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Story: Mackie, Charles Robert Norris

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Mackie, Charles Robert Norris


Pacifist, social reformer

This biography, written by J. E. Cookson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Charles Robert Norris Mackie was born at Avonside, Christchurch, New Zealand, on 30 April 1869, the son of Rebekah Malyon and her husband, Charles Norris Mackie, a sheepfarmer, who belonged to one of the original runholding families in Canterbury. Charles senior sold his share in the family run, Lavington, in 1884 for £10,043 and retired to England with his wife and son. This Canterbury land, presumably, was the basis of the younger Mackie's wealth, for he remained a man of private means able to devote himself full time to peace work and other interests such as the Workers' Educational Association, the New Zealand Society for the Protection of Women and Children and the New Zealand Howard League for Penal Reform.

Mackie returned to Christchurch in 1901. He became a Baptist the next year and was soon a lay preacher and prominent member. In 1910 he visited Baptist mission stations in Bengal and attended inter-church conferences in India, Scotland and the United States. His congregation was the Oxford Terrace Baptist Church in Christchurch, which at the time, especially under the Reverend Joseph Doke's influence, was strongly progressive. However, Mackie became deeply disillusioned with church Christianity when the Ministers' Association of Christchurch supported compulsory military training in 1911.

It was the Defence Act of 1909 and the compulsory military training for boys and young men – 'boy conscription' – it introduced that made Mackie a decided opponent of militarism and war. He had a large share in the formation of the National Peace Council of New Zealand (NPC) in 1911 and was to remain its secretary and leading figure until shortly before his death. He also organised the council's campaign against compulsory military training, one of the great but often overlooked campaigns of the pre-First World War period. With William Ensom he visited all the towns between Christchurch and Invercargill in July–August 1912 to test opinion on the Defence Act. Against the dominant view that New Zealanders should defend their country and that discipline was good for the young, Mackie typically concluded that information was the most powerful weapon. He later claimed that the NPC had distributed nearly a million printed items in its campaign. Much publicity was also given to the related issue of conscientious objection. A major task of the NPC was furnishing advice to people prosecuted as military defaulters. However, the government showed no inclination to adopt a more lenient policy when wartime conscription was introduced in 1916.

Charles Mackie was married on 13 April 1914 at Nelson to Ethel Maude Manttan, née Nuttall, a widow. In the hostile climate of the First World War Mackie found it impossible to maintain the pre-war level of activity against conscription. Indeed, in the first month of the war the NPC contracted into the Christchurch group it had always essentially been, forming a study circle to avoid provoking public opinion. During the war, it quickly affiliated with the Union of Democratic Control in London, and Mackie would print nothing in the name of the NPC, sending out mainly imported material. In the straitened financial circumstances of the council, he seems to have met most expenses out of his own pocket. Yet he was probably right in claiming that the existence of his organisation kept some rein on the authorities' handling of conscientious objectors, if only because he or other members were often present at sittings of the military service boards and at courts martial.

The slow revival of organised pacifism after the war owed less to Mackie than to Alfred Page of the No More War Movement and Ormond Burton and Archibald Barrington of the Christian Pacifist Society of New Zealand. In spite of Mackie's best efforts, including affiliation with the New Zealand Labour Party between 1918 and 1925, the NPC never regained its place as the central body in a coalition of like-minded organisations. The new generation of pacifists in the inter-war period regarded the NPC as a spent force. The gentlemanly Mackie, whose bearded elegance earned him the ironical sobriquet of 'Royal Navy' Mackie, was regarded with friendly tolerance.

Mackie's greatest contribution to anti-war politics in New Zealand was to emphasise the importance of international contacts. A small, remote pacifist community facing compulsory military service easily became preoccupied with problems of individual conscience, but Mackie, through the worldwide affiliations of the NPC, kept addressing issues of international order. On the eve of the Second World War he attempted to organise petitions in support of a world conference for peace and economic co-operation. His last political gesture was on his deathbed when he refused to vote for Labour in the 1943 general election. Church and party, in the end, had betrayed him on war and conscription. Charles Mackie died in Christchurch on 15 October 1943. Ethel Mackie died in 1961.

How to cite this page:

J. E. Cookson. 'Mackie, Charles Robert Norris', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m20/mackie-charles-robert-norris (accessed 28 May 2023)