- Murray Horton
Elsie Locke, who died in April 2001, aged 88, was physically tiny but a person with enormous presence (a point made by all the headline writers of her numerous tributes and obituaries). She was multi-talented: a lifelong political activist, she was once a leading Communist Party figure and remained a socialist all her life. For decades she was a leader of the New Zealand peace movement, long before it achieved critical mass. She lived long enough to see her point of view become the nuclear free status quo in this country. She was an active feminist long before that word was known and a pakeha activist on Maori issues long before that became the norm. She was an indefatigable writer, of books, articles, radio talks and letters to the editor. Her children’s books alone guarantee her immortality. She was a community activist, who devoted decades to improving the Avon Loop, her beloved central Christchurch home for nearly 60 years. A daily swimmer for decades, she led the fight to preserve and improve Centennial Pool, and keep it free of the curse of sponsorship (no Lancaster Park/Jade Stadium scenario there). She was the only living person to have a park named after her in Christchurch history. She won prizes, medals, awards, an honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Canterbury and a Distinguished Alumni Award from Auckland University.
Throughout all this, she placed her family (a bunch of talented political activists themselves) above all else, being a devoted mother and grandmother (not to mention a grandmother figure to her broader community). For several years, in her 80s, she put everything on hold to take full care of her late husband, Jack, who was stricken by a series of strokes. She was plain spoken, indeed she could be a crabby old bugger (I know). She lived simply, biking and walking everywhere, dying alone in the tiny little riverside cottage that had been the family home since 1944. Elsie had a fierce love of all things New Zealand, and only once went overseas, preferring to tramp in her beloved Kiwi bush. She had a love of art and culture, and ensured that her working class family got the same cultural riches as those of the middle class and rich. Right until the very end of her long, long life (I last saw her a month before she died), she had a razor sharp mind, and the keenest active interest in the world around her. Our last talk was at an Anti-Bases Campaign (ABC) public meeting to protest the Government’s law change to allow the spies and cops to tap New Zealanders’ e-mail. Elsie was 88 and frail; computers were of no personal interest to her (her trusty old manual typewriter was a central prop at her funeral – along with her bike, togs and towel), but she turned up and sat in the front row to listen to her Green MP son, Keith, speak on the issue.
Elsie was a greatly valued friend and colleague for 30 years. She was a foundation member of CAFCINZ (now CAFCA) in 1975 and remained a member until her death. She was a big fan, writing in her book, “Peace People”: “…CAFCA has retained its unique blend of research, education of itself and others, and action where appropriate, always with the aim of a truly independent New Zealand”. She was involved in all its campaigns and fought some of her own with the very biggest and nastiest of the transnational corporations. I well remember her great pride, in the 1990s, when she got Telecom to drop its demand for payment, including years of arrears, for the outside bell that the former Post Office had installed, free of charge, so that the progressively deaf Elsie could hear the phone ring whilst she was in the garden (no impersonal answerphones for her). In the years that CAFCINZ was a peace group, campaigning on issues like the US military base at Christchurch Airport (the Harewood base is still there and still an issue), Elsie was in the thick of it. From the 1980s onwards, as those issues were taken up, firstly by the former Citizens for the Demilitarisation of Harewood, and now by the ABC, she remained actively involved. She was an ABC member throughout the 90s. She was too old and frail to come to any of the Waihopai spybase protests, but she did things like recommend books for us to review in Peace Researcher. ABC was honoured to be invited by the family to contribute a couple of our banners to join those displayed during her funeral. Peace was Elsie’s driving passion. Melanie Thomson of the ABC (now in London) remembers Elsie, in her 80s, biking out to the University to speak to the student peace group. And she was very generous – from 1993 onwards she donated nearly $1,000 to the CAFCA/ABC Organiser Account, which provides my income.
