Stan Hemsley

- by Murray Horton

Stan Hemsley, who died in Christchurch in May 2007, aged 88, was a tireless stalwart of CAFCA and related groups. Stan was the ideal grassroots activist who was both immensely practical and gifted as a communicator and motivator. He was multi-skilled in the contributions he could make and he was absolutely dependable. If he said he would do something, he would get it done, with interest.

He Fought Foreign Takeover & Privatisation

Stan was a campaigner for a New Zealand free from the domination by transnational corporations. To that end he was a very active member of CAFCA from 1990 until he went into care early this century. He could be counted on to turn up and help whatever the occasion, whenever something needed doing – he was a regular at all CAFCA activities from public meetings to our Annual General Meeting to any march or picket. In the 1990s CAFCA was instrumental in coordinating the Campaign For People’s Sovereignty (CPS), a coalition fighting privatisation and foreign control at the grassroots, local body level. CPS campaigned for several years to try and keep Southpower, Christchurch’s former power company, in public and local body ownership. We were up against the high tide of the 1990-99 National government’s mania for flogging off power companies, which culminated in Max Bradford’s laughable “reforms” (we’re still living with the consequences of them). Southpower was duly flogged off to Canadian transnational TransAlta (it won the 1999 Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation Operating in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and quit the NZ retail electricity sector, leaving an even bigger mess. The main power company now supplying Christchurch, Meridian, is State-owned but local government no longer has any role in retail electricity supply). Pickets at Southpower and the City Council were a common occurrence, as was our attendance at Southpower’s annual meeting. Stan was always to the fore and he contributed his beautifully painted banners, such as one reading “Keep Power Public”. There was a wonderful consistency to Stan’s banners – I have photos that he gave me of several of them, spanning the 80s and 90s. There’s him and me holding a “Freedom From Smelter” one at Otago Harbour, in 1981; him holding a “Freedom From Muldoonism” one in Cathedral Square (during the 1975-84 period of Piggy’s rule) and one of him at Lyttelton holding a “Freedom From N. War” banner.

During the 90s, CAFCA was also instrumental in setting up the Society for Publicly Owned Telecommunications (SPOT) which focused on Telecom. Stan was a regular at the pickets and activities outside Telecom’s Christchurch building and he was particularly good at collecting signatures for the SPOT petition calling for Telecom to be renationalised. There were other battles, such as that protesting Westpac’s takeover of the former TrustBank and the City Council contracting out Christchurch’s rubbish collection service to Onyx, a French transnational. Throughout this whole period there was the relentless march of corporatisation, privatisation and putting things on a “business footing” throughout the local government sector. Stan was in the thick of those battles as they affected his lifelong home, Lyttelton and the former Banks Peninsula District Council (since absorbed into the Christchurch City Council). I know that, if he’d been a younger man and had all his faculties, Stan would have loved to have been involved with CAFCA’s successful 2006 campaign (via the Keep Our Port Public coalition) to stop the City Council flogging off the Lyttelton Port Company to Hutchison Port Holdings of Hong Kong. He would have relished that victory, after setbacks in so many other similar battles.

As it is, he did more than his share for Lyttelton. Fellow Lytteltonian Tom Hay, who had been a close friend and colleague of Stan’s since they first met in 1943, said in his eulogy: “…he was solely responsible for ensuring that the present Lyttelton Library has a secure home in the not so-old Lyttelton Post Office. He trekked many miles around Lyttelton to get the requisite number of signatories to achieve this”. He also played a big practical role at Lyttelton’s Museum.

Throughout the 90s Stan was a generous and regular donor to the CAFCA/ABC Organiser Account which provides my income. I well remember his last donation – he was over 80 and forbidden to drive on medical grounds (he’d had a series of mini-strokes which played no small part in his subsequent memory loss and eventual institutionalisation). So he caught the bus from Lyttelton and walked a long way to our place in order to give me the money, in cash. When he set out to do something, he was bloody determined to see it done.

