On this day in 1856, James Keir Hardie was born near Holytown, a small town close to Motherwell. He had a most interesting life, and even those with different political views would probably concede that his contributions in making the Labour Party were critical to British political life. What I want to focus on today, however, is how Keir Hardie was a global figure, a figure of much wieder relevance to political movements beyond the British Isles. Let’s look at one specific episode, his 1907-08 visit to New Zealand. This visit was part of a tour that brought him not only to New Zealand, but also Africa, Australia and India (for more, see for instance here).
Hardie began his tour in Auckland, where he arrived, by ship from Australia, on 22 December 1907; he was to visit Wellington, Dunedin and a number of smaller settlements en route. While in Auckland Hardie delivered an address to workers. As was reported in the Star:
The object of the Labour movement was to weld together the poor down-trodden proletariat with the more or less intellectual middleclass, aand make of them one great harmonious whole, and so fight for the overthrow of the system which was crushing their life. […] Whatever other improvements they might effect by the way, there would never be any freedom for the working classes, either at home or abroad, so long as the means of their livelihood was not under their own control. He urged that the Labour party in the colony should work hand in hand with that at Home.
Also addressed were comments Hardie allegedly made in India – comments that many viewed as anti-British and led a number of councils in New Zealand to seek and outlaw any public recognition of Hardie’s visit (see for instance here and here). Little came of them, however, and Hardie was generally welcomed warmly where he went.
In Wellington, a welcome reception was arranged for him in the form of a supper at the Town Hall, with 130 guests present, including Wellington’s then mayor, T.W. Hislop. Born in Kirknewton, West Lothian, in 1850, Hislop was a fellow Scot who had arrived in New Zealand with his parents in the late 1850s. The family first lived in Dunedin, but Hislop later moved to Oamaru and then Wellington. He represented two South Island electorates as MP and held a number of political positions, including Minister of Education. Of Hardie, Hislop reportedly said that ‘in the whole of his career, had exhibited self-abnegation and a determination to better the position of the class which required help, regardless of his own personal interests and comfort.’
To learn more about Hardie’s other engagaments and the reception of his visit, have a look at Papers Past – offers a large number of press reports on Hardie’s time in the country.
Also, the National Library of Scotland holds records from Hardie that contain ‘an album of photographs presented to KH as a souvenir of his New Zealand visit by the Wellington Citizens’ Reception Committee, January 1908’ (see here – opens .pdf).