Walking Radical Wellington

A walking tour visiting key sites of activism in Wellington, New Zealand.

Walking Radical Wellington

Wellington, Aro Valley, Wellington 6011, New Zealand

Created By: Radical Wellington Walking Tour

Tour Information

“The use and purpose of streets: history.”

Mark W. Turner, Backward Glances: Cruising the Queer Streets of New York and London, p. 101

This tour won't take you to Te Papa or to the Botanic Gardens, or to carefully-preserved heritage buildings or even to Parliament. This tour is most likely to take you on routes that Wellingtonians have walked a thousand times, through Cuba Mall, Manners Street, and Lambton Quay, and in doing so, invites the walker to view well-travelled roads through a different lens. The familiar sights of shopping outlets, hotels, innocuous street corners featuring restaurants that change menus every season are also the locations of radical bookstores, social struggle, subversive socialising, and sites of violent protest over the past century.

Walking, Rebecca Solnit observes in her history of the habit, follows the pace of thoughts. Everyday life encourages us to pass over the side street, the forgotten remnant, the reminder, all in favour of what is to come next: work, an appointment, a destination. Capital orders our life according to the clock and just-in-time delivery. It’s no surprise that the cliches of mainstream politics emphasise the future against memory, history and the past. Politicians are forever “moving forward”, hoping for “step change”, driving on towards tomorrow. We suggest a more random, more meandering route. This tour takes you through Wellingtons that have been and that might be again: sites of dissent, disagreement, resistance. Its aim is to connect the walker with the city as a place of history, historical memory, connections between the past and present. Our method follows the meandering pace of the stroller. In this tour associations accumulate alongside each other rather than fitting into any too-clear narrative. We want the otherness of the past – its surprises and its radicalism – to stir new thoughts in the present.

And this is just one tour of what could have been many. Create two, three, many Radical Wellingtons! Let a hundred walking tour flowers bloom! This is nothing like a documentary of all radical activity. The limits are our own unathletic feet: we want an amble, a chance for drink stops along the way, one possible route. How much more there is to say! J.B. Hulbert satirised Queen Victoria’s statue on Kent Terrace in the Maoriland Worker. Newtown has its own radical history, from 1913 to the Springbok Tour. The Hutt saw industrial radicalism through the 1970s. Ours is one, partial, account. We would love to follow more.

The history we tell here is not an attempt to capture the history of Māori political activity in Wellington. That history is all around us, from Ngake and Whataitai smashing their way into the harbour’s present form to Kupe’s arrival at Seatoun to the sites of Te Aro pā to the struggles of Taranaki Whānui and Ngāti Toa Rangatira for land rights and recognition to the great national mobilisations of the hikoi against the Foreshore and Seabed legislation of 2004 to the land march of 1975. We do not have the reo, the immersion in mātauranga Māori, the whakapapa to do that history justice. It deserves another app and a tour of its own.

This tour draws instead on the history of working-class and socialist organising in Wellington. For as long as there have been workers in these islands there has been workers’ resitance. Samuel Parnell insisted, on Petone foreshore in 1840, on an eight-hour day. As an old man he was happy to be paraded on Wellington Labour Day marches. The working-class movement, trade unionism, the labour cause, used to be about imagining wholly different ways of life, post-capitalist futures. Women and men met to defend their conditions, certainly, but also to dream, to plot alternative futures, to imagine justice. Has some of that utopian energy been lost today? This tour looks for a lost future in the streets of our past.

Part of our tour will also bring you to not only some of the sites of political organisation of queer Wellingtonians, but social spaces and outlets where the private lives of individuals could find public expression. We introduce the idea of a city within a city, a network within a network of coffee houses, night clubs, theatres, and personal homes. While we do not intend for this tour to be some kind of queer safari, we hope to enable an experience of Wellington from another person's perspective, not only from a different time, but from a different political space, and therefore experiencing a different Wellington entirely. Public space is transformed depending on the way it is occupied, and in queer life, the personal is almost always political.

The tour, like any good companionable work, is a collaboration between us. Our aim has been harmony rather than uniformity. We share responsibility for each of these entries, but have made no attempt to smooth out the creases of disagreement and emphasis between our differing political affiliations, interests, and emphases. Walking with us gives you the chance to quarrel and disagree as you travel along. That’s what radical Wellington involves. Welcome.

Dougal McNeill and Samantha Murphy

March 2018


Samantha’s work on this tour was funded by generous support from the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington. Dougal’s contributions originated as notes for tours he has been running for the Wellington branch of the International Socialist Organisation since 2013. This is intended as an ecumenical tour, and is not an ISO publication, but we acknowledge the concept’s initial support in the political home of the ISO.

Professor Leith Davis at Simon Fraser University gave an initial inspiration for this project. We are indebted to the many fine historians of radical Wellington we draw on in the following pages, in particular Jared Davidson, the Labour History Project group’s work on 1913, Chris Brickell, and Bert Roth. Our other debts are acknowledged in individual entires; they are many. The work of Mick Armstrong, Jeff Sparrow and Jill Sparrow on radical Melbourne set some of these ideas in motion. Our thanks also to Sue Hirst of the Beaglehole Room, Victoria University of Wellington Library, for her ongoing support.

