A poem for Lenin: reds under the bed in Swanson

The strange story of  two Swanson dairy farmers with a poetic bent who wrote a letter that was stopped, confiscated and filed away, sealed and unread for over 100 years.

In the immedate years years after the 1917 Russian Revolution, an intense Red scare swept the world. The fear of militant labour led to a system of state surveillance which was so widespread and so vigilant that it led to the snatching of a letter sent by a Swanson dairy farmer – who inquired whether a poem written by her husband could be shown to Lenin.

“We are both very much interested in the Bolshevik movement in Europe”, wrote Laura Anderson, a 39-year old living on the slopes of Pukematekeo in Auckland's Waitakere Ranges. Laura and her husband Carl had arrived on clay roads around 1908. Their homestead, at 300 metres above sea level, commanded views of both the Tasman Sea and Waitematā Harbour. Mānuka, pittosporum and māhoe were their closest neighbours and their house, with its steep pointed roof and jagged angles, could not escape vines that crept silently along its frame. A nearby stream provided fresh water and a hidden cave was a larder for milk and butter.

Writing her to her cousin Sara in Denmark in April 1919, Laura wanted “reliable news” on the revolution “and I would very much like to hear your opinion of the Bolshevik Governments.” She then asked for help evading New Zealand’s military postal censorship. “My husband has written a poem about Bolshevism and we would like to send it to Lenin or Trotsky, but on account of the strict censorship we are unable to do so from here. If I sent the poem on to you; would you be able to address it and send it on to either of them at Moscow?”

Less than two weeks after Laura posted her letter, the Deputy Chief Postal Censor had opened it in Wellington and was judging its contents. “Bolshevik tendencies”, he wrote to his superiors. “I should judge that the husband is a Bolshevik sympathiser.” The letter was sent on to Police Commissioner John O’Donovan, who had inquiries made. The letter never made it to Denmark – instead, it remained locked within a police file for 100 years.

At the time Laura’s letter was working its way through the Auckland postal system and into the hands of the Deputy Chief Censor, a wave of militant unionism swept through the labour movement. The government believed that a revolutionary general strike could spell doom at any moment. The Red scare allowed the state to extend its wartime grip into peacetime. Censors were kept busy with private mail, forever on the lookout for disaffection and disorder. In fact the most long-lasting development of the postwar years – and one that is often overlooked when discussing the First World War – was the strengthening of the apparatus of state surveillance.

Both the New Zealand Police and the Defence Department used their wartime experience to better organise their intelligence networks, and a flurry of telegrams between the two agencies tried to settle on some kind of combined unit. Police Commissioner O’Donovan appointed individual detectives in the four main centres solely to monitor agitators. They attended meetings and encouraged members to turn informant, compiled massive alphabetical lists of potential subversives and produced fortnightly reports. Personal files on hundreds of radicals, separate from those held by the Defence Department, were opened and indexed. In time these became the New Zealand Police Special Branch records – boxes and boxes of files that now live at Archives New Zealand.

The professionalisation of surveillance in the postwar period echoed the work of the police in Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States. By shunning requests from the Defence Department for joint surveillance activity, O’Donovan ensured that the police became the dominant player in surveillance work from 1919 until 1956, when the New Zealand Security Service – the forerunner of today’s New Zealand Security Intelligence Service – was established. Military postal censorship, and the role of the police during the First World War, laid the groundwork for all future spy agencies in New Zealand.

And what of Laura and her husband’s poem to Lenin and Trotsky? Police could find little information on Carl and Laura. Living in such a remote location meant they were isolated from the usual circles under surveillance, and it appeared to O’Donovan that they lived a secluded life. And while some of Carl’s poetry has survived to this day, the poem on Bolshevism is not among them. In 1925 Laura and Carl sold their section to the Auckland City Council, which incorporated it into the Waitakere Scenic Reserve. Today, the area is known as Cascade Kauri Regional Park. All that remains of their house is a small clearing framed by two large pine trees and a mass of rambling vegetation, including an evergreen hedge run riot.

Still, it is easy to imagine Laura and Carl back in the homestead, unwinding from their labours by reading poetry or news of the wider world. That world was a turbulent one. And in 2019, which marks the centennial of the Red scare, we are still haunted by its burdens and bestowals.

From the new study Dead Letters: Censorship and subversion in New Zealand 1914–1920 by Jared Davidson (Otago University Press, $35 ).

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