Pukeahu Anthology

We Will Not Cease

In 1916, Archibald Baxter (father of poet James K. Baxter) refused to fight in the First World War on the grounds that ‘all war is wrong, futile, and destructive alike to victor and vanquished.’ As punishment, Baxter was imprisoned in various locations around New Zealand. The following passages are from his book We Will Not Cease (1939) and detail his time first at Alexandra Barracks in Wellington then at Mount Cook Prison.

View of the Alexandra Barracks, Mount Cook, Wellington shortly before it was demolished in 1929.
View of the Alexandra Barracks, Mount Cook, Wellington shortly before it was demolished in 1929.
Photographer: Unidentified for the Evening Post. EP-3276-1/2-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

We were taken down to Wellington and marched through the streets to the Alexandra Barracks. On arrival we were ordered by the Corporal in charge to change into our denims.

‘What do we want denims for?’ I asked. ‘Our own clothes are good enough.’

‘You want them to work in.’

‘But I don’t intend to do any work under military orders.’

The others said the same. We were taken before the Major in command, charged with disobeying an order, and sentenced to three days bread and water and to be deprived of our mattresses. We were then locked in our cells which were in the top storey of the building. The windows were large and permitted plenty of light and air and we could get a good view of the town through them. There were no bars, escape not being considered possible from that height.

There we spent the next three days, seeing no one but the guard who brought us bread and water. At night, not being allowed mattresses, we slept on the floor in our blankets. I did not eat the bread, as I refused to submit to the humiliation of this sort of punishment. This was not noticed until the evening of the third day, when the guard, bringing me my final bread ration, saw the pile of it in the corner. ‘Where on earth did you get all this bread?’

‘It’s what you’ve brought me every day.’

‘And you haven’t eaten any of it?’

‘No, and I don’t intend to. It’s not the sort of fare I am accustomed to.’

That night I was given a cup of tea and a chop. The next day, our sentences being up, we were allowed out on the landing. I asked the others if they had had any chops. They had not, and they had eaten the bread. If they had known I was hunger-striking, they would have struck, too.

Though we now mixed with the other prisoners on exercise and at meals, which we ate in common, we were still locked up while they were at work. The N.C.O. in charge argued with me on the subject of obeying military orders. ‘If the military authorities chose to,’ he said, ‘they could compel you to obey.’


I was not anxious for the change to Mt. Cook, which, I supposed, would come when someone, perhaps the Governor, considered me fit for the work there. I had become accustomed to the routine at the Terrace and knew the worst that could happen to me there. Whereas Mt. Cook I didn’t know and I had heard lurid accounts from prisoners sent over to the Terrace for punishment of the hard work over there, of a brick kiln in which you were baked alive and the soles of your boots curled up with the heat. I thought that, not being up to my usual strength. I might find the work too hard.

However, what I thought on the matter was not likely to affect the course of events. In due time I found myself sitting on the back of a lorry on my way to Mt. Cook. It was pleasant, anyway, to be out in the fresh air again and see hills and the harbour down below me and hear the ordinary street sounds, after having been completely cut off from them for weeks, although I could not help being self-conscious in my conspicuous attire. The thought of escape did not pass through my mind, for the driver never turned his head, and I could easily have slipped off when the lorry was going slowly; but the broad arrows would have put it out of the question, even if I had had any real thoughts of escaping, and I had not. I had made up my mind on that matter long before.

The lorry ran up to the gates of the prison, passing a group of men shovelling out clay from the hillside with an armed guard over them. I recognized several of them, my brothers amongst them.

The warder who received me said I must have another pair of boots; the ones I had worn at the Terrace were not strong enough for outside work. I tried on a pair.

‘No good. I’d go lame in five minutes in these.’

They brought me several pairs and I rejected them all. Finally, the warder took me up to the stores. Trying on all these boots had given me the illusion of being in a shoe shop, and it was with a distinct jar that I heard the warder say to the man in charge of the stores: ‘Here’s a prisoner can’t get fitted for boots. See if you can fix him up with a pair.’

A prisoner! Well, I knew I was, but I never felt like one, and as it happened in the Terrace I had always been referred to as ‘this man’ or ‘Baxter’. […] Next, I had an interview with Burrows, who was in charge of Mt. Cook. The two prisons were run in conjunction, under one superintendent.

Burrows was very reasonable. He asked me whether I looked on my sentence as military or civil. I said as it had been imposed by a court-martial, I would regard it as military.

‘That’s so, but once you are handed over to the civil authorities, you are entirely in our hands. The military authorities have nothing more to do with you as long as you are here. So you won’t object to working as it won’t be under military orders.’

I saw that he had probably had trouble with the others and wished I could have spoken with them first, but that, of course, was what he wanted to prevent. I said that as I had worked at the Terrace I did not see that I could refuse to work now. He seemed relieved. He always endeavoured to avoid trouble, often compromising when another man might have been unyielding, in order that things might go smoothly. Offences against discipline were fairly common at Mt. Cook, and men were often sent over to the Terrace for punishment, but I don’t think it was due to greater leniency. Most of the prisoners at Mt. Cook were short-sentence men, who as a rule were less amenable to discipline than the men who had been in prison longer, having retained some spirit. They looked much healthier than the men in the Terrace.