Elsie Violet Farrelly was born in 1912, the youngest of six children, and grew up in the tiny south Auckland town of Waiuku. Her repugnance towards war was inculcated in her when young. She grew up in the aftermath of World War 1, and saw first hand the horrors it had wrought. “…when visiting Warkworth I was taken to see a man whose face had been half shot away and who never went off his farm” (Press, 24/12/91; “Elsie Locke: anti-nuclear arms veteran”, Ken Coates). Her mother, Ellen, told that her that the war should never have happened and could have been avoided. Elsie left Waiuku when she was young, but never forsook it, often returning there throughout her long life, and, unusually for a pakeha of her generation, developing strong ties with the local Ngati Te Ata iwi. Her research was vital for its Treaty of Waitangi claim; she had a Maori godson, who spoke movingly of her at the funeral. The Maori Women’s Welfare League made a special visit to Elsie’s wake, to farewell her with songs and stories. In an age when it was common for working class kids, especially girls, to not go to high school, Elsie worked to put herself through Auckland University, graduating with an arts degree in 1933. This was, of course, in the depths of the Depression, which made a profound impact on her. “One daughter, Auckland City Councillor, Maire Leadbeater, said the ‘watershed experience’ of Mrs Locke’s youth was watching 10,000 unemployed men march down Queen Street in 1932. From then on, her mother’s mission was ‘to be one with all who struggled and all who were oppressed’” (Press, 14/4/01; “Tiny, tireless crusader farewelled”, Christine Rush).
She married, became Elsie Freeman, had a son, and became a divorced solo mother, in the space of a few years. Divorce was regarded a shameful disgrace in those days; bringing up a child singlehanded in 1930s New Zealand was a very hard row to hoe for a woman (one I heard about firsthand from my late mother, who had to do the same with my older sister). Don, her eldest, has lived in England for more than 40 years – he flew back just in time to give a jetlagged speech at her funeral. In 1941, Elsie married Jack Locke, and moved to Christchurch. She told me that she’d never wanted to move here, and had only done so because Jack did. When the bicycling newcomer encountered snow in her first southern winter, she wondered what the hell she’d struck. In 1944 they moved into the Oxford Terrace cottage that was to be their home for the rest of their lives, and where they raised their children, Don, Keith, Maire and Alison (when Don spoke at the funeral, he made it clear that Jack was his Dad, as far as he was concerned).
Jack Locke was, of course, a leading member of the Communist Party of New Zealand (now the Socialist Workers Organisation) since 1936. He was the Christchurch branch chairman for decades; he was the CPNZ’s candidate in several general elections during the 1950s and 60s. He told me that he intended to die a Communist, and he did so, in 1996. Elsie was a leading Party activist, from the 1930s until 1956 (when, like so many others, she quit in disgust at the Soviet invasion of Hungary). She and Jack met through the Party; they moved to Christchurch because the Party posted Jack here. In the early 1970s, I was researching a (never written) MA thesis on the CPNZ and the broader Left in Christchurch between the two world wars. In the course of that research, I spent a lot of time in the Locke cottage, and in Jack’s old Army hut in the backyard, where he kept all his papers (including a big stash that he brought out of hiding for me). I got to read all the various Party newspapers of the 1920s and 30s, including the separate one for women (which Elsie edited), and I can vouch for Elsie’s leading role, especially in the 1930s. Remember, this was at the zenith of the Party’s influence, when it had a membership of thousands, and a much broader support base. Simultaneously, she was a leading feminist activist and writer, and was one of the founders of what is now the Family Planning Association. Decades after she left the CPNZ, she was still regarded as a dangerous Bolshevik. She only ever made one overseas trip, to a writers’ conference in Canada, in the 80s. It required a stopover in Hawaii. Because of her previous CPNZ membership, US authorities required that she be followed around the airport by an armed security guard – in case this elderly lady writer of children’s books should sneak out to foment revolution on Waikiki Beach.
