Freda Ellen Jacobs, who was always known as ‘Fuzz’ because of her exceedingly curly hair, was born on 12 August 1902 in Lyttelton, the eldest of six children of English-born parents Jane Ellen Ransley and her husband, Frederick Charles Jacobs, a qualified electrical engineer. She spent most of her childhood in Porirua, where her father was in charge of a diesel-electric power plant at the Porirua Mental Hospital. The family lived well and the children, including the girls, were able to take formal education as far as they wished. Fuzz was usually top of the class, as well as being one of the tallest pupils. After primary schooling in Porirua she attended Wellington Girls’ College briefly before the family shifted to Auckland, where she transferred to Auckland Girls’ Grammar School.
On leaving school Jacobs wanted to enter the legal profession, and was actively encouraged by her father. In 1920 she enrolled at Auckland University College, but despite studying for eight years she was never able to qualify in the male-dominated environment; instead she became a successful law clerk. From 1920 to 1928, while at university, she worked in the law firm of Neumegen and Mowlem. As one of the few women law clerks in Auckland she felt she had to earn the respect of the profession, so she made sure that her work could not be faulted.
On 11 April 1928, in Morningside, Auckland, Fuzz Jacobs married Harold (Jock) Barnes, a 20-year-old political activist and public servant; they were to have a daughter and a son. She later described their relationship as one of friendship rather than a burning passion. The couple were badly affected by the depression of the 1930s: in September 1932 Jock was sacked from his job as a draughtsman with the Department of Lands and Survey because of his anti-government political activities. Eventually he found steady employment on the wharves and soon became embroiled in trade union affairs. He joined the New Zealand Waterside Workers’ Union in 1935 and was its national president from 1944. Jock’s wages were insufficient for the family to live on, so Fuzz was forced to look for work. During the Second World War there was a shortage of qualified law clerks, and with the assistance of Geraldine Hemus, a sole practitioner, she was employed by the firm of Dufaur, Lusk, Biss and Fawcett from 1939 to 1946.
Working herself, and with Jock frequently away on union business, Fuzz Barnes established a domestic routine with her daughter, preparing meals in advance and stocking up on convenience foods. Housework and washing had to be done in the weekends, and Fuzz complained that Jock and his union colleagues, who often assembled in the house, disrupted the household.
Both Fuzz and Jock Barnes were active members of the New Zealand Labour Party. They helped form the Morningside branch and supported W. T. Anderton, MP for Eden. In 1939 the branch successfully nominated her as a justice of the peace. During the war, however, she ended her association with the party’s Auckland women’s branch over a matter of principle. An ardent believer in peace, she was outraged when the chairwoman attempted to co-opt onto a branch committee a man involved with the Colonial Ammunition Company, and resigned immediately from the executive.
Fuzz Barnes was a staunch supporter of the trade union movement. She believed in the watersiders’ union because it was concerned not just with workplace matters, but performed an important social role, providing, for example, sports teams and silver bands. She was involved with the ladies’ committee of the Auckland Watersiders’ Silver Junior Band, which became the nucleus of the union’s Auckland Women’s Auxiliary, set up in July 1950 to support the wives and families of the members. As the union’s national president, Jock Barnes was a central figure in the bitter 151-day waterfront dispute of 1951. Fuzz became president of the Women’s Auxiliary, which along with the Combined Women’s Committee supplied food to the hard-pressed families of locked-out workers, in defiance of the National government’s emergency regulations.
On 1 June 1951, a day that became known to the unionists as ‘Bloody Friday’, Fuzz Barnes was one of 12 women leading a group of over 1,000 unionists and supporters up Queen Street to the Auckland Trades Hall. A confrontation between one of the marchers and police escalated into a fracas and Barnes was knocked to the ground. Two detectives swore that they heard her call out, ‘Come back you yellow bastards and get these cops’. Although witnesses attested that another woman had said those words, she was charged with inciting disorder, found guilty, and fined 15 guineas. She maintained that the police had targeted her because she was Jock Barnes’s wife.
In August Jock was convicted of criminal defamation and sentenced to two months in prison. Fuzz responded by unsuccessfully attempting to take the minister in charge of police, W. H. Fortune, to court on the same charge, claiming that he had labelled the Combined Women’s Committee a communist organisation. Rather than give the authorities the chance to strip her of her JP’s badge, Barnes resigned her commission, stating in a letter, ‘I no longer have any confidence in the administration of justice in New Zealand’.
Despite years of hardship and disappointments, Fuzz Barnes remained spirited and good humoured, and ever prepared to stand up for human rights. She never stopped hoping for a more peaceful and equitable world, in which everyone’s potential – rich or poor, male or female – could be realised. She was an avid reader and placed great value on education. In the decades after the drama of 1951 Jock established a successful business as a drain-laying contractor, and he and Fuzz owned a racehorse for some years. They eventually separated in 1986. After years of ill health and reduced financial circumstances, Fuzz Barnes died at Middlemore Hospital on 17 February 1991. She was survived by Jock and her children.