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Riots in the Depression

Workers protest on the steps of the Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, during the Great Depression
Workers protest on the steps of the Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, during the Great Depression 1932, Photographer unknown, courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand (Evening Post Collection, 1/2-084822-G)

Riots broke out in Dunedin, Auckland, and Wellington in 1932, when unemployment was peaking in the Great Depression. Jobless workers were desperate, with almost 100,000 relying on private charity.

Work relief schemes

The unemployed were fed up with inadequate government support. The mantra of the time was 'no work, no pay', and jobless men were put to work on government 'relief' schemes.

Some tasks were useful, but others were 'make work' and could be demoralising. Maori dubbed roadwork 'mirimiri rori' – stroking the road. To make matters worse, the relief schemes couldn't take everyone. Those who missed out were particularly desperate.

Auckland riot

The Auckland riot on 14 April 1932 was the second and most serious of the three New Zealand riots. When police prevented unemployed protesters from meeting at the Town Hall, all hell broke loose. The protesters smashed hundreds of windows and looted shops. One pharmacy was cleaned out of condoms. (Many couples put off having families in the dire economic times.)

Police, armed sailors, and volunteer 'special constables' responded with force. Hundreds of rioters were injured, and some were arrested and imprisoned. The government reacted by introducing tougher 'public safety' laws, and sending unemployed men to remote labour camps.

The Devil's Lament

The poem 'The Devil's Lament' was published in the New Zealand Worker on 18 May 1932, just after the three riots. In the extract below, the devil bemoans that the Coalition Government (1931–35) would run hell better than he does.

'I'm down and out,' the devil said, 
He said it with a sob,
There are others who outclass me,
And I want to quit my job …
There's Gordon Coates the powerful,
And Georgie Forbes as well
They know more of damnation
Than all the imps of hell.



© Copyright Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, New Zealand.