By Liz Gordon.
There are times when history becomes more important to people. At the moment,
as Jarrod recounts earlier in this newsletter, the Christchurch office of the Howard
league sits lonely, dark and inaccessible. It was only by great good fortune, and my
habit of keeping everything, that we even retained a copy of the mailing list, so this
newsletter could be sent to you.
Natural disasters certainly concentrate the mind, and this has crystallised something
that I had been thinking about for some time: we have to recapture the history of
the New Zealand Howard League before it is too late.
Until last year I barely knew that our organisation had an earlier, national history.
I begin looking into this in order to help in the starting up of the Dunedin branch.
In my earliest researches, it was obvious that there had been a very active and
prestigious branch down there.
Over the next couple of years, with the help of members all over the country, I want
to recreate the history of our organisation. I would welcome help and assistance
from anyone, and especially if people are prepared to search their local libraries,
museums and archives for information. This is what we know so far.
Tracing the History of the Howard League
* * *
The Howard League was started in New Zealand by Blanche Baughan and Berta
Burns, either in Wellington or in Christchurch (both women lived in both places),
in 1924. Baughan, a poet, had become ill in 1909-1910 and, according to the
Oxford History of New Zealand Literature: ‘Baughan was deserted by her muse and
dedicated her life to penal reform’.
Baughan knew Millicent Baxter and, indirectly, was the cause of Millicent meeting
Archie. She had in her possession a letter from Archie, in France, written in 1918,
which began to lay out his cause and the suffering he had undertaken. He said: “I
have suffered to the limit of my endurance, but I will never in my sane senses
surrender to the evil power that has fixed its roots like a cancer on the world”.
Millicent said that the letter “altered my whole outlook, on politics and everything in
There was certainly a branch in Dunedin by 1928, and the secretary of that branch
was noted to be a Mrs. Baxter. It is likely that this was Millicent Baxter, but she
does not mention the Howard League in her autobiography. Her main focus was
pacifism and anti-war movements, but the cross-over with the League was the
imprisonment of conscientious objectors, as well as the overriding issue of fairness
There is evidence that there were branches of the Howard League in Christchurch,
Dunedin and Auckland from the 1920s, and archives in Christchurch talk of eight
The papers of Ron Malcolm are in the Hocken Library, and need researching.
Essentially, Ron was a driving force behind the conscientious objection movement in
Dunedin, and was jailed in the second world war in a military defaulters camp:
He became strongly committed to the Howard League for Penal Reform,
and other social justice causes, including those of juvenile offenders, the
legal system, child welfare, fosterage etc. He was also a communist, with an
interest in issues of social equity (Hocken Library).
The Hocken library records the following:
The Malcolm family were diligent correspondents, and a nearly complete set
of letters exists for the period 1939 and 1946 between Ron and his parents.
Since they wrote almost every day the correspondence provides a good
description of life in that period, especially in the defaulters camps. There is
also a lot of philosophical and political discussion between Ron and his father.
The conscientious objection papers provide a view of the efforts to organise
resistance to conscription and to aid the peace movement, and also of the
strong links between this and other movements for social justice such as
socialism/communism and penal reform.
We understand that the new Dunedin branch has already begun to retrace the
history of the earlier branch through the Hocken records. Ron Malcolm was also
involved in the PARS in the early years.
The Howard League, over the years, has spawned two separate national journals.
The Bulletin may have run for some years while the NZ Howard Journal may have
only been produced for a year or so.
The two issues that recur in the early history are the treatment of conscientious
objectors and opposition to the death penalty. In the Christchurch City Library there
is a pamphlet called ‘Capital Punishment’, author the Howard League, written in
1949. It is possible that with the end of military conscription and the final abolition
of the death penalty, the League struggled to make headway. In the more liberal
penal environment of the 1970s, there may have seemed to be no reasons for the
However, by the 1990s the need was once again evident, and the Auckland and
Christchurch chapters were set up, but with no inter-branch relationships until the
magnificent tour of Ron Givens in the Three Strikes law in 2010. This tour had the
two groups working together, and led to discussions about a revitalised national
Liz Gordon (lizgordon @ paradise.net.nz)