Waging the good fight

Rutherford Waddell stands at the pulpit of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Walker St, Dunedin,...
Rutherford Waddell stands at the pulpit of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Walker St, Dunedin, in 1917, 29 years after delivering his Sin of Cheapness clarion call to fight social injustice. Supplied photo.
This cartoon contrasting a woman doing sweated labour with her wealthy employer was based on an...
This cartoon contrasting a woman doing sweated labour with her wealthy employer was based on an article published in the Otago Daily Times and appeared in the Auckland-based New Zealand Observer and Free Lance, on November 3, 1888. Photo from Alexander...
Prof Erik Olssen, who lived on Carroll St within sight of St Andrew's Church during the 1980s,...
Prof Erik Olssen, who lived on Carroll St within sight of St Andrew's Church during the 1980s, said Rutherford Waddell's campaign against sweated labour laid the foundation for the significant social legislation of the 1890s. Photo by Jane Dawber

Rutherford Waddell's sermon on "The Sin of Cheapness" transformed working and living conditions for a swathe of working New Zealanders a century ago. Bruce Munro looks at the life and legacy of Dunedin's once renowned, but now largely forgotten preacher.

On a Sunday morning in early spring, 1888, a Dunedin church minister spoke to his congregation about sweated labour and the sin of covetousness.

The discussion spread like wildfire throughout New Zealand, triggering a royal commission and galvanising public opinion in support of the newly formed Liberal Party, which introduced a suite of social and labour reforms that made New Zealand the envy of many throughout the world.

End of story? It begs more questions than it answers.

Who was the Rev Rutherford Waddell? Why and how did a skinny Irish Presbyterian minister with a slight speech impediment bring about such significant social change? And what has changed since then?

These questions were sparked by a recent email from the University of Otago advising of a day-long conference to be held on Tuesday to mark the 80th anniversary of Mr Waddell's death.

A quick check of Te Ara, the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, provided the basic facts. Born in Ballyroney, Northern Ireland, about 1851, the young Waddell was raised by his aunt after his mother died.

He worked as an apprentice draper until he was 18, then decided to follow his father and older brother into church ministry.

In 1877, having completed studies but been rejected for missionary service in Syria and turned down by an Irish congregation, he sailed with his wife Kathleen for New Zealand to work for the Canterbury Presbyterian Church Extension Association.

It was only 18 months, however, before he shifted again, to Dunedin, where he became minister of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Walker St (now Carroll St), Fernhill.

St Andrew's parish took in some of the wealthiest and poorest parts of Dunedin, Yvonne Wilkie, of the Presbyterian Archives Research Centre, says.

The parish stretched from the lower reaches of leafy, sunny, elevated Mornington - with its rich merchants and notable residents such as investor and parliamentarian W.H. Reynolds, seed merchants Robert Nimmo and John Blair, importer A.S. Paterson and drapery owner Thomas Brown - all the way down to the muddy, overcrowded, seedy streets of what was called the Devil's Half-Acre.

A couple of history degree theses tucked away in the university's Hocken Collections paint a fascinating picture of the Devil's Half-Acre and Mr Waddell's response to it.

Walker St, and Mr Waddell's church, were in the very heart of the disreputable triangle formed by Princes, Maclaggan and Maitland streets, the budding historians wrote.

Here Chinese migrants drawn by Otago's 1860s gold rushes had set up a tent city which grew into a sprawling multi-ethnic, multi-lingual mix of cheap housing, dark alleys and smoky factories cheek by jowl with dozens of bars, along with brothels and gambling and opium dens. In the 1890s it would also become home to a growing Lebanese community.

It was in this challenging milieu that Mr Waddell set to work. In 1880, he set up the St Andrew's Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association to provide education and friendship that would "strengthen ... character".

The same year he gave an address to the association titled "The sigh and song of the weary" - in essence an early draft of his "The Sin of Cheapness" sermon.

Within three years he had established a Ladies Association within the church to distribute food and clothing to the poor of the parish.

By the end of the decade he had set up a savings bank, a free library and, with the help of prominent parishioner Rachel Reynolds, New Zealand's first free kindergarten.

These were not knee-jerk reactions or even a plan dreamed up in antipodean isolation, Dr Peter Matheson, a former Knox College professor of church history, says.

