Created By: Radical Wellington Walking Tour
On 2 March 1915 Alice Parkinson shot and killed Bert West in Napier. The two had been lovers, and West had promised Parkinson that they would be married. They had a child out of wedlock, a serious ‘moral’ breach at that time with devastating consequences for a woman’s employment prospects and social standing, and West abandoned Parkinson and his promise of marriage. Jobless, suffering the after-effects of a traumatic pregnancy and the loss of her child (the baby was stillborn), desperate at the thought of further disgrace as a ‘fallen’ woman, Parkinson pursued West to try and make him see her and agree to marriage. He hid from her, sent his friends out to beat her up, and ignored her increasingly desperate messages. The shooting was the act of a woman who felt she had no other choices left in life; after shooting West she turned the gun on herself and attempted suicide. Her trial and conviction for manslaughter fascinated the country, and there was popular outrage when Judge Robert Stout sentenced her to life imprisonment and hard labour at Christchurch’s Addington Prison.
Parkinson’s case was, for the Social Democratic Party, an example of the hypocrisy and double standards in sexual morality between men and women, and her conviction and injustice. What chances did this working-class young woman have from the capitalist courts? The United Federation of Labour and the SDP both discussed Parkinson’s case at the 1915 conferences, both held while her trial was ongoing. The Party, especially its Wellington and Petone branches, organised defence campaigns to promote Parkinson’s cause. A petition calling for her release collected 60 000 signatures; three more petitions followed. As part of this campaign Harry Holland, the socialist journalists, spoke to a mass audience in the People’s Picture Palace. The speech, ‘A Plea for Alice Parkinson’, was reprinted in the Maoriland Worker, 28 July 1915:
"No one would be foolish enough to say that the woman is not often as much to blame as the man. But what must not be lost sight of is the fact that it is always the woman who pays – who bears the full weight of the burden of shame and suffering that a mock-moral – or, rather, immoral – Society imposes for the ‘sin’ of parenthood under unorthodox circumstances. This is so because woman is economically unfree. The man in the case may be a moral leper; his reputation may reek of the sewer; but Society (more especially if he is wealthy) will fling its doors wide open to him [… Parkinson was] a basely-deserted girl whose heart broke and who mind failed in that desolated Gethsemane. In the hour of her overwhelming despair she hurled her betrayer to a swift grave! It is certainly a dreadful deed, an act not to be encouraged. BUT WAS SHE RESPONSIBLE? Society provided no adequate punishment for the man. Society flung the woman among hissing serpents and slow-burning fires. Surely whatever crime there was belongs not to the girl, but to Society."
Parkinson was released on parole in 1921, later marrying and raising a family. She died in 1949.
Want to learn more?
Carol Markwell, Alice, what have you done! The Case of Alice May Parkinson (Steele Roberts, 2014). We have taken Holland’s speech from p. 53.
New Zealand Truth, 24 April 1915. From PapersPast.
This point of interest is part of the tour: Walking Radical Wellington