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Webb, Patrick Charles


Coalminer, trade unionist, politician

This biography, written by Len Richardson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996. It was updated in January, 2012.

Patrick (Paddy) Charles Webb was born in Rutherglen in north-eastern Victoria, Australia, on 30 November 1884. He was one of nine children of George Webb, a miner, and his wife, Mary Ann McNamara. The family established a vineyard during Rutherglen's shortlived mining boom in the mid 1880s and it was there at the age of 15 that Webb began his working life. Within two years family fortunes slumped, the vineyard was abandoned and all five Webb boys were found work in the mines. Paddy made his mark quickly in union affairs. By 1904 he had become a steward of the local branch of the Amalgamated Miners' Association of Australia and was secretary of the Rutherglen Labor Council. It was here that he met another young Victorian making his way in union affairs – Michael Joseph Savage. The two were to be lifelong friends.

Webb's attitudes were formed in the strong Victorian labour movement. In 1901 the Melbourne Trades Hall Council established the broadly based Political Labor Council of Victoria (PLC) in order to provide an independent organisation for industrial labour. Webb was elected inaugural secretary of its North Prentice branch in 1904. He inhabited a labour world that defined socialism in practical and reformist terms and saw the state and the trade union movement as the major instruments of social improvement. Political and industrial action were seen as complementary means of civilising capitalism. And while the specific interests of the PLC were shaped by local circumstances, its thinking was unambiguously internationalist. The sense of being part of a worldwide struggle against capitalism came readily to miners and it was given added impetus by such notable apostles of socialism as Tom Mann, the veteran of the 1889 London dock strike, alongside whom Webb worked in a PLC recruiting drive in Rutherglen during 1904.

Webb was by now blacklisted from the Victorian coalmines. Like fellow Victorian unionists Savage and Robert Semple he came to New Zealand, arriving in Dunedin in 1905. He worked briefly in freezing works and threshing mills before beginning work as a miner on the Denniston plateau, near Westport. There he attempted, with Patrick Hickey, to organise a branch of the New Zealand Socialist Party. Such activities brought Webb to the notice of the mine management and he quickly moved on to the state mine at Rūnanga, near Greymouth. Opened in 1902 by the Liberal government to provide competition within the coal industry, the mine quickly became a mecca for socialists who saw it as an experiment in public enterprise and the forerunner of wider nationalisation within their industry. In the meantime, Rūnanga offered activists like Webb a safer environment in which to spread their socialist gospel. The Liberal government, reliant politically on the support of the organised labour movement, was more tolerant of miners branded as troublemakers by private enterprise.

It was, however, from Blackball rather than from Rūnanga that Webb stepped onto the national stage. Together with Hickey, he left the comparative safety of the state mine and began work at a pit where grievances abounded. There the pair helped orchestrate an attack on the arbitration system, which radicals increasingly believed had emasculated unionism by restricting the capacity of individual unions to engage in direct action. On 27 February 1908 Webb, along with six other miners, was dismissed for taking – in accordance with an earlier union decision – half an hour for lunch rather than the prescribed 15 minutes. So began the 'tucker-time strike'. By striking in support of the dismissed men, the Blackball Coal-miners' Union deliberately breached the arbitration award under which they worked. And, by refusing to pay the £75 fine which the court imposed, the miners made clear their wider purpose of discrediting the arbitration system. Moreover, when the owners conceded the half-hour lunch break and reinstated the dismissed men, Webb and the socialists claimed to have demonstrated that the strike could do more for workers than continued adherence to the arbitration system.

His work done at Blackball, Webb returned to Rūnanga. The next four years were frenetic. At pit-head meetings, in miners' halls and on street corners Webb was at the heart of a socialist push to recast union organisation on the coalfields according to the tenets of industrial unionism. The first step was to produce a blueprint for a national miners' organisation. Webb played little part in the formal discussions between the older generation of leaders, who thought there was still mileage to be had from the Lib–Lab alliance, and the rising generation of newcomers, who wanted change here and now. Consequently, he was not among the office-holders of the New Zealand Federation of Miners that emerged in 1908. Yet as the socialist victory was sealed, and the new leadership in 1909 boldly renamed themselves the New Zealand Federation of Labour and secured the affiliation of other unions, Webb emerged as its inaugural president.

