Canterbury’s First Industrial Action – 21st November 1849

On 21st November 1849, Maori workers of Road Gang No.1 walked off the job in Lyttelton after laying a complaint to the Canterbury Association of having ‘ill language’ used against them and also in response to the threat of a pay cut.  This was Canterbury’s first industrial action.  The following day, Superintendent George Compton handed in his resignation and foreman Baker Polhill took over the role and work soon resumed.

Road Gang No.1 had been working in Lyttelton since their arrival on 2nd September 1849, sailing down from Wellington aboard the ‘Bee’, a ship chartered by the Canterbury Association.  Made up of 40 workers, all were Maori (mostly Ngati Toa) except for three European supervisors.   
Their very first job was to build themselves whares along the foreshore as well as housing for their bosses.  They also prepared an area to grow potatoes and they sunk wells and were paid 2 shillings, sixpence a day. 
Their works during their short period in our history included the formation of Norwich Quay, the Mayor Hornbrook Track up Mt Pleasant and the start of Sumner Road – also infamously known as the Zig Zag.

George Compton, who was at the centre of this industrial action, first arrived in New Zealand in 1841 as the Government Supervisor of Maori workers on the roads of the North Island.   In June 1849, he was in Lyttelton with the Canterbury Association preparing the way for his workers to join him there which they did early September later that year.  After his resignation that November, he went into partnership with Major Hornbrook and together they established ‘The Mitre’ which opened the following month.  ‘The Mitre’ is regarded as Canterbury’s oldest commercial enterprise as it still holds it pride of place in Lyttelton – despite currently being closed due to 2011 earthquake damage.  Like Hornbrook, Compton on sold his lease although he remained the publican there till sometime 1853.  Until his suicide in 1859, he had remained the landlord over the Mitre’s land.

Trouble in Road Gang No.1 began to brew in mid November, things coming to a head when a worker known as ‘Emo’ was fired for laziness.  After a pay cut was threatened, a ‘down tool’ protest took place which resulted in the replacement of George Compton as Superintendent.  Road Gang No.1’s size soon grew to 70 workers as Canterbury’s Ngai Tahu sought employment having heard of the good working conditions. 
The only concern for supervisors after the ‘walk-out’ was a few cases of drunkenness.

When Canterbury Association Chief Agent and Co-founder John Robert Godley arrived in Lyttelton in April 1850, all public works were halted due to the Canterbury Association’s rising debts.  This was how the Bridle Path came to be – this was a cheaper way to the Plains rather than a completed road to Sumner via Evans Pass.  After all the Maori workers were paid out, Godley later wrote in his journal:

“…most civil, good-natured fellows, laughing immoderately at our questions and chattered in broken English very fast in reply…said they were taking home “plenty money” with them…” – 22nd April 1850.


*Image courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library – Maori road camp, Waikaremoana Road, Te Whaiti district. Polynesian Society : Photographs. Ref: PAColl-7273-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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