17 Jul 2015

Communists in Caves

From New Zealand Society, 2:20 pm on 17 July 2015

Times were tough for the New Zealand Communist Party at the start of the Second World War. They opposed the fight against Adolf Hitler and as a result, their newspaper, People's Voice, was suppressed by the government. So they went underground, quite literally, to a lava cave in South Auckland, where they could publish in secret. Or so they thought.

Produced by Justin Gregory.

An image of the front page of the New Zealand Herald from 5 September 1940 with a photo of the cave and its contents.

On 5 September 1940 the New Zealand Herald's front page broke the story. Photo: New Zealand Herald

Communist literature found in Papatoetoe cave

The chance adventures of three boys led to the discovery of a duplicating plant and communistic literature in a deep cave on a farm about three miles from the Papatoetoe township.

The New Zealand Herald 5 September 1940.

On the 5th of September 1940 the New Zealand Herald broke the news of the discovery a secret printing press in a cave in Wiri, south Auckland. The duplicating machine in the cave, which was found by three school boys, was being used to print copies of the Communist Party of New Zealand’s suppressed newspaper, People’s Voice. Police called to the scene searched the cave thoroughly, removing the duplicator and other items strewn about but found no sign of the men who must have operated the press. Whoever they were, they were gone, never to be caught.

What was a farm in 1940 is now an unlovely area just south of the Wiri Electric Train Depot. From atop the small hill above the cave, the view is not at all scenic, with quarries, petroleum storage and industrial development bruising the eye.

The area is named for the Te Akitai Waiohua chief Wirihana Takaanini who lived near here in the 19th century. In 1863, during the New Zealand Wars, Takaanini was arrested by colonial authorities for alleged rebel activities. He was imprisoned on Rakino Island in the Hauraki Gulf and died there the following year. The South Auckland suburb of Takanini is also named after him.

In the 30s and 40s this was a fortress of the emerging New Zealand working class and the Labour movement. And that’s one of the reasons why these Commie troublemakers would hole up here.

An image of filmmaker Paul Janman and author Scott Hamilton stand by the entrance to the cave.

Filmmaker Paul Janman and author Scott Hamilton stand by the entrance to the cave. Photo: RNZ/Justin Gregory

Historian Dr Scott Hamilton and filmmaker Paul Janman have joined forces to make both a movie and a book about the history of Auckland’s Great South Road. The project is, in their words, an exploration of some of the less glamorous corners of New Zealand history.

‘To study the Great South Road is to really reject a particular image of New Zealand, an idealised, pastoral image… a land of lovely lakes and mountains and rich farmlands. It’s that image which we get rammed down our throat now and that has been reinforced by phenomenon like The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings films. To explore what’s actually here puts you in touch with another side of New Zealand history.”

An image of a Communist poster from era, urging people to join the Party.

A Communist poster from the era. Photo: Communist Party of New Zealand. [Communist Party Of New Zealand] :Join the Communist Party; this way to progress. Apply now. [1940s].. Ref: Eph-C-ROTH-Communist-1940s-001. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23196598

The Communist Party had existed in New Zealand since 1921 in differing forms and with varying degrees of support and influence. By 1939 the party’s headquarters had shifted from Wellington to Auckland and in July of that year the People’s Voice began publication. But tricky times were just around the corner for both the paper and the Party.

In August 1939 Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of non-aggression. Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and the Russians did the same 16 days later. The Second World War had begun.

The Communist Party in New Zealand had campaigned against fascism and the rise of Hitler, but because of the pact they were instructed by Moscow to oppose the war. For nearly two years the Party actively protested against both the war and compulsory conscription. As a result, in 1940 the ruling Labour Government used emergency regulations to suppress publication of the People’s Voice.

The Party was driven literally and figuratively underground

Two members of the Party were given the job of making sure the People’s Voice would still be heard. One of them was Sidney Wilfred Scott, a senior figure on the Central Committee and a man with a curious fascination with caves.

A photo of Sid Scott.

Sid Scott Photo: 34-S519-4 Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries

Scott wrote an unpublished novel with an elaborate description of events in a cave underneath Maungakiekie/One Tree Hill.

In 1942 his eyesight began to deteriorate and he was told he would soon be blind. He immediately took a holiday from his Party duties and boarded a train to Waitomo to visit the glow worm caves. It is possible that it was Scott who fixed upon the idea of using a lava cave in Wiri as a base for an illegal printing press.

Scott’s partner in underground publishing was Clement Gordon Watson, known as Gordon. He was a writer and a journalist and had been instrumental in launching the first editions of the People’s Voice.

Paper was rationed during war time and the pair were forced to scavenge used paper as well as whatever ink they could find. For a cold winter they worked in cramped and damp conditions, cranking out rough, smudged copies of the Voice which were smuggled out of Auckland and then sent around the country.

An image of an edition of People's Voice on display in Auckland War Memorial Museum.

A edition of People's Voice on display in Auckland War Memorial Museum. Photo: Auckland War Memorial Museum

A photo of Gordon Watson in army uniform.

Gordon Watson Photo: Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Neither Watson nor Scott were present when the press was discovered by the boys, but evidence of their industry – and their devotion to their cause - was immediately apparent.

Movement within the inner radius of the cave could only be made in a stooping posture. Pieces of timber and sacks covered the sodden soil of the floor and two pieces of asbestos board had been used to protect the duplicator and papers from the moisture dripping from the roof. The depth and winding access to the cave prevented any natural light from penetrating and candles had to be employed for illumination.

The New Zealand Herald 5 September 1940.

The cave opening is now covered over with heavy steel doors which are chained shut. Below the doors is a steep vertical opening which can only be accessed by a ladder set into the wall. A long, low crawl space eventually leads into a wider chamber, just off which is where the press was set up. Both Scott Hamilton and Paul Janman have been inside the cave to explore and film, and agree that it is clearly impossible to have got the duplicating machine in by this route. They believe that another, larger entrance must exist nearby, possibly opening on to the Manukau Harbour, just a short distance away to the west – a convenient location not only to access the press but to smuggle out the newspaper.

Neither Sid Scott nor Gordon Watson were ever arrested for their involvement in the illegal production of the People’s Voice which continued to be published in secret from other locations.

A year later Nazi Germany broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by invading Russia. The Communist Party in that country experienced an immediate and somewhat understandable reversal in policy towards the war they had once so sternly opposed and directed members across the world to follow their lead.

Gordon Watson fell in line with the Party’s new direction. He joined the Army, serving firstly in the Pacific and then Europe and was killed in action in Italy in 1945.Watson is remembered today for a book of his writings edited by author and peace activist Elsie Locke and also by a traveling scholarship for postgraduate students wanting to study international relations and social and economic conditions.

In the 1950s Sid Scott began to turn away from the Communist Party and finally broke with it after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. He continued to move to the right in politics and frequently railed publicly against the Party he had once been willing to risk so much for. By the time he died in Auckland in 1970 he had become as enthusiastic a Christian as he had once been a Communist.

Suppression was lifted on the People’s Voice and it quickly recovered its pre-war popularity. It continued to be published until it was wound down in 1966.