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 19141920 reveals the remarkable stories 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.

In an age of growing state power, new forms of surveillance and control, and fragility of the right to privacy, Dead Letters is a startling reminder that we have been here before.

Forthcoming, to be published by Otago University Press in March 2019. Includes a Foreword by Charlotte Macdonald

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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

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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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Bibliography

Click below to access all of my books, articles and public talks

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About

My name is Jared Davidson and I’m a labour historian and archivist based in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand. Through social biography and history from below, I try to explore the lives and struggles of working people – from radicals of the early twentieth century to convicts of the nineteenth. My work has focussed on early New Zealand anarchism, First World War dissent and state control, working-class culture, antiwork traditions, and archives and memory. I am an active Committee member of the Labour History Project and designer of the LHP Bulletin.

In 2016 I was awarded the Michael Standish Prize for best archival essay, and the co-authored He Whakaputanga – The Declaration of Independence won best secondary resource in Education for 2018. My latest book, Dead Letters, will be published in March 2019.

You can find all of my work on the bibliography page, and keep up-to-date with the latest content via the links below.