Like many of the 'Red Feds', as members of the new organisation were soon to be called, Webb held that industrial organisation offered the surest way to remake the world along co-operative and socialist lines. But he also thought that trade union activity needed a political dimension. This would ensure that when the revolution came – and Webb thought it was inevitable – the people would be ready to accept the new order. To prepare the way, Webb and his fellow socialists embarked on an educational programme that took socialism into the streets and led to the formation of a district labour council in Greymouth. Its declaration of principles reflected Webb's belief in the inevitability of class struggle and of evolutionary progress towards socialism.

In 1911 Webb was to the fore in an attempt by Rūnanga miners to launch their own independent working-class party. It was a move stimulated by the appearance of the moderate New Zealand Labour Party and by pressure from anti-conscriptionists on the coalfields. Webb was the miners' unanimous choice as a 'workers' candidate' in the 1911 general election. He presented himself to voters as the candidate of the Federation of Labour and billed his campaign as 'An Appeal to Reason'. The supporters of his opponent, Sir Arthur Guinness, Speaker in the Liberal government since 1903, depicted Webb as representing the forces of anarchism. It was a view shared by the more cautious sections of the local labour movement. Webb's campaign was further handicapped by the opposition of both local newspapers. In these circumstances Webb was pleased to poll 2,539 votes against Guinness's 3,677.

Meanwhile, within the Federation of Labour, Webb and his executive were under increasing pressure from militant factions to pursue a more aggressive industrial policy. The Waihī strike of 1912 and the death of a striker after clashes with police stationed in the town intensified demands for an immediate general strike. Webb resisted, and countered by promoting a reorganisation of the labour movement nationally. He played a critical role in assembling the 1913 unity conferences at which a new industrial and political structure was hammered out. The outcome was the creation of two organisations: the United Federation of Labour and the Social Democratic Party. The consolidation of labour's ranks implicit in these changes fitted Webb's preference for a two-pronged approach to the question of improving the position of the working class.

The death of Arthur Guinness on 10 June 1913 provided the SDP with a chance to test the new organisation. Webb was their unanimous choice as candidate. Following a vitriolic campaign, marred by sectarianism and scaremongering, Webb, with the support of the losing Liberal, defeated the Reform Party candidate on the second ballot. Webb depicted the second poll as a contest between democracy and the Massey government. 'The banner of the Tory landlord party would never', he claimed, 'wave over a constituency which, for close on thirty years, was in the forefront of the progressive movement'. Thus, at 28 years of age, did Paddy Webb become the nation's first coalminer to enter Parliament. The 'banner of Democracy', he triumphantly told his supporters, had 'been hoisted high on the hills of Grey.'

Webb's election, and that of James McCombs in Lyttelton later in 1913, assured the success of the SDP. The subsequent failure of the 1913 general strike underlined the need for greater political representation of the labour movement. Webb thus came to occupy a critical position in attempts to build an independent political party around a working-class base; they were to succeed with the formation of the second New Zealand Labour Party in 1916. The outbreak of war in August 1914 was in some ways to accelerate this process, and in others to place road blocks in labour's path. Webb stood at the heart of this predicament. The unpopularity of the Massey government in a mining constituency gave Webb a reasonable security of tenure as the member for Grey – a security borne out by his retention of the seat in 1914. But the labour movement's attitude to the war and the way it should be prosecuted placed it outside the patriotic mainstream.

Webb shared the wider labour movement's suspicion of militarism, but in his initial public comment on the war he avoided opposing New Zealand's involvement. New Zealand should, he believed, resist the Prussian onslaught on Flanders and Belgium. He steadfastly opposed any suggestion of compelling men to fight, and also opposed the national register of manpower compiled by the government in 1915 as preparing the way for military conscription. When conscription was introduced in 1916 he demanded its immediate repeal but he was, at first, more circumspect than anti-militarists on the coalfields who were advocating mass resistance to the Military Service Act. His caution antagonised union leaders bent upon organising a series of go-slows in the pits in the hope of bringing about the repeal of the legislation. Some coalfields activists branded him an opportunist who had lost his socialist sympathies. Perhaps goaded by such attacks, Webb abandoned his usual caution when speaking in support of Labour Party candidates in the Greymouth municipal elections, in April 1917, and praised the miners' struggle against conscription as a battle for democratic freedom. He was arrested, charged with seditious utterance and served three months in prison. Overnight, Webb became a martyr for the anti-conscriptionist cause.

