Charles Morgan Williams: the anti-war Kaiapoi farmer who became a Labour MP

‘Our New Zealand Defence Act is being used as a precedent to prepare the way for conscription in England, and therefore if we allow it to succeed here, we are aiding and abetting a scheme which will intensify the existing worldwide military madness.’[1]

When agitation against Compulsory Military Training was at its height, Kaiapoi farmer and socialist, Morgan Williams wrote a pamphlet in which he likened compulsory military training to a ‘great white elephant’.[2]  Far from providing New Zealand with an effective means of defending itself he argued that it was an expensive scheme that trampled on personal liberty.

Williams dealt with the popular belief that preparing for war was the best way to preserve peace and argued that the real object of compulsory military training was to provide the raw material for an expeditionary force, as demanded by Britain, and to strengthen the hands of those who were clamouring for military training in the United Kingdom. He also enumerated the ways in which the Defence Act had led to an erosion of democracy, the worst example being the way some of the young resisters had lost their right to vote even after they had served the penalty imposed on them for refusing to attend compulsory military training.[3] Not mentioned in the text is the fact that Williams’ own younger brother Reg was one of the young resisters who had lost his civil rights in this way. The weekly labour newspaper, the Maoriland Worker, described Williams’ booklet as a ‘thoughtful and unanswerable pamphlet’.[4]

The Great White Elephant

The Great White Elephant cartoon in the Maoriland Worker

Morgan Williams became involved in the fight against compulsory military training in 1912 when he wrote to Ellen Howell, offering to help. Ellen Howell, who had known Williams in London, passed the offer on to Charles Mackie, the Secretary of the National Peace Council, with a recommendation that Williams was an extremely hard worker; he was able, keen, a past or present school committee man, and took a great interest in his district.[5]

Passive Resisters' Union Temuka Meeting Flyer

Flyer publicising a Passive Resisters' Union meeting in Temuka, 1912

Morgan’s younger brother, Reg Williams, shared his socialist and anti-militarist beliefs, becoming a leader of the Passive Resisters’ Union and enduring several terms of imprisonment for his beliefs in the pre-war period and during the First World War (see separate essay about Reginald Williams).

Morgan Williams was born in Wales where he was brought up in a religious atmosphere. His father was a Calvinistic Methodist who believed in pre-destination, and his mother was a Wesleyan Methodist who believed in free-will. As a teen-ager he attended a Wesleyan Methodist church at least twice every Sunday and when he came to New Zealand attached himself to the Methodist Church.[6] As a teenager Morgan Williams had become a convinced socialist and at the age of 16 was secretary of the Clapham branch of the Social Democratic Federation in London. He was attracted to New Zealand after seeing it described as a Socialist Utopia.[7]

Morgan Williams as a young man

Morgan Willams as a young man

Morgan Williams arrived in Canterbury in 1902 where he started out as a farm labourer. With hard work and the help of his wife Katie, born Breeze, he became a successful farmer near Clarkville and established a grain and produce business. Over a 50 year period he was also closely involved with tree-planting and the development of forestry in the Kaiapoi-Ohoka districts.

His first political activity in New Zealand was in the prohibition movement but gradually he became involved in community politics being elected to the newly established Eyre County Council in 1913. He also became active in the Labour movement and helped James McCombs win a seat for the Social Democrats in Lyttelton in December 1913.[8]

He later wrote that WWI was a shock to his Christian faith, when he saw that churches in both Germany and the British Empire were praying to the same God for victory and had forgotten the commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill’. He resigned from the Methodist Church and joined his friend John Howell at meetings of the Society of Friends (also known as Quakers) in Christchurch. But as he became busier with his dairy herd, he stopped attending and later in life abandoned the Christian religion altogether.[9]

From 1927 to 1937 Morgan Williams was an elected member of the Kaiapoi Borough Council. But he was also elected as the Labour Member for Kaiapoi in 1935 and was thus a member of the first Labour Government which introduced a comprehensive social welfare scheme. His greatest achievement was persuading the government to introduce the Universal Family Benefit. But, a strong individualist, he did not always agree with his Labour colleagues and was firmly against the introduction of conscription during the Second World War. When his parliamentary career ended in 1946 he returned to local body politics and served as Mayor of Kaiapoi from 1948 to 1951.[10]

Morgan Williams

In 1935 the Standard newspaper reprinted the first chapter of The Great White Elephant, because it said, conditions at the time were very similar to those in pre-war New Zealand. In 1914 Williams had argued that war was not inevitable because of the ‘steady, onward march towards universal peace’,[11] brought about by advances in locomotion and communication, and the establishment of a mechanism for arbitrating international disputes in the Hague Tribunal. Twenty-one years later Williams commented that while external conditions were similar to those of 1914, he himself had changed. ‘Then I thought war was not inevitable and, in fact, extremely unlikely. How wrong I was! Now I think that while war is still not inevitable, it is extremely likely, notwithstanding the dread of atomic and hydrogen bombs. Let’s hope that I am wrong again!’[12]

His work as an honorary supervisor of forests for the Kaiapoi Borough Council resulted in his receiving an award from the Mayor, Norman Kirk, in 1955. The following year he received a further honour, the MBE but chose not to wear it as he considered it a community and not a personal commendation.  The foundation of the democratic system, he said in 1965, was the willingness of citizens to give their services free to the community.[13]

Morgan Williams died in 1970. At his request, his funeral service was conducted by the Hon A. H. Nordmeyer, a former Labour Government colleague and Minister of Finance who had been greatly involved in social security policy. 

Margaret Lovell-Smith



[1] Morgan Williams, The Great White Elephant, (Christchurch, Repeal Printery, 1914), p.12.

[2] Williams, The Great White Elephant, p.15.

[3] Williams, The Great White Elephant.

[4] ‘“The Repeal”: The Great White Elephant’, Maoriland Worker, 4 March 1914, p.5.

[5] C. Morgan Williams to Mrs Howell, 2 March 1912, Box 2, Folder 9, Series 14; Ellen Vickers Howell to Charles Mackie, 5 March 1912, Box 3, Folder 12, Series 23, Mackie Papers, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch

[6] C. Morgan Williams, Memoirs, (1963) Private Collection.

[7] Peter Williams, The Savill Saga, (Kaiapoi, 1990) p.143.

[8] Peter Williams, The Savill Saga, (Kaiapoi, 1990) pp.149 - 150.

[9] C. Morgan Williams, Memoirs, (1963) Private Collection.

[10] Peter Williams, The Savill Saga, (Kaiapoi, 1990) pp.151-152.

[11] Morgan Williams, The Great White Elephant, p.3.

[12] ‘War! Is it Inevitable?’, The Standard, 7 October 1953, Pacifism in New Zealand, Roth, Herbert Otto, 1917 – 1974: Papers 83-213-03, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington.

[13] C. M. Williams 1947 – 1950. This appears to be a copy of Williams’ obituary in the Press 7 August 1970.