Campaigned For A Nuclear Free, Bases Free NZ

He was an Anti-Bases Campaign member from 1991 until his membership lapsed when he had to go into care (he developed dementia) in the early years of this century. The protests at the Waihopai spybase have now been running since 1988 – in the first decade of that campaign, Stan took part in four Waihopai protests, the last one when he was pushing 80. Nor did he make any concessions to his age – he drove or got driven up like the rest of us and camped out in tents, or cars, on the banks of the Wairau River (which is where we used to stay in those days). His age was a matter of interest to the Marlborough media, which regularly reported his views on the spybase. Stan was a great man for making banners, and a photo of him and his “Scrap Waihopai Spy Base” one, at the spybase gate, adorned the cover of ABC’s Peace Researcher 8, March 1996. He was inordinately proud of that banner. Those were the days when ABC’s tactics were to hold arrestable non-violent direct actions outside, or preferably inside, the base, culminating in 20 people being arrested at the 1997 protest. Tom Hay, speaking at Stan’s funeral, remembered his annoyance at the refusal of the cops to arrest him there, on the grounds of his age. In fact, despite decades as a protester and virtual fulltime activist, Stan was never arrested for anything. But his one and only court appearance was detailed in a wonderful 1997 Press profile (10/2/97; “Tireless voice in name of protest”, David Gee) – decades ago he was fined 15 shillings for having a dog without a lead, in Lyttelton, and a further two shillings and sixpence for contempt, for arguing with the magistrate (“a miserable bugger who liked his booze”). Nor was Stan’s ABC activity confined to Waihopai – he came to actions at the US military base at Harewood ( Christchurch Airport) and at the former central city office of the US Information Service. Not to mention public meetings and the like. The last time I saw Stan was in 2005 when Bob Leonard and I visited him in the home. He was struggling with his memory even then (it only got worse) but he knew who we were, he was pleased to have a good yarn with us, and he still had a vicelike handshake.

Before he got involved with ABC (and simultaneous with it), Stan was a veteran campaigner for a nuclear-free New Zealand. Larry Ross, the Christchurch-based driving force of that movement, circulated a tribute: “ Stan was a dedicated member of the executive and tireless worker for the New Zealand Nuclear Free Peacemaking Association from our foundation in 1981. He helped our national three part campaign started in 1981 to have the Government declare New Zealand a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. Although his family was desperately poor he continued to educate himself. Stan was an original one-off individualist who researched and came to his own conclusions. He could turn his hand to anything - from almost any trade to planning to personally build his own house. He wrote brilliant Letters To The Editor of the Christchurch Star and Press on peace and many other subjects. He designed and made peace banners for our various marches and demonstrations. He could always see the big picture - that mankind was capable of triggering his own global suicide and often came close to doing just that. That realisation kept Stan working for peace and nuclear disarmament all his life. Almost every week during the 1980's, he operated a Nuclear Free NZ peace stall in Cathedral Square, often on his own, but usually with others. They gave away and sold literature, badges, stickers, T-shirts and posters and publicised the cause. He loved people and getting involved discussing the issues of the day. In 1982, he constructed a huge dummy of a nuclear missile out of a steel drum, welded the front cone and tail fins then painted it red for danger. He wanted to dramatise the terrible dangers of the international nuclear missile race. He would drive around Christchurch with the missile and an informative sign on a trailer. Then put it on display at peace events to demonstrate man's perilous and fragile existence. Stan was a unique mixture of hands-on practicality and insights into the multiple environmental, war and nuclear threats to humanity. He was a great human being and a kind man who will always be fondly remembered”. Larry was a speaker at Stan’s funeral, which came just days after the official opening, at Canterbury Museum, of an exhibition detailing the movement that made NZ nuclear free and has kept it thus for 20 years. Several of the speakers that night, including a Cabinet Minister, paid tribute to Stan. And Stan was an internationalist as well. He was a member of the Philippines Solidarity Network of Aotearoa for nearly as long as his membership of ABC and CAFCA, and always attended any public meetings or activities that PSNA held in Christchurch.

Legendary Grassroots Environmentalist

Long before I first met Stan I’d heard of him as a legendary grassroots environmental campaigner. For decades he was a stalwart of the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society (his family asked for those attending his funeral to donate to it). He was active from the birth of the modern environmental movement in this country, from the mighty Save Manapouri Campaign in the early 1970s. Stan travelled as far north as Auckland helping to gather some of the more than 260,000 signatures for that petition (to save Fiordland’s Lake Manapouri being ruined by a dam to generate electricity for the exclusive use of Comalco’s Bluff aluminium smelter. The campaign was successful and the Manapouri power station was built underground. The Bluff smelter is still there, the biggest power consumer in the country, using 16% of NZ’s electricity 24/7).

