Page 1: Biography
Coalminer, trade unionist, writer
This biography, written by Len Richardson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
Edward Hunter was born on 2 June 1885 at Rigside, on the Lanarkshire coalfields in Scotland. He was the son of John Hunter, a miner, and his wife, Jessie Lammie. By his own account he received little formal education and entered the pits alongside his father at the age of 12. He came to the West Coast of New Zealand in 1906, committed, as he later recalled, to the socialist cause and much influenced by Keir Hardie and Bob Smillie of the Independent Labour Party. It was from the Huntly coalfields, where he moved in 1907, that Hunter came to the fore as a member of the New Zealand Federation of Labour.
In the pages of the federation's Maoriland Worker, using the pen-name 'Billy Banjo', he articulated, in verse and prose, the grievances of the miners. What distinguishes Hunter from other coalfield polemicists is his passionate belief in the capacity of the miners to rise above their historically determined proletarian status and liberate the working class. He is ambivalent about precisely how New Zealand miners are to escape the legacy of the past and lead the assault on capitalism. He implies that by their day-to-day struggles with the coal magnates they would create the wider support necessary for an ultimate general strike. Occasionally he hints that they might seize control of the pits and hasten the day of reckoning. More commonly Hunter stresses the need to educate the miners so that they will be ready someday to fulfil their historic mission as liberators of the nation's workers.
By 1911 he had become secretary of the Huntly branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party. During 1912–13, when the 'Red Feds' and the more militant unions used strikes to attack the arbitration system, Hunter, now living at Denniston, became more assertive. He continued his writing, and was also active in the local branch of the Socialist Party and in the Denniston Miners' Union. In 'A song of freedom' he called on the miners to 'stand and fight'. After Fred Evans was killed in a skirmish between police and strikers at Waihi in November 1912, he wanted a general strike and wrote of the approaching moment when workers would 'rise o'er reddened paths in Might'. When the general strike was proclaimed in 1913 he welcomed it as a 'peoples' revolt' and was quickly in the thick of it. As a member of the Buller Miners' Central Strike Committee he organised public protest. He was arrested and charged with sedition for allegedly telling unionists gathered in Newtown Park, Wellington, that the government's violent response to the strike justified revolution; he received a period of probation.
Unlike some of his fellow socialists, Hunter was a supporter of independent working-class political organisation. As well as being the Buller district organiser for the United Federation of Labour, he represented the miners on the executive of the Social Democratic Party, formed in 1913 as part of an attempt to unify the divergent groupings within the labour movement. And he welcomed the election of New Zealand's first coalminer MP, Paddy Webb, in July 1913 as pointing the way to greater political involvement by the miners.
The last five years of Hunter's New Zealand sojourn were disrupted and difficult. Blacklisted on the coalfields, he worked as an itinerant organiser for the shearers' union and the Wellington Rural Workers' Union, and as a freezing worker or watersider; he was never at ease in these positions. His attempts to promote the cause of industrial unionism among rural workers failed. He had more success in 1919 when he organised a Rights of Childhood League among Auckland trade unionists and educationalists, and he served as president of the Auckland fellmongers', beamsmen's and curriers' unions.
It was during these disjointed years that Hunter turned more to his writing. His two major publications were Ballads of the track (1918), a collection of 32 poems, many of which first appeared in the Maoriland Worker; and The road the men came home (1920), a largely autobiographical novel. They undoubtedly have their genesis in Hunter's New Zealand experiences, yet there are similarities with the work of his brother-in-law James Welsh. Welsh had spent a brief and unhappy spell in New Zealand in 1906, and published Songs of a miner (1917) and an instantly successful socialist coalfields novel, The underworld (1920).
Hunter returned to Scotland about 1919. He was at the forefront of the left-wing theatre which blossomed on the Scottish coalfields in the late 1920s. The disinherited, the first of what Hunter described as his 'community, musical dramatic plays', was performed by a cast drawn from the nearby mining settlements at Douglas Water, Strathclyde, in 1928. Thereafter Hunter turned increasingly to journalism for his living, writing for a variety of labour papers. In 1937 he was elected on a socialist ticket to the Glasgow City Corporation. He represented the Cowcaddens ward continuously for 22 years and became deputy chairman of the corporation shortly before his retirement and death on 6 December 1959. Hunter had married Mary Wards Cutt at Wellington on 20 April 1909. She died in March 1915 and he was left to care for four young children.
Edward Hunter's time in New Zealand was brief, and he made little permanent impact. Nevertheless, his career as writer and itinerant union organiser illuminates some of the lesser-known aspects of the labour movement in the early twentieth century.