicago, in the United States, during June 1905 to organise the unorganised. Leaders of this international, revolutionary, syndicalist movement “preached class war, direct action, industrial unionism, and One Big Union as the means for achieving a socialist millennium”: seeOlssen, The Red Feds, xiv. Google Scholar

25.Breathing problems caused by quartz dust on the lungs.Melanie Nolan, Breadwinning: New Zealand Women and the State(:Canterbury University Press, 2000), 79. Google Scholar

26.Maryan Street, The Scarlet Runners, 62. The Miners’ Phthisis Act 1915 would finally provide a pension for miners disabled by the disease and a pension for their widows:Nolan, Breadwinning, 80. Google Scholar

27.Leo Woods, “The Labour Movement,”Roth Collection, MS-Papers-6164,Alexander Turnbull Library,.Maoriland Worker, 9 February1912. Yorkshire socialist, Edward Hartley, was in residence for two months in early 1912, and Canadian Wobbly, John Benjamin King, lectured on direct action and stayed on to teach IWW principles and Marxist economics, also working in the mine. Socialist Party leaders were so concerned about King’s popular advocacy of direct action rather than political action that they invited Harry Holland to come and be their organiser:Olssen, The Red Feds, 57, 132. Google Scholar

28. Maoriland Worker, 9 February1912; 1 March1912; 8 March1912. Google Scholar

29.Ibid., 28 July1911. My thanks to Peter Clayworth for directing me to this essay. Google Scholar

30.Ibid., 23 February1912. Google Scholar

31.Ibid., 16 August1912. Google Scholar

32.Holland et al., The Tragic Story of the Waihi Strike, 52–3. I make further comment about Wobblies and the “woman question” later in this article. Google Scholar

33.Shor, “Bringing the Storm”;Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia(:Cambridge University Press, 1995), 92–110, 97. Google Scholar

34.Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 96, 103. Google Scholar

35.The Waihi strike was described by trade unionists as a peaceful affair because it was a dry area:Feilding Star, 15 October1912. Google Scholar

36. Waihi Daily Telegraph, 18 and 23 May1912. Google Scholar

37.The family economy is a much neglected topic in labour disputes, and this article is guilty of this too. For an excellent discussion of the family economy during the New Zealand 1951 Lockout, seeGrace Millar, “Families and the 1951 New Zealand Waterfront Lockout”(PhD diss.,Victoria University of Wellington, 2013). Google Scholar

38.Not all Waihi working-class women supported the strike. A miner’s daughter condemned the Red Fed and the strike for breaking up “comfortable homes” and keeping “themselves in good fat billets at the expense of helpless [working-class] women and children.” SeeThames Star, 18 June1912. Google Scholar

39.Rainer, “Company Town,” 198. Google Scholar

41.The militant activities of Red Fed unions persuaded Reform and employers to support the arbitration system. For more on Cullen’s role in the strike, seeMark Derby, The Prophet and the Policeman: The Story of Rua Kenana and John Cullen(:Craig Cotton Publishing, 2009). Google Scholar

42.Graeme Dunstall, “Governments, the Police and the Left,” 89–90;Roche, The Red and the Gold, 84–85. Google Scholar

43. Ohinemuri Gazette, 9 September1912. Google Scholar

44. Thames Star, 11 September1912. Waikino neighboured Waihi and was home to the Victoria Battery, which processed ore for the Waihi Goldmine. Google Scholar

45. Waihi Daily Telegraph, 26 September1912. “Following up” meant following lone strikebreakers as they went about their business in Waihi. There is evidence that one Waikino worker retaliated with violence. Fairfax Clarence Heath was convicted of assault for knocking over Mrs Margaret Sell where she stood on the sidewalk with her baby, near a group of strikers and strikers’ wives. SeeWaihi Daily Telegraph, 25 September1912. Google Scholar

46. Ohinemuri Gazette, 18 September1912. Google Scholar

47. Waihi Daily Telegraph, 18, 20 and 24 September1912. Women whose husbands had been imprisoned were eligible for Charitable Aid:Margaret Tennant, Paupers and Providers: Charitable Aid in New Zealand(:Allen & Unwin, 1989). Google Scholar

48. Waihi Daily Telegraph, 24 September;Evening Post, 20 September1912. Google Scholar

49. Waihi Daily Telegraph, 20 and 24 September1912. Google Scholar

50.Rainer, “Company Town,” 198. Google Scholar

52. Maoriland Worker, 27 September1912. Google Scholar

53. Evening Post, 30 September1912. Google Scholar

54.An informant sent a record of what was discussed at Strike Committee meetings to the police and the local newspaper. The informant reports that it was Ted Howard’s wife who wanted to come and support the Waihi strike but this could not have been the case because she had been dead since 1903. Bundle of Papers relating to the Waihi Strike, Historical Publications Branch, Police Records, AAAC W3539 Box 20, Archives New Zealand, Wellington (ANZ).Waihi Daily Telegraph, 9 October 1912, AAAC W3539 Box 19, ANZ. Striking men knew there was a spy in their ranks; they called him the “wireless” man, but had no idea of his identity.NZ Truth, 2 November1912. Google Scholar

55. Auckland Star, 11 October1912. Google Scholar

56.Rainer, “Company Town,” 232. Google Scholar

57.Ibid., 229. Google Scholar

58.Ibid., 232. Google Scholar

59.Bundle of Papers relating to theWaihi Strike, Historical Publications Branch, Police Records, AAAC W3539 Box 20, ANZ.Waihi Daily Telegraph, 9 October1912, AAAC W3539 Box 19, ANZ. Google Scholar

60. Waihi Daily Telegraph, September 301912. Google Scholar

61.The police and press were convinced that the roving commission courted arrest to gain support for the strike.Thames Star, 10 October1912. Google Scholar

62.Ibid., 8 and 9 October1912. Google Scholar

63.Ibid., 2 and 3 October1912;NZ Truth, 5 October 1912. They also sang a parody of the national anthem “God Save J. B. King”:Olssen, The Red Reds, 157. Google Scholar

64. Maoriland Worker, 13 December1912. Google Scholar

66. NZ Truth, 2 November1912. Google Scholar

67. Auckland Star, 28 October1912. Google Scholar

68. NZ Truth, 12 October1912. Google Scholar

69. Thames Star, 10 October1912. Google Scholar

70. NZ Truth, 19 October1912. Google Scholar

71.Ibid. Google Scholar

72.Ibid. Google Scholar

73.Ibid. Google Scholar

74.Waihi businesses suffered during September with the mine closed, and shop work would have been scarce. However, strike politics had an impact on domestic workers as well. There was a report that four strikers’ daughters and one engine-driver’s daughter were employed at a Waihi boarding house and the strikers’ daughters gave their employer an ultimatum to get rid of the engine-driver’s daughter or they would quit. Their employer accepted the strikers’ daughters’ resignation, and sent them packing.New Zealand Herald, 23 September1912. Google Scholar

76.Two young sisters,Miss Kathleen Hislop andMiss Catherine Hislop, 14 years, were on duty at the Miners Hall on Black Tuesday. Alex Hislop was one of the miners jailed in September for yelling “scab,” and we can guess he was a relation. Google Scholar

77. Ohinemuri Gazette, 9 October1912;Thames Star, 10 October1912. Google Scholar

78. Ohinemuri Gazette, 9 October1912. Google Scholar

79. Thames Star, 27 November1912. Google Scholar

81. Thames Star, 4 October1912;Auckland Star, 2 November1912. Google Scholar

82. Poverty Bay Herald, 12 October1912. My thanks to Stuart Moriaty-Patten for providing this source. Google Scholar

83. Thames Star, 27 November1912. Google Scholar

84. Maoriland Worker, 6 December1912. Google Scholar

85. Thames Star, 10 October1912. Google Scholar

86.W. Foster,Miner, Waihi Daily Telegraph, 6 November1912;“Femina Furens,” New Zealand Herald, 8 November1912. Google Scholar

87.TheAuckland Weekly News, 19 September 1912, contained a photograph of Waihi strike-supporting women hiding their faces behind umbrellas and a photograph of a British suffragette, identified as Mary Philips, as she was arrested for throwing a bag of flour at Herbert Asquith, British Prime Minister. Google Scholar

88. Ohinemuri Gazette, 6 March1912; 27 May1912; 22 July1912; 21 October1912. Google Scholar

89. Maoriland Worker, 11 and 18 October1912.Nolan, “Do Your Share, Like a Man,” 241. Google Scholar

90. Maoriland Worker, 15 November1912. Bishop Crossley gained notoriety amongstMaoriland Workerreaders for preaching a sermon on the justice of “Law and Order” to 45 Waihi men jailed in Auckland.Maoriland Worker, 11 October1912; 1 November1912. Google Scholar

91.Given that British authorities took to force-feeding hunger-striking suffragette prisoners, it could certainly be argued that they were “starving” and “ill-used.” Of most concern to socialist suffragettes internationally was the WSPU’s support for enfranchisement of women with property, rather than adult suffrage:Ellen Carol Dubois, “Women Suffrage around the World: Three Phases of Suffragist Internationalism,”inSuffrage & Beyond: International Feminist Perspectives, ed.Caroline Daley andMelanie Nolan(:Auckland University Press, 1994), 266. British socialist, suffragist and feminist Dora Montefiore accused the leaders of the WSPU of “working solely in the interests of the capitalist class.” Debates raged over this issue as some thought that women’s suffrage was a positive step on the way to socialism and celebrated suffragette militancy.Maoriland Worker, 1 and 29 September 1911. Dora Montefiore advocated women join the Socialist Party to bring about women’s economic independence.Maoriland Worker, 5 January1912. Google Scholar

92. Maoriland Worker, 14 July1911; 11 August1911. Google Scholar

93. New Zealand Herald, 19 October1912. Google Scholar

94. Waihi Daily Telegraph, 14 October1912;Press, 28 October1912. Google Scholar

95. Ohinemuri Gazette, 25 October1912;Auckland Star, 28 October1912; 2 November 1912. The press regularly described strikebreakers as workers as if striking men were not workers. Google Scholar

96. Ohinemuri Gazette, 25 October1912. Google Scholar

97. Auckland Star, 26 October1912;Maryan Street, The Scarlet Runners, 70. Google Scholar

98. New Zealand Herald, 5 October1912; cited inRoche, The Red and the Gold, 99. Google Scholar

99. New Zealand Herald, 8 November1912;Ohinemuri Gazette, 15 November1912. Google Scholar

100. Auckland Star, 2 November1912. Google Scholar

101. Maoriland Worker, 15 November1915. Google Scholar

102.Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, 96, 103. Google Scholar

104. Maoriland Worker, 16 August1912. Google Scholar

105.Mrs Leach’s speeches were greeted with tumultuous applause in Waihi, Wellington, Auckland and Huntly; she was just as popular as Bob Semple.Evening Post, 30 September1912;Maoriland Worker, 4 October1912;Dominion, 30 September1912. Google Scholar

106.Nolan, “Do Your Share, Like a Man.” Google Scholar

107. Maoriland Worker, 31 January1913. Google Scholar

108. Waihi Daily Telegraph, 9 October1912. Google Scholar

109. Auckland Star, 30 October1912;Press, 30 October 1912;Ohinemuri Gazette, 30 October1912. Google Scholar

111.Roche, The Red and the Gold, 104.Thames Star, 4 November1912. Google Scholar

112.TheThames Starmade much of two Red Fed-supporting wives who had not taken part in Scarlet Runner activities and wanted their husbands to return to work; they were reported to be most relieved when their husbands’ names were not on the list of those who had to leave town.Thames Star, 13 November1912. Google Scholar

113.Roche, The Red and the Gold, 104–49;Holland et al., The Tragic Story, 95–133;Olssen, The Red Feds, 159–60;Street, The Scarlet Runners, 72–73. Google Scholar

114. Auckland Star, 11 November1912. Google Scholar

115.Roche, The Red and the Gold, 144. Google Scholar

116. Ashburton Guardian, 23 November1912. Google Scholar

117.Street, Scarlet Runners, 72–73. Google Scholar

118. Auckland Star, 18 November1912. Google Scholar

119. Thames Star, 21 November1912. Google Scholar

120.Holland et al., The Tragic Story of Waihi, 156. Google Scholar

121. Wanganui Chronicle, 16 January1913. While the strike was over in Waihi, the term “Scarlet Runners” lived on. It was applied to militant women in Runanga, a mining community on the West Coast, who were making life unpleasant for a youth who championed compulsory military training.Press, 4 June1913. Google Scholar

122. Thames Star, 11 December1912. Google Scholar

123.Nolan, “Do Your Share, Like a Man,” 241. Google Scholar

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Author details

Locke, Cybèle