He was particularly famous for his signature gathering skills for the Maruia Declaration (nearly 350,000 signatures when presented in 1977, the largest petition up until that time and still one of the biggest) to stop the logging of native beech forests on the West Coast. He was actively involved with the former Native Forests Action Council and Friends of the Earth and spent much time campaigning on the West Coast (never a welcoming part of the country for “greenies”). Speakers at his funeral paid tribute to the time and effort that he put into native tree replanting schemes, both in Canterbury and on the other side of the Alps. To quote Tom Hay’s eulogy again: “In our wider issues he played a sterling part in our several native forest preservation struggles. These included campaigns to save Waipoua and Warawara kauri forests, Manapouri, the Heaphy Track and in opposing the (former) Forest Service’s Beech Scheme as well as podocarp logging, especially in South Westland”.

Stan was an immensely practical man, with a love of the bush and tramping (he walked the Milford Track in his 60s), and was perfectly happy to make a constructive contribution to the reforesting of Aotearoa, not just campaign in the cities about it. He was such a staunch environmentalist that he forbade the use of any native timber in his coffin and asked his two sons to make him a plain pine one (which they did, although they didn’t obey the old seadog’s wish to put in a couple of portholes “so that I can keep an eye out”).

CAFCINZ (as we then were) was born out of a cross-pollination of environmental and economic concerns. Our founding action was the 1975 South Island Resistance Ride, which included both Lake Manapouri and West Coast beech forests among the places we visited in our fortnight long trip around the island in two buses. I first met Stan on one of the later campaigns which was a fusion of environment and economics, namely the Save Aramoana Campaign (we did too, it was brilliantly successful, no transnational aluminium smelter was ever built on that beautiful spit at the entrance to Otago Harbour). In 1981 a group of us (including the late Rod Donald*, who went on to become Green Co-Leader) travelled to Dunedin and Otago Harbour for a weekend of activities as part of that campaign. I have abiding memories of the fact that it started to snow as we waited to be welcomed onto the Otakou Marae (where the non-stop supply of kai was very welcome) and of travelling some of the way, very uncomfortably, in the back of Stan’s little old van, while he regaled us with colourful stories from his working life on land and sea. * My obituary of Rod is in Watchdog 110, December 2005, which can be read online at Ed.

Betrayed By Labour

Unlike a lot of environmental and peace activists, Stan had a solid background in class politics, and it was lifelong – he even died on May Day. Unlike a lot of those who do have that background, his came from authentic working class experience and grinding poverty, not out of books. Stan was an instinctive man of the Left – “I’m a socialist at heart. I believe all land should be under State control and we pay $25 per year for a piece of dirt” ( Press, ibid.) - but only as Left as the Labour Party. For decades he was a loyal and very active grassroots activist for Labour in Lyttelton and Christchurch. For this, he courted flak from his fellow activists who did not (and do not) share his rosy view of Labour. His view was that to get anything done you needed to get a party into government and that Labour was the only party which would represent the working class. His loyalty, and that of tens of thousands like him throughout the country, was bitterly “rewarded” by the unforgivable Rogernomics betrayal of the 1984-90 Labour government, a legacy which has only been stopped in some of its most extreme manifestations by the present Labour government and certainly not rolled back. All that the Clark/Cullen government has renounced is that Rogernomics turned out to be very bad electorally for Labour, not Rogernomics itself. Throughout that turbulent period (whose effects are still very much with us) Stan had no hesitation in letting the Party leadership know of his views of their actions, including at the highest level. Trevor, his eldest son, told his funeral that Stan once quit writing to the Government in disgust and after some time a letter arrived from the Prime Minister, David Lange*, asking after him and saying that he hadn’t heard from Stan for a while. * My obituary of David Lange is also in Watchdog 110, December 2005, which can be read online at Ed.

Two things finished Labour as far as Stan was concerned – Rogernomics was one and the other was that same 1984-90 Government signing up with Australia to the Anzac Frigates deal, a deal which he campaigned very hard against, both inside and outside the party. He saw this as a major step backwards from Labour’s brave move in making NZ nuclear free, as was Lange’s gifting the Waihopai spybase for the benefit of the US war machine. Although he became bitterly disillusioned with Labour, he simply let his membership lapse and did not join the exodus that followed Jim Anderton to, firstly, New Labour and then the Alliance. And, despite his decades of environmental activism, he remained a green but never became a Green. He didn’t join another party after Labour – once bitten, twice shy, perhaps. I don’t know whether he continued to vote Labour, swapped allegiance or gave up the ghost. No Labour Ministers, MPs or local leadership figures were to be seen at his funeral, which tells it all, doesn’t it.


