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Temperance and Prohibition in New Zealand

III — The Sydenham Campaign and What It Led to — Period 1887 to 1896

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The Sydenham Campaign and What It Led to
Period 1887 to 1896

There is no doubt that the success of the Sydenham Campaign aroused the enthusiasm of temperance reformers throughout the Dominion and commenced the movement that has brought us to the position we occupy to-day. It was in Dunedin, however, that the first attempt was made to put the supposed prohibitionary powers of the 1881 Act into action.

The Roslyn Suburb of Dunedin in 1881 elected a Licensing Committee which refused to renew the licenses for four houses in the borough, and their action was held to be legal and effective by Judge Williams.

During my three year term in Wellington, I had taken active part in temperance work, and on the Conference appointing me to Sydenham, my brother, the Rev. F. W. Isitt, wrote me that a young man, Mr. T. E. Taylor, was waiting impatiently for my arrival, that together we might start an effort to close all the public houses in that borough.

That young man certainly lost no time. On the first morning after my arrival, I was taking a look round my garden about eight o'clock, when, in defiance of the law, a young fellow pedalled along the footpath, hopped off his bicycle, and with outstretched hand, said, ‘You are Mr. Isitt. I am Tom Taylor. Come into your study.’ My study was mostly occupied by three or four unpacked cases of books; but, saying to myself, ‘This chap is an original,’ I obeyed, and led the way. I page 61 sat down on a chair; Taylor perched himself on one of the cases and proceeded to tell all he had planned, and what I had to do, especially stressing the fact that there was no time to lose, and suggesting a date for the first meeting. I listened, acquiesced, and studied my visitor, who, after an hour's talk, said he had had his breakfast and must get to his office. What was he like? Well, to compress T. E. Taylor into a few lines is to leave synthetic chemistry and meat tabloids standing. He was slim, clean-cut, dark hair, a heavy moustache, with a pair of eyes and features which talked as he talked. Every inch of him was alert. He had not an apology in his composition. He had confidence in his own powers and ability, and, in that first conversation, I was impressed with the fact that I was talking to one who, in his judgement of his fellows was utterly indifferent to their poverty or wealth, or the importance or otherwise of their worldly position. His heroes and heroines were men and women who were inspired by desires to help humanity. I learned later that if ever a man was the result of heredity, it was Taylor. His father was a stalwart. A man-of-wars-man who stood six feet in his stockings, upright as a dart, fearless, honest, God-honouring. Conscious of his own integrity and worth, he was deferential and courteous to those who sat in high places, but he talked with them with the same freedom and courage as he showed to his social equals. Tom's mother was a little bit of a woman, who, like Nelson, did not know the meaning of fear. Arriving late one evening at a Tuam Street meeting, where a rowdy ending was not unlikely, I found her walking up and down outside the building. To my query what she was doing there, she said she was too page 62 late to get in. ‘What on earth have you got there?’ I asked. She showed a formidable waddy, and said that if any one meant hurt to her Tom they would have her to reckon with. She was a woman of keen intellect, and there can be no question where Taylor got his speaking ability from, for she was not only fluent, but had a tongue that cut like a razor. It has to be admitted that, at times, her comments upon those whom she regarded as evil-doers were unrestrained, but withal she was a noble woman, who spent her life for good.