I found a considerable difference between the two prisons. The work, for one thing, was nearly all in the open air. I worked in a gang with my mates. The cells, owing to the fact that the building was of lighter structure, were much airier, and admitted more light, especially where we were, on the upper landing, on which the cells had skylights instead of windows. We washed in the hall instead of our cells, and, consequently, never had time to wash properly as the warder’s whistle always went before we could possibly have finished and we had to stop immediately and go back to our cells. The bread ration was larger, sixteen ounces instead of twelve, and so was the meat ration.

There was one warder at Mt. Cook who thought my pride needed taking down a peg—my overweening pride that was such a trouble to officers in the army. At least a dozen times, I am sure, in the six weeks, he made me strip naked for search. He succeeded in making me very angry, but not in taking down my pride. I very nearly revolted, but only refrained because I had so little time to go.

When I joined my friends in the clay-cutting gang I was heartily welcomed. No one seemed to have hit on illness as the reason I had been left behind at the Terrace, and as I was by now pretty well again I don’t think they believed there had been much the matter with me. Many of these men I had known at the Barracks. Some of them I met for the first time. My new boots came in for admiration and envy. Did I think they could get new ones too? I thought it very unlikely, since they had put up for weeks with the ones they had.

As I had thought, my brothers and Little had doubted when they first came over whether they should work in prison, but Burrows had explained to them carefully that they were entirely under civil control, and they had taken it on, though rather doubtfully.

The work was not hard for men accustomed to manual labour, and Jack and I, at least, soon found that we had to accommodate ourselves to a much slower pace than anything we had been accustomed to. Once we forgot ourselves and went on shovelling clay into the trucks with such vigour that the man who drove the trucks to the brick yard came back with a strongly worded message that we were to moderate our stroke; they couldn’t keep up with what we were doing. Some of our lot, who were unused to work of that kind, didn’t make a very good showing. One man, who had worked in a shop, used to get hold of a ridiculous little shovel that had somehow got amongst the others, which hardly lifted more than a spoonful of clay. The warder would say: ‘There’s Hugh got that shovel again,’ and take it from him, but he nearly always managed to get it back.

I recognized several familiar faces amongst the civil prisoners. A Maori, who had been waiting his turn in the office when I had my memorable interview with the doctor, said to me with a friendly smile: ‘Glad to see you well again. When I see you last you just one inch from the peg hole.’

One of our group told me hair-raising tales of the crimes he had heard of since he had come to prison—crimes he had never known existed. He pointed out the Maori as having committed a particularly bestial crime. I said I didn’t believe it. He was not that sort, and anyway, I had heard something quite different about him.

‘Who told you?’

‘He did.’

‘Did you ask him?’

He admitted he had. I said that that was what he could expect to get if he asked. They had feelings and would fire out that kind of thing as a sort of defence. But I don’t think he believed me.

There were men there who had committed horrible crimes. There is a great deal of difference between crimes that are really horrible and crimes that are made to appear so by law. Words can hypnotize people. Nothing exemplifies this better than the phrase ‘Habitual Criminal’. It conjures up a picture of incorrigible rascality and marks out the possessor of its brand as a being of a different species from his fellows. Even amongst the prisoners this was the case. I have had a man pointed out to me.

‘Do you see that man? He’s just been declared an habitual criminal.’

As if the man in question had suddenly become something entirely different from themselves. And what does it really mean? That a man, convicted of an indictable offence a certain number of times, has been declared by the judge who tried his case to be an habitual criminal under the Act, the Dog Act, as it was called in prison. Some judges would frequently make use of the act, others never at all. Having been declared an H.C., a man could be and often was, upon the expiry of his definite sentence, detained in prison until the Prisons Board, which as a general rule means the jail officials, saw fit to release him. And even then the brand is still upon the man, and the indefinite sentence can come into operation again if he is reconvicted, the judge of course being aware of it, and the jury too, in many cases, with the result that a conviction is certain on the sketchiest evidence. Men have no right of appeal against that sentence, no means of breaking out of the trap that holds them.

The habitual criminals I knew in prison were filled with bitterness and despair at the hopelessness of ever freeing themselves or being freed from the grasp of the Act. I was particularly sorry for one man. A kind-hearted, decent little chap his trouble was drink, and he had frequent convictions for using obscene language when silly with it. For this he had been declared an H.C. and was being held for an indefinite period in prison.

He said to me: ‘You’ve been one of us; you know the life we lead here, better than anyone outside can ever know it. Do something for us when you get out. People will listen to you. They won’t listen to us. Try to get the H.C. Act altered. We’re helpless and can do nothing for ourselves. Don’t forget us.’