But there was one contemporary issue on which Stan was completely out of step with his colleagues in the progressive movement, and he was extremely vocal about it, in private and public, at every opportunity. He always prefaced his diatribe by saying: ”I’m not a racist, Murray but…” and he’d be away about “the Maoris”. Sorry, Stan, but you were a racist, and that’s the blunt truth of the matter. It wasn’t just “Maori radicals” but Maori capitalists as well that he was disgruntled about. Like a lot of other South Island whites he wasn’t happy about the 1980s and 90s’ Ngai Tahu settlement process, saying things like “that Stephen O’Regan (he would never call him Tipene, let alone Sir Tipene) is no more a Maori than I am”, etc, etc. Nor did he confine himself to simply moaning about it, he got involved in the whole “pakeha backlash”, anti-Treaty of Waitangi movement that was particularly strong in Christchurch in the late 90s. To quote that 1997 Press profile: ”Last month he attended a meeting which protested about the Treaty of Waitangi and the way Maoris were ‘getting their way’” (10/2/97; “Tireless voice in name of protest”, David Gee). I (and others present) was frankly astonished to hear at his funeral how he had become good friends with Chatham Islands Maori during his more than 70 trips there as a young seaman, so much so that he was proud to say that he was regarded by the locals as an honorary rangatira. Obviously something had happened in the intervening years to drastically change his attitude towards Maori. Mind you, it wasn’t only about Maori that Stan expressed politically incorrect opinions but also about the death penalty (he was in favour of it) and of the need for prisoners to be put to work.

Actually I think that his Maori bashing was a generational thing. Stan was born the same year as my Dear Old Dad and, despite backing opposing political parties for most of their respective lives, they would have been in total agreement about Maori had they ever met in their old age (in the case of my late father, he explicitly expressed the view that “we” [pakeha] had won the “Maori Wars”, so this country was “ours” by right of conquest, and those bloody Maoris better not forget it. But my old man, being a recluse, never attended a public meeting or got involved in a campaign in his life. He was happy to moan about it in the privacy of his own home, justifying himself to me, and my Asian wife, by saying: “Everybody’s a racist”). I certainly don’t condone or excuse Stan’s vocal racism, but it needs to be seen in the totality of his life as a highly valued and very active member of many progressive organisations. Fortunately, it was not what defined him, it was just one side of his personality that was out of step with the rest, and with his colleagues in the movement. It reminds me of the eulogies for Owen Wilkes* at his 2005 Hamilton funeral which talked about how Owen had vocally railed against “political correctness” in his last years. When I last saw Owen, three years before his suicide, he gave me an earful about “the Maoris” (Tainui, in his case). There must be something about South island pakeha blokes as they get older, I’d better watch myself (if I start railing about “Asians” there will definitely be domestic strife). * My obituary of Owen is in Watchdog 109, August 2005, which can be read online at Ed.

From Extreme Poverty To A Life At Sea

Stanley Horace Hemsley was born in Lyttelton in 1918, the ninth of ten children (he was born just days after the end of WW1 and his middle name was in honour of an uncle killed in that war. By a coincidence my father’s middle name was of identical origin. Obviously 1918 was a bumper year for war victim uncles after whom to name baby boys born that year). Stan’s father was a London orphan who was put on a sailing ship in his youth and jumped ship in Timaru, walked to Christchurch and ended up marrying Stan’s half-French mother. Hemsley senior worked on the Lyttelton wharves when he could get work. The family was very poor and Stan was more often barefoot than not. “We were very poor but we had plenty of love. It was the same for many families. I found out about poverty early. Once I was walking through a puddle near the police station with a school mate when he said I would get my underpants wet. I asked what they were, and he pulled his trousers down and the inside of his trousers had a shiny material. My mother made our trousers without a fly, but just a dicky hole. I went home and told mother about the underpants. I can still see her bursting out crying. We were too poor for luxuries like that. They were terrible days” ( Press, ibid.). I must say that many’s the time I heard Stan tell of that “dicky hole”.

