George Wears Samms: A socialist and a pacifist

George and Lily Samms, 1951

George and Lily Samms on their visit to England, 1951

'Wars are fought for the greed of one class.' [1]

George Wears Samms was born at 4 Larchfield Road in Hunslet, Leeds, on 23 November 1882. He attended the St Silas Anglican Church School until he was 12 years of age, and then became an apprentice iron moulder.  In 1899, aged only 16, he ran away to the Boer War by falsifying his age. In 1907, George married Lily Bamford in the St Silas Parish Church, only a block away from where he had been born.

George Wears Samms had plans to emigrate to the United States of America. However, his wife of four years, Lily Samms, had other ideas. Lily did not like the man that George planned planned to travel with and refused to accompany him to the USA. Lily Samms told George that 'if you go, you go alone'. But she did go on to say that, 'Frank Robinson, who is a good man, is heading out to New Zealand. Lily (George and Lily Samms’ two-year-old daughter) and I will go to New Zealand with you, but not to the USA'.[2]

In 1911, George Samms and his friend, Frank Robinson, sailed from England to New Zealand via the Cape of Good Hope, on a five-pound fare.

After three months on a steamship, George Samms arrived in Christchurch, but unable to find work, he headed north to Wellington. George disliked Wellington intensely. He felt lonely and isolated, and recalled being shown friendship on only one occasion. Frank came to the rescue, contacting him about a job that was going as an iron moulder at Scott's Iron Foundry in Christchurch. George returned to Christchurch on the next available ferry, and the two men established themselves there, before sending word to their families back in Yorkshire.

Their wives, Lily May Robinson (nee Cole) and Lily Samms (nee Bamford), along with baby Lily Samms, boarded the SS Rotorua and departed Essex's Tilbury Docks on 9 May, 1912. Experiencing a significantly more truncated trip than their husbands’, they arrived in Wellington six-and-a-half weeks later. George and Frank were waiting for them at the docks.

For four years both the Samms and Robinson families lived together on Clarendon Terrace in Christchurch. The Robinson's daughter, Alma, was born there on 30 May 1913. Over that time they saved enough money to buy two sections on Tilford Street in Woolston. They continued to live together on Clarendon Terrace until they had saved enough money to build on their Tilford Street sites. The Robinson's house was built first, in 1916, and both families lived in it until the Samms' house was finished. Lily and George's son, Keir Hardie Samms, was born two months later in November 1916. The Samms were the first people on Tilford Street to have electricity.

Tilford Street

George and Lily Samms' house on Tilford Street, Woolston


They talk about the quarter-acre-dream in New Zealand, and the Samms and Robinsons had twice that: half an acre each. For two families who had come from Edwardian-era industrial Leeds, the difference in the environments was significant. Each family had an orchard as well as a vegetable garden; in later years, Frank had large glasshouses from which he grew and sold tomatoes. George, a keen cricketer, even had his own cricket pitch. George loved his garden. He would get up at 5am every morning to work in his garden for an hour before having breakfast and cycling to work at the foundry.

Politically, George was a socialist. This meant he believed in the power of the unions to change the fortunes of the working-class, but more than that, he believed in a fair and equal society, with a redistribution of wealth and an absence of poverty. Accordingly, he was heavily involved in the New Zealand labour movement. George was the secretary of the Woolston Branch of the Labour Party for 25 years, before being elected to the position of president of the Labour Representation Committee.

Cost of Living and Anti-Conscription Demonstration

Cost of Living and Anti-Conscription Demonstration, Christchurch 1918 

George's socialism also meant he was ideologically opposed to World War One. Like many other socialists he saw it as a capitalistic imperial war with the working-class sacrificing their lives, while the capitalists grew fat on war-profits. The socialists asserted that if conscription was to be imposed upon people, then it should also be imposed upon wealth. They bemoaned the consequences of the war at home. The cost of living was skyrocketing, whilst workers' real-wages stagnated.

George's conscientious objection to the First World War was also directly influenced by his experience of another, earlier, conflict. As a sixteen-year-old George had falsified his age and enlisted for the Boer War. Because of what he had seen, and what he had to do in that war, George vowed that he would never go to war again. He would never kill another person. George's pacifism and socialism were to coalesce when George was conscripted into the First World War on 25 April 1918.