Conservative opinion in his electorate professed to be aghast: they were being represented by an unmarried member of Parliament who steadfastly refused to enlist. Both local newspapers had for some time been urging Webb to volunteer and contrasted his 'cowardice' with the 'heroism' of T. E. Y. Seddon, the member for Westland, who had volunteered in August 1915. They could scarcely hide their joy when Webb was called up for military service in October 1917. Webb's response was to seek a mandate from the electorate to stay home. He resigned as MP for Grey and challenged the government to a by-election fought on the issue of conscription. The government refused, and Webb was returned unopposed. When he subsequently declined the offer of a non-combatant role, he was court-martialled and sentenced to two years' hard labour. His parliamentary seat was declared vacant in April 1918, and was won in the by-election by another Labour member, Harry Holland. Webb spent two years tree-planting on the Kāingaroa Plains, and was deprived of his civil rights for 10 years.

In the post-war years Webb returned to mining. He joined George Hunter, a mate from the North Prentice days, in one such pit at Dunollie near Greymouth. He also spent some time with another Red Fed, Bob Semple, tunnelling at Orongorongo before establishing the Point Elizabeth Co-op Coal Depot in Christchurch. This was a successful business venture but also one that brought Webb into conflict with the national coalminers' union, the United Mine Workers of New Zealand. Now led by Angus McLagan, a pugnacious and able Scot, they saw the appearance of co-operative miners on the coalfields as a threat to the employment prospects of unionists and thought the non-union mines would provide an alternative source of coal during industrial disputes. A series of bitter clashes between the two groups broke out on the West Coast coalfields in the early 1930s. Webb and Hunter, as coal suppliers, were caught in the cross-fire and accused of buying coal from non-union pits.

The clash with the United Mine Workers created difficulties when Webb sought to return to Parliament. After an unsuccessful attempt to win the Motueka seat in 1932 he won the Labour Party nomination in a by-election for Buller in 1933 following the death of the sitting member and party leader, Harry Holland. McLagan stumped the coalfields demanding that Webb be replaced by a genuine miners' candidate. Webb was able to weather the storm and the election of the first Labour government in 1935 saw him become minister of mines. His old mate from the Rutherglen days, Savage, now prime minister, had hesitated before adding him to the cabinet, preferring at first another ex-Red Fed and Australian, Jim O'Brien, MP for Westland. Whatever the reason for Savage's reluctance, Webb became a loyal disciple of the party leader in the struggles over policy that were to beset the government. He was appointed minister of labour in 1938.

Webb played a major role in attempting to reform working and living conditions in the coaltowns. The long period of crisis on the coalfields in the 1920s and 1930s had left the industry plainly run down. Webb saw the answer in nationalisation of the pits. State control would make possible much-needed housing reform and result in greater attention to safety. The achievement of these goals was complicated by the outbreak of war in 1939. The wartime demand for coal strengthened the case for nationalisation and Webb was able to proceed with a programme of piecemeal purchase of mines to maintain coal production. The gradual purchase of failing pits continued throughout the war. It was a policy that did not please the more radical spirits on the coalfields, who wanted the government to scale the capitalist heights and nationalise all mines.

Webb had to tread carefully to retain the support of men in the pits. He not only had to placate demands for immediate nationalisation, but also had to convince union officials to keep a tight rein on both attendance and production levels. This was no easy task in an industry whose workforce was rapidly ageing and whose productive capacity was limited by low levels of investment in development and maintenance. Added to this, the introduction of newcomers to swell the ranks of the truckers upset the hierarchy of the pits and brought in its wake a generational conflict that threatened to undermine production. It was a tribute to Webb's temperament and personality that he was able by a mixture of cajolery, concession and threat to retain the support of the miners throughout the war.

The effort took its toll and in 1946 Webb retired from politics. His final words in Parliament, couched in typically colourful and generous vein, acknowledged the coalminers' contribution to the war effort. He concluded that 'The people of New Zealand should take off their hats to the miners'. The words would stand also as a personal epitaph for a persistent and loyal miners' advocate.

Paddy Webb was charming, genial, generous and made friends easily. Of average height and build, he had an open, friendly and alert face, accentuated by partial baldness from an early age. He never married but was notoriously fond of female company. In his youth he had been a talented cricketer and Australian rules footballer. He played rugby in New Zealand and was a keen shooter and fisherman. His greatest sporting passion was horse-racing. He frequently attended race meetings and was a successful racehorse owner, both on his own account and in partnership with George Hunter.

Webb died in Christchurch on 23 March 1950, but not before the major objective of his generation of miners – the nationalisation of the coal industry – had been achieved.

How to cite this page:

Len Richardson. 'Webb, Patrick Charles', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996, updated January, 2012. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3w5/webb-patrick-charles (accessed 18 July 2024)