The election of the Licensing Committee which would we supposed, have the power to repress all licenses, was our objective. A meeting was held in my schoolroom and a Prohibition Society formed. Gospel Temperance Meetings were held in my church after the ordinary services at regular intervals, week-night meetings were held, not only in the Sydenham borough, but in various places in the city, and The Prohibitionist was established, Taylor and myself being joint editors, and things speedily waxed fast and furious. At one of our earliest meetings the Rev. P. R. Munro marched in, requested leave to speak, and made a trenchant attack on our platform. Taylor and I went for him amidst much excitement, and Munro left with no hint of any change of view. Some weeks later, as I entered the hall, a friend said, ‘I say, Munro is here again. There will be a lively time to-night.’ Sure enough, I found Munro occupying a front seat, and soon he rose to speak. He said, ‘I have spent nearly the whole of my time since I was here in studying this question. I have read all I could lay my hands on on the subject. I have talked with others and studied the carryings on of the drink trade in this city, and I am here to say that I am page 63 wholly converted to your views and want to join the society.’ If we had known what the convert was to do for the cause we should have been even more jubilant than we were and have sung the Doxology. He was as fearless as Taylor, and one of the most scholarly men that we had then in our ranks. His action was bitterly resented by many of the members of his church, and he undoubtedly suffered many things for his convictions. He was an able writer, a capital and humorous speaker, and until the time of his sudden death, threw all his energy and powers into the struggle. The Prohibition cause owes no small debt to the late P. R. Munro, while the recollections of the man by those privileged to be associated with him are treasured memories. Prohibitionists are supposed by their opponents to be sour, dour, narrow kill-joys. We had a circle of workers then and for a long time after of brilliant and gifted men and women as joyous and witty as they were earnest, and to-day I question whether there is any reform movement in the Dominion that constitutes a more devoted and happy brotherhood. A good cause is bound to attract good men.

Taylor was a marvellous organizer. He had every street in Sydenham mapped out and a band of workers so organized that if necessary we could print a circular in the morning, hoist our flag at the Sydenham schoolroom, and our distributors would be waiting at the schoolroom on their way back from work in the evening, and, before nightfall, that circular would be in every house in the borough. When the election day dawned, we opened with a six o'clock prayer meeting in my schoolroom, and manned and womanned every polling place, but we were defeated by a heavy page 64 majority. Undismayed, we made no pause in our efforts. Defeat was only a bugle call to more vigorous action. The Prohibitionist had by that time compassed a circulation of many thousands, and reached every part of the Dominion. Platform speaking had provoked one or two libel actions and certain lawyers told off by the Trade were subscribers, whose business it was to watch for any opportunity. On the other hand, we succeeded in making disclosures that caused fear and anger in the ranks of our opponents. One of the most notable had to do with the subdivision and rating of a certain borough acreage that was managed by one of the brewers. This gentleman was supposed to have bought the property, subdivided it into the smallest areas that were possible, and disposed of these sections to a number of trade supporters who all claimed enrolment on the ratepay roll. We had our doubts. Knowing that the property had been for a long time in the hands of a land agent for disposal, we sent one whom we thought would not be suspected of any part or lot with us to ascertain the price, and to our delight he returned with a signed option over the whole of these sections, showing that the sale was a bogus one. Needless to say, the would-be ratepayers got no enrolment. Under the 1881 Act, the ratepayers of a borough were supposed to have power to elect a Licensing Committee pledged to refuse all liquor sale licenses on the ground that they were not required in the district, and no doubt that the Act did give the power ever entered our minds, and the enthusiasm with which we entered upon the second struggle was very great. As the decisive day approached, the excitement reached fever heat. At 6 a.m. on the polling day the schoolroom was
D. C. Cameron,Notable leader in the I.O.G.T

D. C. Cameron,
Notable leader in the I.O.G.T

Mrs. D. C. Cameron

Mrs. D. C. Cameron

Alfred Saunders,Notable temperance worker who claimed Sir William Fox as one of his converts

Alfred Saunders,
Notable temperance worker who claimed Sir William Fox as one of his converts

J. W. Jago, Ex-President N.Z Alliance and notable worker in the temperance cause

J. W. Jago,
Ex-President N.Z Alliance and notable worker in the temperance cause

Rev. James Cocker,Many years member N. Z. Alliance Executive; Associate Editor of this volume

Rev. James Cocker,
Many years member N. Z. Alliance Executive; Associate Editor of this volume

Rev. P. S. Smallfieid, B. A., ex-President N. Z. Alliance; eductationalist and prohibition advocate