Initially, George failed to respond to a written order to attend a medical examination for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). Following another letter, a meeting and an order to go immediately to the King Edward Barracks, George made it clear that he had no intention of submitting himself for medical examination. On 1 July, George found himself before the magistrate. He reiterated that he had no intention of submitting himself for the army medical examination, and agreed that all of the evidence given against him was correct. His one request was that he could make a statement. The Star newspaper recounted his statement in its reporting of his court-martial:

The document was to the effect that he stood for Socialism, and all that Socialism stood for as against militarism. As an answer to the question why he refused to become a soldier he gave an incident of his life. At the time of the Boer War he was seventeen years of age, and was anxious to get away to crush the Boers. He ran away and enlisted. On his return home to his native town he saw nothing but misery and want. Wars were fought for the greed of one class and it was for this that all wars were fought. To try and kill men was not only criminal but insane. He swore that he would never shoulder a rifle again to shoot one of his own class. War cut into the every vitals of a race, but the list of the fallen did not tell half of the war's effects. Every country that tried to live by war must perish.[3]

George was sentenced to one year's imprisonment on 3 July 1918.[4]

Paparua Prison

George Samms and other conscientious objectors in Paparua Prison

Using contributions received from all over the country, Ted Howard's Seditious Prisoners and Conscientious Objectors Fund was able to give Lily 88 pounds 13 shillings to help with expenses while George was in Paparua Prison. In 2015, that would be almost ten thousand dollars. During the time that George was incarcerated in Paparua Prison, Lily, Lily Junior, Keir—and eventually Margaret in her pram—caught the tram to Moorhouse Avenue and then walked to visit him every Sunday. Speaking in 1984, George's daughter Lily recalled the teasing meted out upon her at school by malicious classmates, presumably repeating the reactionary views, words and phrases they had heard their parents espouse at home. 'Coward' and 'Hun' were just two of the unsophisticated sobriquets that Lily was labelled with. Children would rhetorically enquire as to where her father was, and even her teachers were not immune to making snide remarks, telling Lily that 'some people are too cowardly to go to war'.[5]

George Samms’ punishment became even more draconian upon release. He lost his rights as a citizen for 10 years, meaning that he couldn't run for local or national public office, dashing local political aspirations. George had run for the Woolston Borough Council the year prior to being sentenced. Further, as a man without the rights of a citizen George could not work for or be a member of a local or national government, or public authority, and was denied the right to vote. For a highly political socialist, this must have been the most frustrating of the many infractions inflicted upon his common and collective rights.

From 1917 onward, George Samms was the secretary of the Woolston branch of the Labour Party. In 1938, after 21 years of service he retired from the position, and was honoured by New Zealand Labour Party. Jim Roberts, the president of the Labour Representation Committee, spoke warmly and admiringly of George, directly referencing the struggles during WW1:

They knew what it felt like to be martyrs, but, in spite of persecution, the members of the branch stood by their ideals and the result was seen in the parliamentary elections. Much of the spade work had been done by Mr Samms. He and I secured our political education in the same movements in England, and we have been in gaol together in New Zealand. I make no apologies for that. [6]

Dan Sullivan, a Labour cabinet minister, said that George was ‘a man of ability and action, and had done the spade work, which had entailed considerable sacrifice’.[7] Tim Armstrong, another cabinet minister, called him ‘one of the few pioneers who had made possible the wonderful Labour movement in New Zealand’.[8] Armstrong went on to say that the present government owed its position to the loyalty and self-sacrifice of men such as George Samms.[9] A year later, George was elected president of the North Canterbury Labour Representation Committee (NCLRC) in March 1939.[10]

The oncoming storm that was World War Two brought tension and created disunity within a Labour Party that, for the first time, had to address the issue of conscription from a majority-government position. Britain declared war on Germany on 1 September 1939, and the Labour Party split. George's position on the issue had not changed since the First World War: he was anti-conscription, and moreover, anti-war. Just over a month after the start of the war, George handed in his resignation as president of the NCLRC. He was unable to reconcile himself with the Labour Party's attitude to the war. The meeting tabled a motion that his resignation not be accepted, and it was carried unanimously. One delegate said that ‘Mr Samms is held in profound respect by the whole movement irrespective of their views’.[11]

A few months later, on 18 January 1940, around 800 people attended an Anti-Conscription Campaign meeting, held at the Latimer Hall in Christchurch. George Samms was one of the keynote speakers:

I can assure you that I feel very proud to be on this platform tonight. I know there is an organised effort to prevent speakers saying what they think. I am going to say exactly what I think. I am anti-conscription and I am anti-war. In 1914 New Zealand entered the war, and then the war slogans began. The first one was that the war was to make the world safe for democracy. What a lie that was.[12]

There were cries of 'Be British!!' Some people left the hall, but most stayed.[13]

George Wears Samms was a man of great courage and conviction. His brave stand against an imperial war, his indefatigable socialism and defence of workers’ rights are an inspiration to anyone who believes in equality and fairness.

Dan Bartlett

[1] Star, 1 July 1918, p. 5.

[2] Lily Samms, recorded by, and in conversation with her daughter, Patricia Smith, 1984.

[3] Star, 1 July 1918, p. 5.

[4] Evening Post, 3 July 1918, p. 7.

[5] Lily Samms recalling her time at school while George was incarcerated, recorded by and in conversation with her daughter, Patricia Smith, 1984.

[6] Press, 23 May 1938, p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Press, 25 March 1939, p. 12.

[11] Press, 9 October 1939, p. 8.

[12] Press, 19 January 1940, p. 10.

[13] Ibid.