Elsie didn’t like her CPNZ role to be highlighted (it was declared off limits for Ken Coates’ 1991 Press feature on her). Whenever I mentioned it, in articles or book reviews over the years, she’d ring up and protest that she wasn’t really a leading CPNZ figure for two decades, that it included time when she was raising children or was seriously ill in hospital. But she didn’t downplay her CPNZ role because of shame or anti-Communism. Not at all – the conclusion of our discussions was always that she didn’t like her CPNZ past highlighted “because it upsets Jack”. Having seen political differences (namely whether to vote National or Labour) cause rows between my own parents, I can only imagine the difficulty in overcoming a political difference of this magnitude. Jack remained a loyal Communist and CPNZ leader until his death; Elsie quit the Party in 1956. Yet they remained happily married for 55 years. Elsie told his funeral that the secret was that they agreed to disagree, and because of “good old fashioned love”. There was even symmetry in death – they both died aged 88 years and seven months (their ashes are buried together under a tree on the Avon River bank, in front of their home). Ironically, anti-Communism reared its ugly head when the Press published, between her death and her funeral, a vicious letter accusing her of being a Communist, a Stalinist, a tool of the Kremlin, and complicit in the genocide of 100 million people. This breathtakingly outlandish letter (I very much doubt they would publish anything similar if the subject was a newly deceased Prime Minister, Archbishop or All Black captain) touched off a volley of outraged letters in her defence, savaging the Press for its execrable insensitivity.
Throughout this period, Elsie was living as a traditional housewife and mother. One woman speaker at her funeral pointed out that when Jack retired and decided to become acquainted with the kitchen, he didn’t know what cooked rice looked like. They raised four children in their tiny gingerbread cottage that, until comparatively recently, had an outside toilet and a kitchen and bathroom described as “primitive”. They lived on Jack’s wage as a freezing worker; there was no car. Jack rode a scooter to and from the Belfast works; Elsie did everything by bike; the kids rode bikes or walked. There was a terrible period in the 1940s when she spent two years flat on her back in hospital, with TB (aggravated by it not having been diagnosed at first). The kids had to be farmed out around the country for lengthy periods. TB was a dreaded killer at that time (I lost an aunt to it then, at a tragically early age), but Elsie came through it, with a very pragmatic attitude. As her son Don told her funeral: “It was a very difficult time for Mum, but she didn’t waste it. She said it was an excellent time for reading and thinking about political and social issues” (Press, 14/4/01; “Tiny, tireless crusader farewelled”, Christine Rush). Her kids were brought up to appreciate everything cultural and artistic, even those regarded as the preserve of the haute bourgeoisie. Maire told the funeral how the family scrimped to send her to ballet lessons, even though it was obvious that the tutu and pointe shoes were never going to be her work clothes. Whenever Maire came down from Auckland to visit, she and Elsie went to the opera or ballet or theatre. In recent years, we had run into them at venues such as the Court Theatre, the Town Hall, even the National Women’s Prison (at a show put on by inmates during one Christchurch Arts Festival). Her kids were brought up to love the outdoors, and tramping was a favoured family holiday. Both she and Jack were lifelong atheists; theirs was a frank and unsentimental relationship. I remember Maire’s horrified reaction as her aged parents calmly discussed euthanasia between themselves.
After she left the Party, in 1956, Elsie plunged into life as a peace activist. It wasn’t a new cause for her – she had been involved in peace issues all her life, such as the massive campaign against conscription in the late 1940s. Nuclear disarmament became her driving passion, and from 1957-70 she was an executive member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), of which she was a founder. She was so central to the peace movement from the 1950s to 70s that it was only appropriate that she wrote “Peace People”, the definitive history of the NZ peace movement (up until 1975). She regarded nuclear weapons as constituting a worse evil than Hitler’s crimes against humanity, and was immensely proud of New Zealand’s nuclear free status, not to mention the decades of struggle to bring it about. But she was not a complete pacifist. “I have never said there are no circumstances in which you would not fight; for example, the Maori would have been a lot worse off if they had not resisted in the colonial wars” (Press, 24/12/91; “Elsie Locke: anti-nuclear arms veteran”, Ken Coates). In the same article, she supported the right of people like Nicaraguans and Filipinos to wage armed struggle, for land and justice, but opposed New Zealand having been involved in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. “I don’t like it when they’re trained for jungle warfare. We haven’t got any jungles to be warfaring in”. And: “The Gulf War was about oil and if it had not been there, there wouldn’t have been all that action” (ibid). She was interested in the struggle of all peoples for freedom, peace and justice. I well remember her coming to a late 1980s public meeting on Bougainville, despite the fact that she was awaiting a double knee replacement, needed two sticks to stand and walk, and had to crawl (fiercely unaided) into the vehicle taking her there. Peace activist Kate Dewes, in her eulogy, remembered Elsie grappling with Kate’s teenage daughter to carry her favourite banner on the annual Hiroshima Day commemoration.