Rev. P. S. Smallfieid, B. A.,
ex-President N. Z. Alliance; eductationalist and prohibition advocate

page 65 thronged with men and women praying for God's guidance and help. To the credit of all concerned, though both parties had strong representation at every polling booth, proceedings went on in amity. At the both at which I worked, publicans and prohibitionists had tea together. The publicans in charge of our booth and I exchanged a good deal of chaff, but at one stage a minister drove up in a wine and spirit merchant's carriage. ‘That's the sort of parson,’ said the publican, ‘he votes for us' Said I, ‘My friend, you know more about the character of the liquor trade than I do. Honestly, what do you men think of a minister of Christ who champions your traffic?’ It was a bow drawn at a venture, but the soul of the man flashed in his eyes, ‘Faith,’ said he, ‘Faith, and it's damned little.’ Our foes were confident and had arranged for bands and a flagged procession, but when the numbers went up we had changed our fifty per cent minority into a fifty per cent majority. The flags were unlifted, the trumpets unblown, and silent and saddened they crept away. Our forces thronged to may church and with prayer and praise gave.

Dear old Sir William Fox had spoken for us at a mass meeting the previous night. He was in ill-health and so felt the strain that he went to bed early in the evening. With two or three others I hastened to tell him the good news. He sat up with tears running down his cheeks, and said, ‘Praise God, Isitt! Praise God! It is the beginning of the end.’ It's a longer end than any imagined those forty years ago; and it may not come in my time, but it is as sure as that day follows night.

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Here I want to break off history for a word with those who are still carrying on the struggle. I meet many to-day who seem disheartened. They worry over the mistakes that we have made in the conduct of the campaign; and some of them have undoubtedly been great. The abandonment of Local Option was, in my opinion, and that of many others, a grievous error. Again and again when victory seemed just within our grasp, some untoward happening has resulted in heavy defeat. Well, what about it? Did you ever know a reform which was not hindered by error? Can you remember any fight for the right that was not crippled over and again by stupendous mistakes, sometimes mistakes made by its most enthusiastic supporters. Our friends should remember that we are fighting a giant battle to wrest from the forces of evil the greatest weapon in their armoury. We struggle not against flesh and blood, merely, but against the principalities and powers of evil, and you and I have no right to repine because the day of triumph still seems distant. Do you think that it is just chance that the difference between a premier on our side or on the enemy's side instead of ours; or some unexpected ill-happening at a critical moment in the struggle has brought disaster? I do not believe it. I say again, we fight against the principalities and powers of evil and it is not mere chance that brings defeat or compasses victory. If we believe that God is with us and we are under His guidance, there may be mystery—there is no blind chance. How mighty the conquest! How all-important and far-reaching it will be when it comes. If you and I die in harness and view the triumph not on earth, but from heaven, our joy and reward will not be lessened by the knowledge that we only helped to lay the foundation of page 67 humanity's deliverance from the foulest evil that ever cursed civilization and marred the Image of God in man, while it was left to those following us to take the field and plant Christ's banner on this citadel of hell.

