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Story: McCullough, John Alexander

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McCullough, John Alexander


Tinsmith, trade unionist, political activist

This biography, written by Melanie Nolan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

John Alexander McCullough was born at Belfast, Ireland, on 17 January 1860, the eldest of five children. He was the son of Sarah Davison and her husband, William John McCullough, a seaman, staunch unionist and Orangeman; both his parents were devout Presbyterians. The McCulloughs emigrated in 1863 to Liverpool. Jack, as he was called, finished his formal schooling at a Presbyterian primary school at 12, then served a seven-year apprenticeship as a brass worker. In February 1880 the family emigrated to New Zealand.

Jack McCullough arrived in Canterbury as the colony was embarking on a decade of depression; throughout his first year he had no choice but to work as a labourer for a local coal merchant. He then joined the exodus to Australia where he worked at his trade in Sydney. He returned to a job as a labourer with the Christchurch Gas, Coal and Coke Company, and then became a seaman and waterside worker at Lyttelton for 18 months. In 1882 he became a tinsmith at the Addington Railway Workshops.

On 6 June 1885 at Christchurch McCullough married Margaret Garvin, who was from an Irish farming family. They were to have a family of four sons and one daughter.

McCullough brought with him to New Zealand and cultivated a staunch family and personal commitment to unionism: he had been baptised in the font of the Sinclair Seamen's Church in Belfast and apprenticed in the craft unionism of the Liverpool smiths. He became a council member of the Canterbury branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of New Zealand in 1890. In addition to being leading tinsmith at the Addington Railway Workshops, he was elected to represent the union on the Railway Appeal Board for the Middle Island and the Government Railways' Superannuation Fund Board in 1903. He also served as delegate to national conferences, as well as auditor and chairman of the branch from 1905 to 1907.

McCullough became one of the leading trade unionists in Canterbury. He represented the Christchurch Tinsmiths' and Sheetmetal Workers' Union as foundation secretary and delegate to the Canterbury Trades and Labour Council from 1898. The CTLC was then growing rapidly following its collapse in 1893. McCullough quickly rose to prominence, becoming vice president in 1899 and president in 1901. He probably organised more unions than anyone else in New Zealand at the turn of the century – 17 in 1901 alone.

McCullough's reputation grew during the attempt to organise the Canterbury farm labourers. Together with James Thorn, McCullough rode his bike over the gravel roads of the Canterbury plains speaking to groups and performing the more arduous job known as 'plough-chasing' – visiting individual farms to interview workers. His election as president of the Farm Labourers' Union in 1906 and his agitation to win an arbitration award for this group of rural workers made McCullough unpopular with local farmers and their North Canterbury district of the New Zealand Farmers' Union. This organisation affiliated with the Canterbury Employers' Association in 1906 and employers' leaders had their eye on McCullough when they decried the insidious 'civil war' being fought in New Zealand between 'right minded New Zealanders and Socialist union agitators'.

Together with Harry Atkinson, McCullough founded the Christchurch Socialist Church in 1896 and made his mark speaking on a soapbox in Cathedral Square on Sundays. He joined the Christchurch Co-operative Society, becoming involved in their bakery enterprise between 1902 and 1904. He often wrote the CTLC's regular column in the Christchurch Co-operative News during 1904. McCullough supported the abolition of private ownership and attempted to establish a co-operative land settlement on Clifton hills, Sumner, with the Atkinsons and a few other socialists. As he told the 1905 royal commission on Crown lands tenure and settlement, he wanted the nationalisation of land, but in the meantime he 'played by the legal rules' achieving the 'homeownership ideal'. Indeed, he owned several residences by 1914, having bought land as an investment for his old age. In spite of his religious background, he stopped attending church in the 1880s, moving to church socialism. He joined the Canterbury Fabian Society in 1908 and developed an enthusiasm for political socialism and support for a New Zealand labour party.

