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Papers of James (Jim) Roberts, 1878-1967

 Fonds — Multiple Containers
Identifier: robe

Scope and Contents

The collection originated from the office files of the Alliance of Labour and the Waterside Workers' Federation, and as such it contains no Labour Party material and only a handful of personal papers, which seem to have been preserved by accident.

The bulk of the collection is provided by the New Zealand Waterside Workers' Federation and the New Zealand Alliance of Labour. The New Zealand Miners' Federation (Section A), active in the founding of the Alliance of Labour, is represented by a few records covering 1915-1926, though their presence is not explained. The New Zealand Transport Workers' Advisory Board (Section C) is another small group of records, but Roberts's position as secretary makes their presence much more understandable. The handful of records for the North Wellington Timber. Workers' Union (Section E) are present because the books had been sent to Roberts for audit and, apparently, never returned.

The Waterside Workers' Federation records include a complete set of conference reports from 1917 to 1941, and a not quite complete set of the secretary's reports. Minutes of executive meetings begin in 1909, to cover roughly the same years, but with gaps. After 1932, this cyclostyled or printed material is supplemented by court decisions and before that by, in addition, correspondence with branch and affiliated' unions for selected years (chiefly 1921, 1928-9, and 1932), compensation cases (1928-9 mainly) and some financial records. Background papers for the negotiation of awards and agreements are distributed more evenly, in the years up to 1930, and there is a group of fragments dating from 1889 to the time Roberts became secretary in 1915.

The records of the Alliance of Labour are much more nearly complete. All the records continue to the formal demise of the Alliance in July 1937, although the chief records after the split of 7 and 8 April 1936 are the correspondence, circulars, and related documents in which Roberts disputed the claims of A.W. Croskery, L. Glover and P.P. Walsh to take over the Alliance. Roberts was, however, acting as negotiator for several unions other than the Waterside Workers in late 1936 and early 1937. The records of the rival Alliance (after April 1936) were presumably handed by Croskery and the Walsh faction to the new Federation of Labour, just as the funds were finally transferred in 1942.

The section (G) identified as 'Office Library' and the collection of photographs (Section H) both provide general material applicable to Roberts's position as secretary of the Alliance but also relevant to the Waterside Workers. The Office Library has been arranged essentially in alphabetical order; it includes a number of publications which must have come to Roberts as a member of the Waterfront Control Commission, and one or two which may be of personal rather than occupational interest.

The publications in this section have not been included in the Index, since they are already listed in alphabetical order by standard library catalogue entry; publications in other parts of the collection, because they are part of a file, are listed in the Index. All publications, wherever they are in the collection, which are recorded in the New Zealand national bibliography to 1960, compiled by A.G. Bagnall (Wellington: Government Printer, 1970-1980) have their reference number in that bibliography included in the description, in the form 'Bagnall R693'.

The press clippings, an extensive and useful collection, have been arranged in chronological sequence with the miscellaneous (possibly personal) assemblages added at the end. The photographs (Section H) have been listed in the sequence they were found in, having been parcelled up in undisturbed packages. No attempt has been made to index the photographs.

The short sequence called 'Personal correspondence on public life' (Section I) provides the main insight into unofficial and personal responses to public events. This includes the only Labour Party material in the papers, and a small group of Wellington City Council documents for early 1957. The final sequence of 'Family and personal business affairs' (Section J) is, apart from documents relating to his house at 41 Durham Street, a random selection preserved by chance. One further addition to these personal papers has been received since, from the Belcher family in 2010.


  • Creation: 1891-1957

Conditions Governing Access

Access to the Roberts papers themselves is restricted, in accordance with the provisions of the Labour Archives Trust, but experience in practice has suggested that the listing alone may be helpful to students of labour history.

Anyone wishing to make use of the papers should contact the Special Collections Librarian ( indicating the nature of their research interest; students are normally granted access on the explicit recommendation of their supervisors.

Biographical/Historical note

'James Roberts, born at Cork, Ireland, in February 1878, came to New Zealand as a seaman in 1899, and settled two years later, working on the construction of the Main Trunk Railway, and then for the Wellington Gas Company and on the waterfront. In 1915 he became secretary of the Waterside Workers' Federation and in 1916 helped to establish and became secretary of the Transport Workers' Advisory Board. When the New Zealand Alliance of Labour was established in 1919 he became its secretary, a position he held until 1936 and lost only as a result of the final 'split' with F.P. Walsh's group. The Transport Workers' Advisory Board was merged with the Alliance of Labour in 1922, and Roberts relinquished the Waterside Workers' Federation (it became a national Union in 1937) in 1940, having been appointed to the newly created Waterfront Control Commission. In 1947 he was appointed to the Legislative Council by the Labour Government, remaining until the abolition of the Council in 1950. In 1950 he was elected to the Wellington City Council, a position he retained to 1959.

Active in the Labour Party from his early years in New Zealand, he was Vice-President from 1934 to 1937, and President from 1937 to 1958. On several occasions, particularly in 1935, he was proposed as a Parliamentary candidate but he never in fact stood for any electorate. From 1925 he was chairman of the New Zealand Worker Publishing Company, and from 1942 to 1951, of New Zealand Labour Newspapers. In 1958 he was awarded the C.M.G. on his retirement from the Labour Party presidency.

A firm believer in negotiation rather than confrontation with employers, his work as secretary of both the Waterside Workers and the Alliance of Labour involved a great deal of correspondence, negotiation, and conciliation and arbitration advocacy. From the early 1930s he increasingly came into conflict with P.P. Walsh, the dominating leader of the Seamen's Union, and the break became explicit in April 1936 when the faction dominated by Walsh created a rival executive of the Alliance of Labour in a meeting 'rigged' by Walsh's party. Roberts refused to work with the incomers, and the Federation of Labour was established at a conference in 1937 to take over the work of the Alliance.

During the years of the first Labour Government (1935 to 1949) