Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tommy Taylor, Christchurch MP, On The Unemployment Problem, 1909

Tommy Taylor, 1862 - 1911.

One might ask what has changed in 100 years?

The Star, 22 July 1909, p. 3

[A delegation of the unemployed] "made its way to the office of Mr T. E. Taylor, M.P. Mr Taylor heard the deputation in the door of his office, the Right to Work Bill figuring largely in the representations of the spokesman [Mr Kilgour].

"In replying to the deputation Mr Taylor said that the matter was not one that could be met by the City Council. They could not ask a Council like that of Christchurch to find the funds to employ labour that came from all parts of the country.

The Council's revenue was derived from one set of people, and they could not be expected to provide for the surplus labour of Riccarton, Kaiapoi, Avon and other parts of Canterbury, but only for that proportion that was resident in the city. If it was to do so, it must be subsidised by the other local bodies.

The general Government, continued Mr Taylor, was the authority that ought to find employment. It got money from all sources, and that was the money that should be applied. The Government had been asked to do a little, but it would not do it, not even to the laying of the foundations of the new Customs House buildings in Christchurch, which would give work for twenty or thirty men. The Government must take the responsibility. Individual members, or three city members, could do nothing, even in conjunction with other members.

The Government had point-blank refused to do anything, and had refused in response to a suggestion from him to put any more men from the South Island on bushfelling. The responsibility was on the Minister in the meantime, and all that the members could do was to "handle" the Government when the House met in October.

The Prime Minister was away, and apparently before he went it had been decided how much was to be done.

Continuing, Mr Taylor said that he would telegraph to the Acting-Premier stating that there were a large number of men still unable to find work, "although," added Mr Taylor, "things are not so bad as they were a fortnight ago." There was a chorus of dissent from this assertion, but Mr Taylor stuck to his guns. "Skilled labour is getting employment," he said, " and the building trade is brisker. Money is becoming easier, and in two or three months we will be back to the normal.

Of course, you want work in the meanwhile. A few of you, I suppose, don't want work, but I think nine out of ten of you do really want work.

If a Right to Work Bill is passed," continued Mr Taylor, "you must clearly understand that the right to choose what kind of work you shall do is gone from you absolutely. If a man has got long hair and thinks God made him a poet, he cannot come to the Government and say, 'I want work as a poet.' Don't forget that. The men will become mere machines. No Government will undertake to find a sufficient variety of employment to satisfy the qualifications of every worker. If a man is a carpenter he might have to go out and do farm labouring."

"That is what we do now," interjected one of the crowd.

"Yes," said Mr Taylor, "you do that at a pinch, but when the pinch is over you want to do what you choose."

There was general assent to this poser, and the faces of the crowd became slightly thoughtful.

"I think myself," resumed Mr Taylor, "that every unemployed man is a tax on somebody's industry, and I think the Government ought to take an opportunity for finding work for every man unemployed. I will use my best endeavours to have a Right to Work Bill passed."

"I am satisfied if they were all like you," commented another of the crowd, " this state of things would not exist at all."

"I don't know," replied Mr Taylor. "The unemployed problem is a difficult thing. l am a Socialist up to a certain point, but every man likes to be independent, and he would not assent to becoming a mere machine under socialistic regulations." In conclusion, Mr Taylor stated that he believed ihe Government had made up its mind to let things straighten themselves out, and it was mighty little that the Government would do."

Tommy was adamant that the national government had shirked its responsibility to restore employment and it was the level of government best equipped to finance and administer work programmes. It took another 25 years to get such action during the midst of the Great Depression - and still, a century later, it is only grudgingly undertaken.

It is a damning indictment of so-called affluent societies and their "civilization" that unemployment rates in 2009 should be topping 10 percent when the straightforward means of procuring their citizens a stable livelihood have long since been "discovered".

The Star newspaper, by the way, revealed its bias against the unemployed of 1909 referring to the morning's gathering of unemployed as "a motley dozen of men", ridiculed Mr Kilgour's addressing the assembled as "kumreds" and another speaker as having a "strong immigrant accent" as if that was a black mark in a society of immigrants.

Tommy T (Tea Total Tommy) certainly was no usual politician - he was no party man - and much loved for it by those for and against him, evidenced by the massive turnout & affection shown at his funeral in 1911. He was, as one astute observer noted, not a politician whose chief concern was his prospects at the next election but was "a statesman who legislates for future generations".

As one born on the supposedly "wrong" side of the railway tracks - and gasworks - in Christchurch and who, while growing up, heard the bitter tales of enforced, long term unemployment on both sides of the family before the Great Depression, Tommy T. was alright by me.

I might say RIP Tommy, but like Joe Hill, Tommy's response might be "I never died, said he". Go organize.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for exhuming T.E. from the dustbin of history. I had never heard of him before tonight. I was doing some family research, looking for information about the Independent Order of Good Templars, when I found something about T.E.'s views on prohibition, then stumbled onto your blog.

A man like T.E.Taylor might well have inspired my Christchurch-resident grandmother to get involved in the IOGT, through which she met my grandfather around 1909. He was very active in the IOGT and the Alliance, as were many of his contemporaries. I think he would have been impressed by Taylor's progressive views and independent spirit, and may even have seen him as a role model for his own involvement in local body politics in a small North Island town over the following 20 years. He, too, was something of a "municipal socialist" but independent and not a supporter of Labour. Coincidentally, my grandfather also died an untimely death and had a large turnout to his funeral, but of course it was nothing like the 50,000 who turned out for Taylor. I enjoyed reading about him. Prohibitionists were not just a bunch of killjoys, they could also be inspiring and popular and encourage civic participation.

I like the old photos on your blog. I have a great photo of members of an IOGT Lodge - 10 men and 3 women - taken about 1909, with names pencilled on the back. One of the names is G.Price, who may be the same G.Price who wrote a chapter on the IOTG for a 1930 book on "Temperance and Prohibition in New Zealand", available online here:

kuaka said...

Interesting family history notes. You're right about the prohibtionists, they were not a one-issue movement as the received history tries to suggest.

I'm glad to play a minor role in keeping T.E.'s work "out there". How quickly the memory of someone like T.E. is quickly lost after a generation or two. The work, of course, lives on in many unacknowledged ways.