To the very end she was a peace activist and was honoured as such. In November 2000, both she and Maire (who followed in her mother’s footsteps in the peace movement) received Peacebuilder Awards from the NZ commission of UNESCO. Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s she was involved in the anti-bases campaign (long before there was an Anti-Bases Campaign). That great 1980s documentary “Islands of the Empire” highlights a scene of Elsie, speaking from the back of a truck, asking protesters outside the US base at Harewood: “Where’s your democracy?”. Quite. As mentioned above, her very last public appearance (years after she’d told me she could no longer go out at night) was at an ABC public meeting in March this year, just weeks before she died. She was greeted there like our collective Nana, the veritable grand old lady of the peace movement.
As well as being a leading peace activist, the other major string to Elsie’s bow was as a writer, primarily (but not exclusively) of children’s books. All up, she wrote 20 books and was honoured as a writer (for example, she won the Katherine Mansfield Award for non-fiction in 1958, not to mention the honorary doctorate, etc). Her first novel “The Runaway Settlers” was published in 1965 and has been in continuous print longer than any other New Zealand children’s book. The Mayor of Christchurch, Garry Moore, said in his eulogy that it was his kids’ favourite book. Margaret Mahy, the doyenne of New Zealand children’s writers, also spoke at the funeral and praised Elsie highly. Historian Len Richardson praised her writing about working class people such as shepherds and maids: “Elsie’s voice was a persistent and gently insistent one…She pointed pathways which we could all follow” (Press, 14/4/01; “Tiny, tireless crusader farewelled”, Christine Rush). Long before it was fashionable, she incorporated biculturalism as a central feature of her books. I can’t comment on any of her children’s books, because I’ve never read any of them (although I have seen a stage production of “The Runaway Settlers”). From memory, “Peace People” is the only one of Elsie’s books that I’ve read – in fact I contributed to it, with research material and photos. Writing was vital to her – for more than 50 years she kept a room to herself in their tiny cottage, packing the kids off into other parts of the house. “Virginia Woolf said if you wanted to write, or for that matter make anything of yourself, you needed a room of your own and five hundred pounds a year. I never had the five hundred pounds but I made sure I always had a room’’ (Listener; 20/4/96; Books; “A bird in the hand”, Bruce Ansley). To the great regret of her family, friends and colleagues, there is one book that she never wrote – her autobiography. Her fascinating life will have to be written up by somebody else.
There were so many other areas of life into which she plunged. For instance, she and Jack were central figures in the Avon Loop community for more than 50 years, running recycling schemes, Avon River clean ups, and carnivals (complete with a visit from Elizabeth, the city’s resident sea elephant, on one memorable occasion). She was a leading figure in the struggle between those wanting to “develop’’ the Loop and those wanting to retain its character, with some development. She was a founder of the Avon Loop Planning Association. As the central city became fashionable and gentrified, this neighbourhood of 19th Century workers’ cottages became a model. She became intimately involved in the politics of the city – Garry Moore, in his eulogy, credited Elsie with getting him motivated into reviving his local residents’ association, which led him onto the City Council and into the Mayoralty. He also described councillors who crossed Elsie as ‘’suicidal’’. Preserving her beloved Centennial Pool was her greatest local triumph, marked by the newly created neighbouring park being named after her. She was instrumental in restoring the environment of the Avon as it flows through the Loop, getting the banks replanted in natives, which have attracted back a great variety of native and exotic birds. Mind you, she wouldn’t have been too pleased by being referred to as a “dear old lady in gumboots” in the Press Weekender feature that appeared after her death (5/5/01; Gardening).
