Dead Letters: Censorship and Subversion in New Zealand 1914-1920

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Winner of the Bert Roth Award for Labour History
Shortlisted for the W.H. Oliver Prize
Longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for General Non Fiction
Shortlisted for the New Zealand Society of Authors Heritage Book Awards

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 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.

Published by Otago University Press, 4 March 2019. Paperback: 198 x 130mm, 306 pp. ISBN 978-1-98-853152-6. Price: $35 NZD. Includes colour maps, images, and a Foreword by Charlotte Macdonald.

Available at all good bookstores or order your paperback or eBook version here

News and Reviews
“Absorbing… impressive” New Zealand Review of Books
“A lively and engaging book… infectious” Labour History
“This is labour history at its best” LHP Bulletin 

‘Dead Letters’ wins 2020 Bert Roth Award
Dead Letters author wins history award
Dead Letters highly commended for the W.H. Oliver Prize
Review by Len Richardson in the Australian Journal of Biography and History
Review by Katie Woods in the Journal of New Zealand Studies
Review by David Littlewood in Labour History: A Journal of Social and Labour History
Looking for treasure in the censor’s archive review by Jeff Sparrow for Overland Journal
Review by Ross Webb for Counterfutures Journal
Review by James Headley for Journal of New Zealand & Pacific Studies
Review by Emma Jean Kelly and Matariki Roche for LHP Bulletin
Steaming open the archives review by Briar Wood for Landfall Review Online
Review by Jonathan West for RNZ Nine to Noon with Kathryn Ryan
Watching the watchers review by Ian F. Grant in New Zealand Review of Books
State surveillance in Great War New Zealand review by John McLeod for Honest History
Insights into surveillance during WWI still resonant review by Mike Houlahan for the Otago Daily Times
Review by David Monger in New Zealand Journal of History
Review by Marianne Tremaine for Heritage New Zealand
Review by Miles Dillon in The Mail Coach: Journal of the Postal History Society of New Zealand
‘A mischievous and dangerous imposter’: the cross-dresser who scandalised NZ on The Spinoff
Political and gender radicals trapped by NZ’s WWI mail censors in NZ Herald
Afterglow: Dead Letters book launch on the Unity Books website
Books to Look Out for in 2019 in The Pantograph Punch


Subversion and censorship in New Zealand with Megan Whelan on RNZ Easter Monday
The Word: Radio interview with Karyn Hay for RNZ Lately
NZ’s ‘dead’ letters brought to life in NZME regional newspapers
Live radio interview with Peter Williams on Magic
Live radio interview with Newstalk ZB
Interview on the Educating for Social Change podcast
Author interview for Unity Books on the Unity Books website

Praise for Dead Letters

“A powerful, compelling and beautifully researched and written history of the impact of surveillance on everyday lives during the World War One years and beyond.” Cybèle Locke, author of Workers in the Margins: Union Radicals in Post-War New Zealand

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 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.” 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

“Jared Davidson is to be congratulated on a terrific achievement, one that (almost miraculously, after years of centenary commemorations) tells us something different and enlarging about the war experience of New Zealanders. Most memorably, through nine chapters, all equally successful, the text shines a light on a dozen or so individuals whose lives will forever inhabit the awareness of those who meet them in the pages of this work.” Malcolm McKinnon, author of The Broken Decade: Prosperity, depression and recovery in New Zealand 1928-1939

“The letters under discussion are anything but dead. Revelling in the texture, the handwriting, the smell, the very tangible form of the surviving correspondence, Dead Letters conveys the thrill of discovery as well as the indignation of injustice. … In telling the history of the letters’ authors and addressees, alongside the context in which correspondence was conducted, the chapters unfold an extraordinary, sometimes tragic, sometimes farcical, often funny insight into who and what it was that challenged police and defence authorities.” Charlotte Macdonald, co-author of ‘My Hand Will Write What My Heart Dictates’. The unsettled lives of women in nineteenth-century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, families and friends

“The system of censorship put in place during the First World War in New Zealand has until now received very little attention. In this important book Jared Davidson makes great use of previously unused archival material to reveal a fascinating story of interesting characters, and offers thought-provoking insights into the New Zealand home front experience during a terrible global struggle.” John Crawford, co-author of Experience of a Lifetime: People, personalities and leaders in the First World War

Dead Letters brings welcome light to a murky part of New Zealand’s past, revealing the history of wartime censorship and giving voice to accounts long left silent. It will prove an important book in study and discussion of state power, wartime society and non- conformity.” Steven Loveridge, author of Calls to Arms: New Zealand Society and Commitment to the Great War

“In ‘national emergencies’ the state penetrates more deeply than ever into the privacy of individuals, especially those opposed to or disquieted by official policies. Davidson’s examination of letters confiscated by official censors in First World War era New Zealand provides a fascinating account of the complex relationship between such dissentients and their surveillers. Along the way, Davidson’s investigative skills reveal a great deal about people whose lives conflate the ordinary and the extraordinary.” Richard S. Hill, author of The Iron Hand in the Velvet Glove: The Modernisation of Policing in New Zealand 1886-1917