The election won, we lost no time. Our Committee consisted of Colonel G. J. Smith, now an M.L.C., and Messrs. Rudd, Hopper, Beattie and myself. Elected chairman, I found that the law stipulated that as chairman I was the mouthpiece of the committee, and if any member wished to speak, the committee had to retire and the member voice his sentiment through me, and when I found the long table lined not only with publicans applying for the renewal of their licenses, but some six or seven leading city lawyers appearing on their behalf, my task caused me some nervousness. Each lawyer called a number of witnesses in the interest of the hotel he represented and there were some amusing incidents that seemed to tickle the spectators who crowded the chamber. It was weary work, and when we had been sitting for a number of days, we were told that we had made a grave mistake and that the liquor trade was jubilantly anticipating the trouble we should land in. Our information came from a reliable source and for some days Taylor and I studied every clause in the Act and consulted some six lawyers, but none could help us. But the day before the meeting of the committee at which we had either to grant or reject the licenses, Taylor called at the parsonage to say, ‘I've got it! You have never given the ground landlords notice to appear and show cause why the licenses should be granted.’ He had beaten all the lawyers in his discovery of our error, and we escaped by the skin of our teeth. page 68 There was only one thing to be done. When we met I assured the lawyers that, doubtless much to their regret and ours, we, in our lay ignorance, had neglected to give the ground landlords the required notice and there was nothing for it but to start over again, which we did. In the meantime, our difficulties were increased by the information that the Act failed to give the power that every one supposed it did, and that we could not legally close all the hotels, so, after much consultation, we closed four, leaving three, but after much consideration at a later sitting, we closed the remainder, whereon the trade took us to the Supreme Court and the case went against us. We appealed and the judgement was confirmed, but, encouraged by the fact that the judges who all adjudged us in fault gave contradictory reasons for their decision, the case was taken to the Privy Council. Again the judgement was confirmed. The Act, so far as actual Prohibition was concerned, was declared inoperative, and we found ourselves ousted with some seven hundred pounds costs to pay. I had had a strenuous time of it and the friends of the movement had raised a sufficient sum to send me to a World Temperance Convention in Chicago, and give me a trip to Maine and the Old Land. When this calamity befell us, I felt that I could not possibly leave our forces in the lurch, informed the committee that I could not go, resigned my position as the minister of the East Belt church, and commenced a Dominion tour agitating for amendment in the Act that would recognize the right of the people to decide the question whether liquor licenses be granted in their neighbourhood or not, and we were launched on the political struggle that has continued from that day to this. Seddon was page 69 Premier, and was an open champion of the liquor trade, and anything obtained had to be wrung from him ‘vi et armis.’ The enthusiasm, however, was wonderful in those days. Would God it was as great to-day. There was no difficulty in obtaining audiences. The difficulty was to find buildings large enough to accommodate them. The keenest interest obtained, interruptions and counter speeches from the enemy were frequent, and at meeting after meeting we carried by overwhelming majorities votes demanding Local Option at the hands of Parliament.

On one or two occasions the windows were taken out of the buildings in which I spoke, so that those outside could hear.

The people! Yes, the people must decide. These M.H.R.'s are kind, but they've all their axe to grind, And they can't make up their mind ‘who'll win.’ Us they hardly dare refuse, but are all afraid to lose The help of him who brews and has the tin; But the people! Yes, the people must decide, formed in doggerel the burden of my message, and while I was free to give my whole time to the task in every town and village in New Zealand, volunteers were carrying on the work. The women of the W.C.T.U. were doing splendidly, and their campaign for women's franchise went hand in hand with their work for our reform. T. E. Taylor, who had come to his strength as a speaker and was soon to be member for Christchurch North, together with literally scores of ministers and laymen who all deserve mention if space allowed, were all at it, and always at it, until even Seddon saw that it would not do to longer resist the demands of the people, and the first Local Option measure was carried.

My contribution to the History ends here, but I page 70 cannot forbear paying tribute to the men and women with whom I was associated. They were so gifted. Fox, Jago, Munro, Adams, Laurenson, G. I. Smith, Atkinson, Spragg, Fowlds, my brother Frank, dear Dawson—I could go on and on and fill pages with names of men and women, every one of whom deserves mention. They were so genial and witty and laughter-loving. No madder idea ever formed in liquor-lover's brain than that the average prohibitionist was an ascetic and a kill-joy. They were so devoted, and here the women almost outdid the men. The miles they tramped, the house to house visitation, the financial sacrifice they made, the way they scrimped in the home to help the cause. I choke as I think of it, and perforce lay down my pen; but God never gave a cause a nobler band of men and women, and ever prominent, our great political leader, T. E. Taylor, going from strength to strength, mentally, morally, in wisdom and self-restraint, dominating Parliament, winning more and more the love and admiration of the people, displaying such keenness and ability as Mayor of Christchurch as wrung admiration from his opponents, the while the keen sword wore out the scabbard, and only his intimates knew under what strain and suffering the last year's work was done, that ended with the utterance, ‘I have had a glorious life, but, Isitt, I am so tired, so tired, and now I go to rest.’

It hurts me to know that there are thousands of humble men and women who, many of them, make equal sacrifice with that of any mentioned, whose deeds cannot be chronicled here. It joys me to remember that God has His Honour's Roll of the unknown dead and the unrecognized heroes.