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Story: Rae, Charles Joseph

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Rae, Charles Joseph


Painter, journalist, labour reformer

This biography, written by Herbert Roth, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Charles Joseph Rae was born in London, England, probably sometime between 1819 and 1821, the son of Emma Lydyard and her husband, Joseph Rae, a stonemason. Little is known of his early life, but he became a painter by trade. Rae took an active part in the Chartist movement; he later joined the Royal Navy where he rose to the modest rank of master at arms. Nothing is known of his first marriage, but Rae was a widower when, on 4 June 1851 in the Register Office, Bloomsbury, London, he married Ann Elizabeth Beldam, the daughter of a musical instrument maker. Soon afterwards, disillusioned by the obstacles to reform in England, the couple emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, 'to assist in the founding of a young nation.'

Charles and Ann Rae initially lived in Papanui, and Charles was soon involved in promoting the interests of workers. In March 1852 he wrote to the Lyttelton Times advocating the establishment of a mechanics' institute, where working men and their families might enjoy 'the feast of reason / And the flow of soul.' He helped to promote, and contributed (under the pen-name 'Marcus') to, the weekly Guardian and Canterbury Advertiser. It was the first newspaper printed and published in Christchurch, and appeared briefly between June and September 1852. Equally short-lived was a Christchurch Colonists' Society, with Rae as a committee member.

In May 1859 Rae again pressed for the establishment of a mechanics' institute; it opened in August with Rae as secretary. He and his wife had by then moved to the Heathcote valley, where Charles found employment on the construction of the road tunnel to Lyttelton. In 1864 the lure of the Wakamarina goldrush took him to Marlborough. Unsuccessful at the diggings, Rae worked in a sawmill at The Grove and then moved to Blenheim where he resumed his trade as painter and paperhanger, soon also working as a land and insurance agent. As in Christchurch, he became involved in the life of the community. In 1869 he was elected secretary of the Blenheim Literary Institute, an office he held for eight years, and he became a frequent contributor to the Marlborough Express, as well as Blenheim correspondent of the Kaikoura Herald and East Coast Advertiser. He founded a museum in Blenheim, helped to form the Blenheim Debating Society, and served on the Blenheim Borough Council in 1878.

By 1880 Rae had returned to Christchurch where, with his customary energy, he threw himself into radical politics. Convinced that the workers were 'too weak even to be led, too ignorant to be convinced', Rae emphasised the need to educate the working classes so that they would 'know the nature of the evil they suffer'. Workers, in his opinion, had shown little intelligence at the polling booth; their election to Parliament would not, in itself, be a solution to inequality. A fellow reformer, H. G. Ell, described Rae as 'a man well advanced in years, wearing a short white beard. He was lame but brimful of energy. He poured letters unceasingly into the columns of the daily papers advocating reforms and attacking those who resisted them.' Rae, who now wrote under the pen-name 'Jarec', was an active member of the Canterbury Freethought Association and of the Christchurch Working Men's Political Association, which he represented at the first meeting of the New Zealand Trades and Labour Congress in 1885. During the Russian war scare of that year the government took advantage of his naval experience to put him in charge of military stores at Lyttelton.

In 1889 Rae became president of the Christchurch assembly of the Knights of Labor and the first secretary of the local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of New Zealand, whom he represented on the newly formed Canterbury Trades and Labour Council. He conducted a small radical paper, the Age, of which, unfortunately, no copy survives. Rae gave evidence before the 1890 royal commission on sweating and chaired the People's Political Association which called for specific measures to advance the interests of the industrial classes. An advocate of women's suffrage, he was nominated for Parliament in 1890 but stood down to avoid a split in the progressive vote. In 1891 he chaired the first meeting of the Christchurch branch of the Amalgamated Shearers' and Labourers' Union, and was elected provisional president.

The new Liberal government reportedly intended to offer Rae a seat in the Legislative Council, but Rae's failing health prevented this. Late in 1892 he left Christchurch to live with a son in Otahuhu, Auckland. There he died on 7 February 1894, having told a friend that his last wishes were for the success of the Liberal cause.

Rae was widely praised after his death, in spite of having earned a measure of unpopularity through his outspokenness. He was described as 'one of the most prominent and staunch Liberals of New Zealand' and 'a man rare in these times, inasmuch as he had the courage of his opinions'. He was survived by Ann Rae, five sons and a daughter. One of his sons, Arthur, became a prominent labour leader in Australia, serving as a senator in the federal Parliament.

How to cite this page:

Herbert Roth. 'Rae, Charles Joseph', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2r1/rae-charles-joseph (accessed 21 July 2024)