Stan left school at 14 and couldn’t find work, so he went to work on fishing boats for no pay (he got paid in fish, which he gave to his hungry family in the depths of the 1930s’ Depression). He was still barefoot but the crew found him some sea boots. He worked for no pay for two years and then started getting a pittance. At 18 he went to sea on the ship which serviced the Chatham Islands from Lyttelton, eventually making more than 70 trips there, bringing home food (such as pigs) for his family and neighbours. “I bought mother a washing machine, and the neighbours used to come in to see, as there were few around in those days” ( Press, ibid.). He spent WW2 in the merchant navy, marrying Lilian Lloyd in 1944 and coming ashore six months before the war’s end. I never knew Stan as a young man, or even a middle aged one (he was a very vigorous 60 something when we first met) so it was fascinating, at his funeral, to see a whole series of photos of him as a strapping young fishermen and seaman. He was to tell me that he was to later pay the price, in the form of skin cancer, for all those years at sea wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, with no thought of a hat. And the sea was no place for a sook, it’s a rough, tough environment (I know, having both witnessed Lyttelton seamen dish it out to our opponents and having been on the receiving end of the same rough justice due to a “misunderstanding” during our “student/worker alliance” at the start of my career as a political activist, in 1969). Stan could look after himself. On that 1981 Save Aramoana Campaign trip to Dunedin, where we first met, he horrified my then partner by regaling his passengers with a sea story about he had ended one youthful fight by biting his opponent’s ear and hanging on like a pig dog until the other bloke gave in (if Stan did that these days he’d have to be muzzled and fenced in).

Once ashore he had a whole range of jobs – boilermaker, stevedore, watersider, and a welder at Anderson’s Foundry. For years he remained a member of the Seamen’s Union and when the wharfies were locked out in the titanic 1951 struggle, Stan walked off his job in solidarity, going the whole 151 days without any income (with a wife and two kids to support). “The only thing that saved me was that I owned my house. I lived in absolute poverty for 151 days. I would never give in. It made me very humble to accept charity from friends and my mum” ( Press, ibid.). It was Stan who painted the classic old working class slogan “United We Stand, Divided We fall” across the entire length of the old Watersiders’ Union building in Lyttelton. His 151 days of voluntary unemployment in solidarity with the wharfies was typical of his stubborn determination in all things. At his funeral the story was told about how, decades ago, the family was bothered by a noisy, drunken neighbour. The owner was Christ’s College (one of Canterbury’s very biggest landlords). For three years Stan patiently negotiated until they agreed to sell it to him. He then promptly had the house demolished and left the section empty, so that his family was never again bothered by neighbours from Hell. It was a family joke that it was the most expensive firewood storage yard in Lyttelton.

He was a most unusual member of the working class of his generation, he neither smoked nor drank and was the only old seaman I’ve known not to be tattooed. He was a greenie decades before that came to be considered as anything other than crackpot. He never owned a car or bike throughout his working life, walking everywhere. He didn’t learn to drive or buy a vehicle (his van) until he had retired, and Stan and his van then became a fixture at activities and protests all around the South Island. He made up for lost time by packing in some driving adventures, once putting his van into a West Coast ditch on a native forest trip. When retired, he devoted the last 20+ years of his life to fulltime activism.

Stan was a very regular writer of very good, succinct letters to newspapers, on a whole range of issues. He didn’t confine himself to editors: he also wrote to politicians, Prince Charles and the Queen (I never could understand his desire to communicate with Royalty, nor his belief that their replies would amount to anything but polite acknowledgements). He had very strong opinions – that 1997 Press profile quotes him as calling politicians “a shower of bastards…a pack of drongos… rogues and liars… (who) piss all over us because no-one cares”. You get the picture.

They Broke The Mould With Stan

I never knew Stan personally, and never went to his Lyttelton home (although he came to ours plenty of times, for meetings). He kept his family life separate from his activist one, so much so that his eldest son, Trevor, commented in his eulogy on the large number of people present not known to the family. I never set eyes on any of his four kids or numerous grandkids until his funeral and the only time I’d previously met his wife was when she accompanied Stan when he called in to an early 90s’ picket outside the City Council building. He explained that it was her birthday and that he was taking her out. Trevor was quoted in the Press obituary (12/5/07) “Battler for peace and environment”, Mike Crean): “His whole life centred around family. He was deeply involved with family. He spent a lot of time with us kids, building kites and flying them, fishing, building yachts. He spent a lot of time helping other people. He was very generous”.

Stan was one of life’s great characters, warts and all, a person in which the good vastly outranked the bad. He was an indispensable part of many, many progressive movements (including CAFCA and ABC) for decades. It’s a cliché but they broke the mould when they made Stan. He will be sorely missed by all of us.

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