Dead Letters

In 1918, from deep within the West Coast bush, a miner on the run from the military wrote a letter to his sweetheart. Two months later he was in jail. Like millions of others, his letter had been steamed open by a team of censors shrouded in secrecy. Using their confiscated mail as a starting point, Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920 reveals the remarkable story of people caught in the web of wartime surveillance. Among them was a feisty German-born socialist, a Norwegian watersider, an affectionate Irish nationalist, a love-struck miner, an aspiring Maxim Gorky, a cross-dressing doctor, a nameless rural labourer, an avid letter writer with a hatred of war, and two mystical dairy farmers with a poetic bent. Military censorship within New Zealand meant that their letters were stopped, confiscated and filed away, sealed and unread for over 100 years. Until now.

Intimate and engaging, this dramatic narrative weaves together the personal and political, bringing to light the reality of wartime censorship.

Dead Letters up-ends our comfortable ideas of a united society pulling together during wartime. Instead, thousands of New Zealanders were targets of what we would consider outrageous invasions of privacy by their own government because of their politics, lifestyles or simply their birthplace. Davidson’s wonderful writing carries readers along through a world of activists, free-thinkers, conscription dodgers and those who simply would not conform to society’s norms. For all its colour and scandal, Davidson’s book is a sobering reminder of the power of governments during wartime to not only intercept private communications, but to affect relationships. As Davidson says, every letter in the censorship archive is a letter that never arrived, a connection broken.” Associate Professor Kate Hunter, co-author of Holding on to Home: New Zealand Stories and Objects of the First World War

“These intercepted letters reveal dark and wonderful corners of New Zealand history. Davidson has done a superb job of rescuing long-suppressed voices from official oblivion.” — Mark Derby, author of The Prophet and the Policeman: The Story of Rua Kenana and John Cullen

Forthcoming, to be published by Otago University Press in March 2019

Sewing Freedom

Sewing Freedom is the first in-depth study of anarchism in New Zealand during the turbulent years of the early-20th century—a time of wildcat strikes, industrial warfare, and a radical working class counter-culture. Interweaving biography, cultural history, and an array of archival sources, this engaging account unravels the anarchist-cum-bomber stereotype by piecing together the life of Philip Josephs—a Latvian-born Jewish tailor, antimilitarist, and founder of the Wellington Freedom Group. Anarchists like Josephs not only existed in the ‘Workingman’s Paradise’ that was New Zealand, but were a lively part of its labour movement and the class struggle that swept through the country, imparting uncredited influence and ideas. Sewing Freedom places this neglected movement within the global anarchist upsurge, and unearths the colourful activities of New Zealand’s most radical advocates for social and economic change. Includes illustrations by Icky from Justseeds and a foreword by Barry Pateman (Kate Sharpley Library Archivist and Associate Editor at the Emma Goldman Papers).

Published by AK Press: Oakland CA, USA, 2013


Remains to be Seen

On the eve of his execution in 1915, Joe Hill — radical songwriter, union organiser and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — penned one final telegram from his Utah prison cell: “Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” Hill’s body was then cremated, his ashes placed into tiny packets and sent to IWW Locals, sympathetic organizations and individuals around the world. Among the nations said to receive Hill’s ashes, New Zealand is listed.

Remains to be Seen traces the ashes of Joe Hill from their distribution in Chicago to wartime New Zealand. Drawing on previously unseen archival material, it examines the persecution of anarchists, socialists and Wobblies in New Zealand during the First World War. It also explores how intense censorship measures — put in place by the National Coalition Government of William Massey and zealously enforced by New Zealand’s Solicitor-General, Sir John Salmond — effectively silenced and suppressed the IWW in New Zealand. Cover illustration by Dylan Miner of Justseeds.

Published by Rebel Press: Wellington, 2011


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Kia ora! My name is Jared Davidson and I am a historian and research archivist based in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Through social biography and history from below, I try to tell the stories of people often overlooked by traditional histories. Most of my work focuses on working-class radicalism and the state during the early twentieth century, but I’ve also published on He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, settler capitalism and unfree labour, vagrancy, antiwork traditions, and archives and memory.

In 2016 I was awarded the Michael Standish Prize for best archival essay, and was a recipient of the 2016 CLNZ/NZSA Open Research Grant for my forthcoming book on domestic postal censorship and dissent during the First World War. I am a Committee member of the Labour History Project and designer of the LHP Bulletin.