Mr Waddell was a well-read and passionate believer in the global Christian Socialist movement, which was at its height at this time.

"He saw connections between Jesus' teachings and socialist principles of sharing," Dr Matheson says.

"He was also evangelical. But while a lot of evangelicals were more ... concerned with the salvation of the individual, Waddell saw salvation as being about justice issues as well."

So when he stood in the pulpit on Sunday mornings he spoke with conviction about the need for rich and poor to respond to Jesus' command to "love your neighbour as yourself".

He spoke with the credibility of someone willing to roll up his sleeves and get stuck in.

And crucially, University of Otago historian Associate Prof John Stenhouse says, Mr Waddell spoke and acted with empathy borne from hard experience.

A lonely, motherless son of a busy minister, the young Waddell found school a "crushing experience" and then spent four years as a draper's apprentice working long hours for little if any pay, Prof Stenhouse says.

"This is a young fellow who grows up knowing suffering and cruelty. He is marked for life ... I think he was private, even shy.

"But it helped make him a minister with an unusual capacity to empathise with those suffering and a real dislike of bullies and an exploitative system."

No copies of "The Sin of Cheapness", delivered in St Andrew's Church on the last Sunday in September or the first Sunday in October, 1888, have been found.

But the response to it, and reports of it, suggest it was a moving and compelling blend of factual information, biblical rhetoric, and call to arms.

The reality of grinding poverty in Dunedin, particularly among seamstresses forced to work extremely long hours for little recompense, was laid bare before his listeners.

The cause was a lust for cheap goods, which manufacturers were responding to by pushing wages below subsistence levels, he argued. In obedience to Christ, everyone needed to fight against this evil, and help bring about a society based on the "supreme law of love".

In November, Mr Waddell sought the endorsement of the church's regional governing body, the synod. To what extent he got that support is a matter of academic debate.

Either way, the discussion quickly spreads beyond church walls.

On October 20, a letter to the Otago Daily Times about sweating in Dunedin is published with a response by editor George Fenwick.

The letter alleges "My wife, whilst visiting recently in connection with one of the local charities, found a woman with two children, one a few weeks old and the other unable to walk ...

"Her work was finishing Crimean shirts; she had six buttonholes to make, seven buttons to sew on, and a few buttonhole stitches to make on the two sleeves and the two laps of each shirt; buttons were found, but the worker had to find her own needles and thread; and what do you think is paid for this work? ... eightpence per dozen shirts, and at this munificent wage she could, by working her hardest whilst attending to these children, make 4d per day ... which was all she, her husband, and two children had to depend upon.

"Is this work, or slavery?"

In his response, Mr Fenwick wrote that he had sent his chief reporter, Silas Spragg, to investigate the letter's claims and found they were "perfectly true".

Mr Spragg had then visited Mr Waddell "who recently made some disclosures regarding the sweating system in Dunedin in a sermon on "The Sin of Cheapness" which he preached a few Sundays ago in St Andrew's Church", Mr Fenwick wrote.

"Mr Waddell said the statements contained in the letter, which was shown to him, were only too true."
In Mr Fenwick and Mr Spragg, the feisty minister had found equally determined allies.

Mr Spragg had, several years previously, written a series of articles investigating poverty in Dunedin. His editor, and soon-to-be brother-in-law, was a strong supporter of social justice. Proven injustices, it was said, made Mr Fenwick visibly angry.

Early in 1889, the Otago Daily Times began a campaign which included a series of exposes of the sweated system, and public meetings calling for change.

Newspapers throughout the country carried stories on the issue.

In 1890, the Government set up a royal commission and appointed Mr Waddell as one of its members.

The immediate response to its recommendations was the 1891 Factories Act, which introduced an inspection system to monitor work conditions.

But Mr Waddell's impact was much more far-reaching, former University of Otago historian Emeritus Professor Erik Olssen says.

"He galvanised opinion among all those who agreed the one thing they did not want in New Zealand was the extremes of wealth and poverty that existed in their home countries," Prof Olssen says.

His sweating campaign prepared the ground for the newly formed Liberal Party, which came to power in 1891 and introduced the distinctive and internationally lauded social legislation of the 1890s.

Mr Waddell died in Dunedin on April 16, 1932, survived by one daughter and his second wife, Christabel.

