Tim Armstrong: A "very seditious character"

Photograph of Tim Armstrong

Hubert Thomas Armstrong

'I feel that as far as I am concerned as the father of a family, if I did not raise my voice in opposition to this infamous piece of legislation I would not be doing my duty to the country. I would not only be a traitor to my own country, but to my own children, who will inhabit this country after I am gone.' [1]

Born in Bulls in 1875 to Irish parents, Tim Armstrong left school at the age of eleven to go to work in flax milling and in the bush. At the age of twenty, he took up work as a miner at Waihi. Armstrong became radicalised in the early part of the twentieth century, and ultimately lost his job due to his prominent union positions and activity.

Moving with his family to Runanga on the West Coast of the South Island, Armstrong worked again as a miner and once more made a name for himself as an agitator for miners' rights. He became secretary of the West Coast Workers' Union, and sat on the Runanga Council for two years.  

Photograph Miners' Hall, Runanga

The Miners' Hall, Runanga

Armstrong's health suffered a setback at the end of 1915, when he experienced a nervous breakdown after months of work in aid of the West Coast Workers' Union. Armstrong convalesced in a Sumner cottage in Christchurch, lent to him by his friend, the trade unionist, political activist and pacifist Jack McCullough.[2]

Subsequently relocating to Lyttleton in 1916 to take up work as a wharfie, Armstrong quickly became involved in the Christchurch labour movement. At the end of the same year, the conservative New Zealand government introduced conscription and Armstrong, as tribune of the working class, came into his own; unfortunately, it was to be at the expense of his freedom.

The real trouble began on New Year's Eve, 1916. Armstrong gave an anti-conscription speech in Christchurch's Victoria Square and was subsequently charged with using seditious language.[3]

We know that conscription is wanted to keep you and I and the rest of the working people of the country in subjection. That is the idea of it....The conscript army has been used in every instance by the money burglars of those countries against the working class...If you do not care as far as you yourself are concerned, you should do something in the interests of the generation that will follow you, and I feel that as far as I am concerned as the father of a family, if I did not raise my voice in opposition to this infamous piece of legislation I would not be doing my duty to the country. I would not only be a traitor to my own country, but to my own children, who will inhabit this country after I am gone.[4]

The Truth alleged that Armstrong was a ‘very seditious character’,[5] and he was sentenced to a year's imprisonment in Lyttleton gaol for speaking out against conscription, joining his comrades Bob Semple, Fred Cooke, Peter Fraser and Tom Brindle (jailed for the offence of taking Fraser's tea to him at the prison). The government was extremely jumpy, and it did not take much to end up on the wrong side of the law. Ted Howard wrote in his preface to the Seditious Prisoners and Conscientious Objectors Fund that 'everyone who was prominent in the Labour Party was expecting a little tap on the shoulder and a "comealongwithme"'.[6]

Armstrong was released in late October, 1917. Ted Howard recorded that he was ‘laughing, as usual [with] hardly any difference between the day he went in and the day he came out.’[7] Friends, comrades and the Lyttleton Port waterside workers gathered to greet him, and three cheers were called for and given by the crowd.[8] Armstrong had a big weekend in store: the Trades Council held a welcome for him on the Friday evening, the Waterside Workers threw him a party on Saturday night, and the Federation of Labour organised a public welcome home for him on the Sunday.[9]

In November that same year, Tim Armstrong and his wife received a hearty welcome at the King’s Theatre, Wellington, attended by leaders and members of various trades unions, Labour party stalwarts and well-wishers.[10] Alice Armstrong addressed the crowd, saying that ‘the past nine months had been the longest and loneliest she’d ever experienced, but the welcome made her feel thankful'.[11]

Christchurch East Years

Armstrong unsuccessfully contested the affluent Christchurch North electorate in 1919, but went on to win the seat of Christchurch East in 1922, holding it for twenty years until his death in 1942. He was succeeded by Mabel Howard, the daughter of Ted Howard.

Armstrong became Minister of Labour and Minister of Immigration in 1935. As Minister of Labour he enacted the adherence to the 40-hour week, compulsory trade union membership, and a statutory minimum wage. In the 1940s, Armstrong was Minister for Housing, as well as Minister for Health. Not too shabby for a radical West Coast coal miner.

Tim Armstrong 1939

Tim Armstrong, 1939

Armstrong was heavily conflicted during World War Two: he undoubtedly opposed conscription—in private, at least—but also actively abhorred fascism. Eventually he publicly supported government policy, on the condition that there were guaranteed economic controls, to ensure the working class had some sense of a buffer in terms of their standard of living.[12]

Tim Armstrong died in Wellington on the 8th of November 1942. His funeral was held at the Barbadoes Street Cathedral, in Christchurch. The Bishop remembered Armstrong as 'a friend of the poor and a champion of the cause of the worker',[13] and the Evening Post wrote that 'New Zealand would be the richer for having more men like Tim Armstrong in her politics on both sides of the house'.[14]

Dan Bartlett


[1] NZ Truth, 27 January 1917, p. 5.

[2] Maoriland Worker, 8 December 1915, p. 4.

[3] Sun, 16 January 1917, p. 10.

[4] NZ Truth, 27 January 1917, p. 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ted Howard, Seditious Prisoners and Conscientious Objectors Fund, Canterbury Library Collection.

[7] Maoriland Worker, 24 October 1917, p. 4.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Maoriland Worker, 7 November 1917, p 4.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Jim McAloon. 'Armstrong, Hubert Thomas', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 4-Jun-2013.

[13] Press, 13 November 1942, p. 2.

[14] Evening Post, 11 November 1942, p. 4.