Above all, Elsie was a fascinating human being. She was incredibly alive. When I first met her, she was nearly a decade older than what I am now, so I never knew her as young or even middle aged (it’s fascinating to read about the youthful Elsie tackling the hidebound 1930s attitudes towards sex, in her activities as both a feminist and Communist). Mostly I knew her as old. But woe betide anyone who treated her as a little old lady. She didn’t take kindly at all to offers of doors being opened or being helped into or out of cars. She was a loving grandmother but not a sickly sweet one – granddaughter Jessie Moss, in her eulogy, described her as a “scary Nana”, who went to great lengths to protect her much prized grapes from rampaging kids. Apparently Jack was the soft touch. Another granddaughter told a wonderful story of accompanying Elsie to the supermarket, just weeks before her death. When the checkout person asked the usual inane “How are you today?”, Elsie replied: ‘’And why do YOU want to know?”.
In the 90s, she dropped everything for several years to look after Jack, who was incapacitated by a series of strokes. I well remember turning up unannounced one day to find her helping him with his hand exercises, encouraging him to speak, and guiding him around the cottage on his walking frame with me following behind with his wheelchair (in case he fell). It was incredibly hard work, physically gruelling on a 80+ year old tiny woman who had had her own health problems (knee replacements, etc). At times, Jack had to go into hospital or a home, just to give her a break. In our very last conversation I asked her if it was difficult for her living alone. She replied immediately and directly: “Not as difficult as when I was looking after Jack”. After he died (1996) she resumed her former life, of writing and peace activism, as much as her increasing frailty would allow. She went more and more deaf (which led to some funny stories from the grandkids at the funeral); she started having falls and heart turns (it was a heart attack that killed her). The last time I saw her she looked very tired. But by no means ‘’ready to go’’. As her daughter Alison told the funeral: “She would have been cross if she knew, because she hadn’t finished everything’’ (Press, 14/4/01; “Tiny, tireless crusader farewelled”, Christine Rush).
She is gone but the Locke family (once described by Piggy Muldoon as the most “notorious Communist family in New Zealand’’) carries on her work. Both Keith and Maire are high profile activists. Keith started off as a leading figure in the Socialist Action League (which he described to the funeral as a ‘’socialist sect’’), moving on to the Alliance, and then to his present position as a Green list MP. Maire was the leading figure in Auckland CND for years, more recently was the face of the East Timor solidarity movement, and is currently an independent Auckland City Councillor. Keith and Maire have worked closely with both CAFCA and ABC in recent years on any number of campaigns and issues – to give only the most recent example, both were at this year’s Waihopai spybase protest. Alison’s teenage daughters, who told the funeral that they have inherited ‘’the Locke spirit’’, are active in the local Young Greens. So Elsie, you were unique, but you’ve planted your seeds very well, starting from your own family and spreading out through the progressive movement and into the wider world.
Her son Don told the funeral that such a grand send off, in the Convention Centre, was ironic (she had made no specifications for her funeral, other than that we sing the old Wobbly classic “Joe Hill’’, because Jack had specified it for his funeral). ‘’Mum cut through the nonsense – she didn’t mess around with fancy words or irrelevancies’’ (ibid). Exactly. As Joe Hill himself said in the message to his own funeral, after he was shot by firing squad: ‘’Don’t mourn. Organise’’. So, Elsie, we remember you without sentiment but with much aroha, and a determination to follow your example. A person like you only comes along once in a lifetime – it was a privilege to know you.