Once rated one of the top preachers in the country and recognised for his contribution, he has all but slipped from the history books.

Restoring public awareness of Mr Waddell was a key reason for holding the one-day conference, according to Prof Andrew Bradstock, director of the University of Otago's Centre for Theology and Public Issues.

"We should never forget our history, especially the people and movements who did so much lasting good for others," he says.

"And people like Waddell can also inspire us as we confront wrongs and injustices today, challenging us to ask what it would take to be as effective in our day as he was in his."

The voices saying change is still needed, and seeking how best to achieve that, can be found in all quarters.

This week in the Otago Daily Times, Dunedin North MP David Clark argued for a $15 an hour minimum wage to help tackle ongoing inequality.

"Inequality has grown dramatically in New Zealand over the last three decades," Dr Clark, who like Mr Waddell trained as a Presbyterian minister, said.

"Poverty, illness and underachievement will not be addressed until we ensure the conditions are right for all Kiwis to succeed."

Mr Waddell was the first president of the Tailoress' Union, which was set up during the sweating campaign in 1889.

Helen Kelly, president of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions, believes workers' conditions are slipping back towards 19th-century levels.

Governments' enduring commitment to the value of work, forged in Mr Waddell's time and underpinning employment regulation for many decades, was lost in the 1990s, Ms Kelly says.

"The contract has been broken. People are now simply left to get what they can," she says.

In New Zealand 300,000 employees are on, or near, the minimum wage of $13.50/hour - a pay rate recognised as insufficient to live on, Ms Kelly said.

"We are seeing people who are working all week and spending Saturday at the foodbank because they don't have a liveable wage."

A disturbing trend was the growth of contract work which, when calculated on a per hour basis, was sometimes considerably less than the minimum wage.

In some instances, trade unions and churches were working together on these issues, Ms Kelly said.

"You could argue Jesus was the ultimate socialist. That he was challenging the wealthy and that was why they killed him."

Dr Matheson believes the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand needs to regain a sense of urgency about social justice issues.

"I think we've largely lost it," he said.

"It's there in patches. But Waddell had a theology of the world that we've lost at present.

"We need to regrasp the relationship between social justice and the heart of the gospel."

Rob Cooper is pastor of Dunedin Wesleyan Church, on Stafford St. The former chief executive of the New Zealand branch of Christian aid agency Tear Fund says social needs within what was the Devil's Half-Acre, and the issue of sweated labour, continue to be pressing.

That part of Dunedin now contains "a whole group of people who are virtually homeless", Mr Cooper says.
Most of them are former prisoners, and many have mental-health issues.

"We've identified this as a key issue, and are just on the brink of getting involved."

Early this year he took up the leadership of the church after more than five years teaching English in China. While there, he saw ample evidence of sweated labour.

"Most often it was starving peasants brought into the cities to live and work in cramped and sometimes dangerous conditions for low pay," Mr Cooper says.

"We're still after cheapness.

We enjoy the benefits, while now someone overseas pays the price."

Ms Kelly says sweated and forced labour is a serious international concern, but she does not agree it is driven by consumer greed.

Cheap goods were offered, not demanded, she says. There was plenty of evidence New Zealanders did not support practices which increased inequality.

"New Zealanders are big donators to a huge number of charitable organisations. They want to help where they see need. It suggests they do want a different sort of world," Ms Kelly says.

Ordinary people, if they were willing to take a stand, could make a difference, she says.

"Waddell was brave. Brave people who are prepared to speak out bring change.

"The average person has to do something for change to happen. I say, join a social movement and help bring about that change."


The conference

• "No Sweat! Rutherford Waddell and the Sin of Cheapness" one-day conference celebrating the life, work and legacy of the Christian minister and social reformer. Tuesday, August 28, 8.45am to 4.45pm, Burns Hall, Moray Pl, Dunedin, $15 waged/$10 unwaged.

One Hundred Years On - Where Have All the Voices Gone? Has Deference Won? Free public lecture by New Zealand Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly.
Followed by a dramatic interpretation of Waddell's 1888 sermon written by Richard Huber, and combined choir performance of The Sin of Cheapness, composed by Anthony Ritchie. Tuesday, August 28, 5.15pm to 7pm, in First Church, Moray Pl, Dunedin.


 

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