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‘To Me, Socialism Is Not a Set of Dogmas but a Living Principle’: Harry Atkinson and the Christchurch Socialist Church, 1890-1905

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posted on 2021-11-11, 21:38 authored by Taylor, James E

In the early 1890s Harry Atkinson, the subject of this thesis, travelled to England and spent a year as foundation secretary of the Manchester and Salford Labour Church. In Manchester Atkinson worked closely with the Churchʼs founder John Trevor, took part in Labour Church services and worked with a variety of British socialist intellectuals and activists including Ben Tillett, Edward Carpenter and Robert Blatchford. Atkinson returned to New Zealand in late 1893 and three years later founded the Socialist Church in Christchurch. This was not a Church in the traditional sense—rather, it was a site for the debate, discussion and dissemination of radical and socialist literature and ideas, and a platform for political agitation and social reform. Its creed was to ‘promot[e] a fellowship amongst those working for the organisation of Society on a basis of Brotherhood and Equality’. Members of the Church included Jack McCullough, James and Elizabeth McCombs and Jim Thorn. The critical, yet downplayed, role that Atkinson played working behind the scenes as an important mentor and conduit in the emergent socialist subculture in Christchurch from 1896 to 1905 has been for the most part unexplored in New Zealand labour historiography. This thesis addresses this imbalance and examines the intellectual and associational activity of Harry Atkinson during the period 1890 to 1905 and reconsiders the work and key concerns of the Christchurch Socialist Church. It argues that the form of ethical socialism Atkinson experienced in Manchester, and later promulgated through the Socialist Church, has been mischaraterised as vague or, inaccurately, Christian Socialist. By situating Atkinson’s beliefs and activities within a wider transnational context of 1890s ‘New Life’ socialism, we can see his ideas and work as part of a broader ‘world of labour’, shaped by multi-directional flows and contacts. The varied networks through which Atkinson was exposed to books and ideas are illustrated and the thesis attempts to trace the diversity of his, and others, associational activity. It suggests that the colonial New Zealand socialism of the 1890s was not ‘without doctrine’, and that individuals engaged in richer intellectual and associational lives than is often acknowledged. However, it is shown that Atkinson and members of the Church, though inspired by foreign or overseas experiences, ideas and literature, focused primarily on local issues. These are also surveyed and include agitation for municipal government, female equality and the radical reform of democratic institutions. It is argued that a reconsideration of the lived experience of Atkinson and his wider circle provides a lens to investigate some important aspects of colonial New Zealand radicalism and socialism, outside the usual foci of trade unions, the workplace and formal labour politics.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


McAloon, Jim