McCullough was dismissed from the railways in 1907 for 'contumaciously taking an active and prominent part in politics contrary to the regulations of the Department'. It was widely believed that Canterbury farmers had brought pressure to bear on the government to sack him. The government seemed reluctant to do so: the minister for railways used J. T. Paul, MLC, as an intermediary to get McCullough to comply with their regulations prohibiting public servants from political activity. McCullough would have contemplated compliance with the department's terms only in the interests of his family: used to steady employment, he thought it irresponsible not to be a breadwinner. However, Margaret supported his non-compliance and so he was dismissed. His workmates held an emotional smoke concert for him, the largest of its kind to date, and lauded him as a 'real white man' for his stand.

McCullough's dismissal gave him some notoriety and may have contributed to his election in 1907 as the workers' representative on the Court of Arbitration. The choice of McCullough over the long-serving Robert Slater heralded the arrival of a new force in labour politics. Growing disenchantment with the arbitration court and its pronouncements had spilled over into criticism of Slater. He was proud of his record and, unlike McCullough, found little over which to criticise the court. There was also growing discontent with the Liberal–Labour alliance. Slater was a Liberal, McCullough a socialist who tried to make the CTLC a vehicle for an independent labour movement and the institution of socialism. He had left the New Zealand Socialist Party to join the Independent Political Labour League of New Zealand in 1905, and his regular column in the Christchurch Truth in 1906 expounded the virtues of a union-led independent socialist movement. The differences between McCullough and Slater were clear, and McCullough was elected after an acrimonious campaign.

McCullough's socialist coterie initially experienced difficulty in distinguishing itself from a Liberal establishment in Christchurch which assiduously cultivated its working-class power base. Even the CTLC was closely allied with the Liberals. In 1909, however, the independent labour faction won control of the council executive and a small section of the Lib–Lab and craft unionists seceded. In 1910 the victors formed the first New Zealand Labour Party. Internecine warfare finally split the council asunder in 1914: the rump of craft unionists who had conceived it left when it shifted its support to the Social Democratic Party, which had been created by the industrial unions.

Independent labourites, like McCullough, working from within trades and labour councils, had faced opposition from the industrial unionists from 1909. McCullough might criticise the arbitration court – and he rarely agreed fully with its decisions – but he was loath to follow the New Zealand Federation of Labour in abandoning it and the political system and relying on industrial unionism to improve the workers' lot. The two union groupings formed rival federations of labour, newspapers and political parties. McCullough found himself on the Trades and Labour Councils' dominion executive, responsible for the wood- and metal-workers' group. He supported the Trades and Labour Councils' Weekly Herald rather than the Red Feds' Maoriland Worker, and the councils' 'Professor' W. T. Mills rather than their rival's spokesmen, Peter Bowling and Harry Scott Bennett.

Nevertheless, McCullough was also an ardent supporter of unity between the two union groupings. He chaired a meeting in 1910 between the Trades and Labour Councils and the FOL and was a delegate to the second Unity Congress in July 1913. While the Red Feds moderated their anti-political position and the Lib–Labs gradually faded away, McCullough's group was remarkably consistent in its political objectives. The Red Feds won leading roles in the second New Zealand Labour Party at its formation in 1916, but the political strategy which they now advocated was that of the Christchurch independent labour group a decade earlier.

McCullough, along with members of his family, was also a pacifist. In 1909 he joined T. E. Taylor and Harry Atkinson to organise meetings to protest Prime Minister Joseph Ward's offer of a dreadnought battleship to Britain, and he chaired the National Peace Council of New Zealand's inaugural meeting in 1911. He was also a member of the Christchurch Anti-militarist League. His brother, the city councillor Jim McCullough, was a regular pacifist speaker at meetings along with Fred Cooke, Ted Howard, Paddy Webb and other socialist leaders. Two of the McCulloughs' sons joined the Passive Resisters' Union which helped to orchestrate the campaign against compulsory military training from 1912. Frank McCullough, a third son, edited the union's paper, the Repeal.

