Page 1: Biography
Evans, Frederick George
Stationary-engine driver, trade unionist
This biography, written by Philip Rainer, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996, and updated in November, 2001.
Frederick George Evans was the first person to be killed in the course of an industrial dispute in New Zealand. His death raised him from anonymity; he became a martyr, a potent labour symbol.
Evans was born on 11 February 1881 in the Australian mining town of Ballarat, Victoria, the younger of twin boys born to Catherine Dickson and her husband, miner Frederick Evans. He married Maria (May) Kelly, a 19-year-old domestic servant, in a Catholic ceremony at Deloraine, Tasmania, on 31 October 1906. Three years later they came to New Zealand with their two young children. Evans was five feet eight inches tall, 11 stone, square-jawed with a small, well-trimmed moustache and fair wavy hair.
By 1912 he was a stationary-engine driver at a Waihi goldmine. He belonged to the Waihi Trade Union of Workers, a militant socialist union implacably opposed to the Waihi Gold-Mining Company's methods of operation. In April engine drivers formed their own 'company inspired' union, and in June registered it under the arbitration system. The miners demanded their dismissal; this was refused, and the miners struck on 13 May. The company prepared to sit out the strike, generally supported by the business community, which stopped credit to strikers' families. Evans refused to join the breakaway engine drivers; he acted as the striking union's provision storekeeper, and occasional correspondent for the Maoriland Worker.
Complaints of increasing disorder in Waihi led the government, in September, to send extra police with horses, batons and firearms. Leading strikers were served summonses for a range of offences. Sixty-eight were jailed; a few, including Evans, were found guilty then discharged.
Union fortunes declined further when on 2 October the mine reopened. Police escorted workers to the mine and violence escalated. Strikers' womenfolk were now increasingly visible, whistling and harassing police and strike-breakers. On Friday 8 November Evans was involved in a street fight. His wife came to his defence, shaming a policeman into walking away rather than hitting her. The following Monday was a wild spectacle: the main street 'at the height of the storm, provided a scene probably unequalled in the history of the Dominion'. The commissioner of police, John Cullen, now insisted he could no longer guarantee strikers' safety, and demanded the withdrawal of pickets and lookouts. The union agreed, and that evening only three or four remained at the miners' hall, where the picket had been established.
Early on Tuesday 12 November ('Black Tuesday'), Evans went to the hall to relieve one of the pickets. Strike-breakers soon turned up in force, and marched on the miners' hall with police in attendance. A scuffle saw two or three strikers retreat inside. There was a struggle at the door, and Thomas Johnston, a prominent strike-breaker, was shot in the knee. Police and strike-breakers burst into the hall. The unionists fled, with Evans the last one out. Constable Gerald Wade led the chase. He was shot in the stomach, but managed to fell Evans by a baton blow to the head, and Evans went down under a hail of boots and blows. Evans, almost unconscious, was dragged off to the cells, and left for an hour and a half before being transferred to hospital. Wade's injury proved slight. Evans never regained consciousness, and died the next day, 13 November.
Evans certainly shot Johnston, and in all probability Wade. But why should a normally mild-mannered, unassuming man like Evans carry a gun? People on both sides had firearms. Evans owned a gun, and had said he would use it if molested. Strikers that morning were completely outnumbered and were in fear of their lives. A confident mob, with police and company support, mounted a premeditated and well-organised attack. Strikers were hunted through the streets and into private homes. The violence was as vicious as anything seen in a civil conflict in New Zealand.
The New Zealand Federation of Labour organised an enormous political funeral. Evans's body was taken to Auckland, where thousands of mourners lined the streets. After a Methodist funeral service he was buried at Waikaraka cemetery on 17 November 1912. At the inquiry into Evans's death, Wade was found to have acted 'in the execution of his duty' and to have been 'fully justified in striking deceased down'. May Evans was destitute; the FOL raised £1,100 for her and the children.
The F. G. Evans Memorial Library in Auckland's Trade Union Centre is named in honour of Frederick Evans. Each year a commemorative service is held at his grave.