Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Fighting Man

It has been alleged that Marx coined the saying “Those who fail to remember history are doomed to repeat it.” To which it is said that Engels added the quip “First as tragedy and later as farce.”

Issues such as free verses fair trade or the role of the state and the community in economic and social affairs have been fervently debated and discussed previously and many of the arguments propounded by their advocates or opponents then are the same or similar to those being put forward now.

The sad thing is that people tend not to take an active interest in history or indeed in political or social issues. I hold the opinion that if you take time to remember your history you develop a more complete and comprehensive picture of where you might want to go in the future.

I’m reminded of how much people live in ignorance of the past every day as I travel on Red Bus into the Christchurch Bus depot and past ‘Tommy Taylor Courts’ which are on the corner of Brougham Street and Walton Road. As I read my weighty tomes on various topics, I sometimes hear my fellow passengers question as to whom Taylor was and why there are a block of apartments named after him.

Thomas Edward (Tommy) Taylor was an ‘Independent (Radical) Liberal’ and was the Junior MP for Christchurch City and later became the MP for Christchurch East (now Wigram) during the 1890s and 1900s. He was a prohibitionist, which was a major issue in New Zealand during the latter 19th and early 20th Centuries. In addition, he was also a major proponent for women’s rights and welfare and labour reform in Victorian/Edwardian New Zealand.

Taylor’s championing of those rights, as well as his impulsive manner, constantly brought him into conflict with other political notables of that era, in particular Richard ‘King Dick’ Seddon. Taylor thought that Seddon’s approach on a number of matters was half hearted and reluctant (for example, Seddon did not support women’s suffrage and the reason that the relevant legislation passed in 1893 had a lot to do with a political miscalculation on Seddon’s part in addition to the vigorous campaigning of Kate Sheppard and the Woman’s Temperance Movement) and as a result, Taylor frequently criticised Seddon and his Government for their lack of reforming zeal.

Although, his impulsiveness and lack of compromise often led him into conflict, Taylor never flitched from the belief that the reforms that he proposed such as; free secondary education, the introduction of technical colleges, the reform of mental and penal institutions, cottage homes for orphans, vocational guidance, land reform and better conditions for old-age pensioners and workers would have dramatic benefits for the great majority of people.

It was this belief that eventually caused Taylor to break with the Liberals and align himself increasingly with the burgeoning Labour movement and its representatives. Although, not a socialist, Taylor recognised that the Liberals were incapable of implementing many of those reforms and that the future for progressive legislation lay elsewhere, a sentiment that he expressed to Red Fed Organiser, Bob Semple in a letter just prior to his death.

Taylor died at the tragically young age of 49 of a perforated gastric ulcer on 27 July 1911. He had been Mayor of Christchurch since April of that year. At his funeral procession 50,000 people lined the streets of the city.

Sadly, there has only been one book ever published on Taylor. Simply titled ‘The Fighting Man,’ it was written by Nellie Frances Hayman Macleod and was first published in 1965.

I remember people like Tommy Taylor and their beliefs and convictions every time people (mostly Student Executive members) come into my office and tell me about how we need to accept legislation and reforms that are ‘second best.’ I thank God (even though I’m an atheist) that people like Taylor, Sheppard and company kept their ‘eyes on the prize.’ That prize being a better and more inclusive world for all.

If they did not have their eyes fixed firmly on that prize, the rights that we have now would never have come into being.

Tommy Taylor – Dictionary of New Zealand Biography


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