From 1913 young radicals, including Frank, were gaoled for refusing to pay fines for street speaking, wearing badges and refusing to drill. Frank was then sacked from the firm where he had served his six-year apprenticeship because his employers would have no truck with an employee who had clashed with the law. Later he was exempted from military service as a conscientious objector. Jack McCullough protested that he had taught his family that it was 'wicked to train and cruel to use any weapon against' fellow humans; it was 'barbarous, inhuman and a crime against society'.

The First World War and the issue of pacifism broke up McCullough's family. Frank left New Zealand for the United States in 1914 to escape the victimisation he suffered as a conscientious objector. Jim, a carpenter and trade unionist who had a fraught relationship with his father, volunteered for service in 1916; he died in France. Bill was exempted, probably on medical grounds, and involved himself in the Addington Railway Workshops' Political Association and the Workers' Educational Association. Ronald, who worked as a farm labourer and was then apprenticed to a plumber, was called up and spent the next three years on the run through the South Island. McCullough's family's troubles led him, he wrote, to 'seditious' thoughts.

McCullough remained the workers' representative on the arbitration court until 1921. He had always argued that the court was biased against workers and manipulated by experienced employer advocates and political interference. In 1921 he resigned in protest at what he regarded as his employer colleague's duplicity. He believed the fruits of the war commandeer had not been passed on to workers in the form of war bonuses. With the support of the Trades and Labour Councils, he agreed to a system of six-monthly reviews of war bonuses to operate between 1919 and 1920, because he felt he could not negotiate a better deal. As the economic situation worsened, McCullough thought he had a gentleman's agreement with Bench members for a stabilisation scheme of wages, rather than reductions, for 1921. Before the year was out, however, shearers' rates were reduced by 20 per cent and McCullough resigned. Court hearings were held up for six weeks. McCullough was unanimously re-elected, and stayed until the end of the year. He resigned for a second time on Christmas Eve, donating his salary to the government 'to help pay the financial crisis and the war debt'. The detailed accounts that he kept of the deliberations of the court are a valuable source for its activities in a critical period.

Following his resignation, McCullough again engaged in politics. He had been the Social Democratic Party campaign organiser for the Lower Riccarton branch in 1913 and for municipal elections in 1915. After standing unsuccessfully in parliamentary and local elections in Riccarton in 1922 and 1925, McCullough settled down for a period to being a popular speaker, a local committee man and a contributor to newspapers. He was valued for his knowledge of the party's history and as a symbol of the party's origins. He remained active in the Workers' Educational Association, which he had helped form in 1915.

In the 1930s, amid rising unemployment, McCullough became active again in socialist politics. Shortly before his death in 1930 Fred Cooke had bequeathed £80 to re-found the Christchurch Socialist Party. McCullough chaired its revival meeting, just as he had chaired its inaugural meetings in 1902. He led a campaign to get the Christchurch City Council to permit the Socialist Party to hold weekly meetings on Sunday afternoons in Cathedral Square, and chaired the Peace Council's 25th anniversary meeting. In 1936 the Labour government rewarded him with an appointment as a member of the Legislative Council. He was reappointed in 1943 and four years later, at 87, he was still speaking in Council debates.

McCullough's socialism and pacifism led him into conflict with the Labour Party in the 1940s. He found himself leading deputations to Michael Joseph Savage and Peter Fraser just as he had to previous prime ministers. He wrote letters to Bob Semple and Bill Parry reminding them of their days as anti-militarists. McCullough's political ideal was ultimately overtaken by the more moderate labour opinion that had found its home in the Labour Party. He died of cancer in Christchurch on 29 July 1947, survived by his wife and four children.

McCullough's role in the Christchurch labour movement was one of considerable importance. He led a distinct local group of urban skilled workers which assumed a position of importance in organised working-class activities and which enjoyed much influence between 1880 and 1920. McCullough typified those working-class radicals, committed to achieving socialism through political rather than industrial action, who bridged the gap between craft and industrial unions and a broad-based Labour Party.

How to cite this page:

Melanie Nolan. 'McCullough, John Alexander', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m4/mccullough-john-alexander (accessed 8 December 2023)