Tour Map

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What You'll See on the Tour

Harry Holland will be a frequent companion of ours as we take this radical tour. Holland (1868-1933) came over to New Zealand in his early 40s after twenty years’ activism in the New South Wales socialist movement. Originally planning a r... Read more
"To frequent a known gay or lesbian space in the early days was regarded as subversive by straight society." Historian and lesbian feminist Valda Edyvane, reflecting on the 'coming out' of gay and lesbian Wellingtonians, names the Aro St Co... Read more
In the early morning hours of 8 May, 1999, the police found a young man who had been beaten to near death on Inverlochy Place. He died in intensive care, hours later. He was 14-years-old. It's understood that Jeff was targetted that night b... Read more
Painted bright pink and purple, the Woman's Place was established in June, 1981, as an independent bookstore that sold a wide range of feminist literature and magazines. It sold stock that reflected expansive ideology of feminism: books on ... Read more
The Alexandra Hall at 56 Abel Smith was a popular space in the 1910s for political meetings, religious revival speakers and dances. In 1916 it hosted some of the big meetings of the anti-conscription movement. Worried about working-class en... Read more
The original site of the Resistance Bookshop of Wellington, later moved to Willis Street.
Porleen Simmons (whose name you may recognise from the Woman's Place bookstore a few stops ago) was a lesbian activist since the 1970s. She passed away on 28 September, 2014. Prior to her opening her bookstore with Pleasance, she, along wit... Read more
‘Labor omnia vincit’: work conquers all. The line is taken from the Roman poet Virgil’s Georgics, and shows the confidence of Wellington’s trade union movement. For decades Trades Hall here in Vivian Street was the organising hub of... Read more
The Communist Party had offices, and a Unity Centre, in this building from during the Second World War until the 1960s. The Centre was used to hold public meetings, socials, and Communist forums, while the offices arranged the Party’s int... Read more
Cuba Mall has been a centre for left-wing dissent and organising over the last century. In addition to the Street’s numerous bookshops and party rooms, the street itself has been a place to proselytise, pamphleteer, and proclaim. This pho... Read more
Mounted and foot police charge a demonstration of unemployed workers in Wellington's Cuba Street on 11 May 1932. Unemployment peaked in this period, with possibly more than 100,000 out of work. Protests by the unemployed the previous month... Read more
The 1951 Waterfront Lockout and supporting strikes were together the biggest industrial struggle since the Great Strikes of 1913. Watersiders and their supporters were pitted against the National government, the shipping companies, the CIA ... Read more
From QueerHistory.Net: Gay and lesbian gathering was very much under the control of the licensing laws until 1967, when ten o'clock closing was introduced after a referendum. The Bistro Bar was one of the first to bend the licensing laws, a... Read more
From Manners Mall into Manners Street, recent memory of this site has seen some swift transformation in the past decade, from an open mall into a funnel of congestion for busses, cars, and crowded sidewalks. To imagine where the Dorian Soci... Read more
The Socialist Party, and the socialist movement more widely in the 1910s and 1920s, was concerned with more than just the reform of existing society. Its members hoped to overthrow capitalism and create a new system of mutual cooperation an... Read more
On the corner of Manners, Lombard, and Victoria, used to stand the  New Zealand Post Office building, and during the Second World War, it was the Allied Services Club, the location that sparked the Battle of Manners Street: a three hour ma... Read more
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 devast... Read more
Where the Willis Street Village stands now, Wellington's Resistance Bookshop was opened originally on Cuba Street in 1970, and Wills Street premises established in 1975. It represented a non-sectarian center for left-wing radical activity, ... Read more
The Lesbian and Gay Rights Resource Center (LGRRC), formerly the National Gay Rights Coalition resource centre in 1978, was established in 1981 as a central archive for literature on law reform, censorship, human rights, lesbian and gay hea... Read more
The struggle for a woman’s right to control her own body continues in New Zealand. Abortion remains in the Crimes Act, and a woman must go through hoops – sometimes expensive and demeaning – to access services necessary for her own re... Read more
Like the Royal Oak Hotel, the Powder Puff (better known as the Powder Poof by its regulars) was one of a network of informal gay hangouts, along with Carmen’s Coffee Lounge, the Cave, the Sunset, and the Sorrento.  Chrissy Witoko, procla... Read more
The State Insurance Building looks like a monument to capital, its imposing black phallicism symbolic of the greed-is-good swagger of the 1980s, deregulation and big finance. But it is also a monument to militancy, and spent several years i... Read more
Philip Josephs was a Latvian-born Jewish tailor and a central figure in the intellectual and political life of early twentieth-century Wellington dissent and revolt. He used his tailor’s business as a distribution centre for anarchist and... Read more
At least one experience of this walking tour should be a sense of temporal displacement, witnessing sites of history that have been redeveloped and can only be captured in remembering. Here, the French Maid coffee shop represents a time whe... Read more
Whitcombe and Tombs publishers and bookshop (a descendent of today’s Whitcoulls) became the site of a pitched battle during the great strike of 1913. The 1913 Great Strike split Wellington. What had started as separate disputes over the s... Read more
The ‘battle of Featherston Street’ was a significant turning point in the 1913 struggle away from the workers’ side. NZHistory.net summarises the story: The ‘Battle of Featherston Street’, in downtown Wellington, saw some of the m... Read more
Strike meetings and agitational rallies here during 1913 helped spread the strikers’ message, give information out to strikers, and keep up morale. The crowd in this picture gives some sense of the scale of the struggle, and the women in ... Read more
A crowd gathers on Jervois Quay in front of the gates to Queen’s Wharf during the 1913 strike. The Wellington Harbour Board’s boardroom was on the first floor of the building on the right, which is now the Museum of Wellington City an... Read more


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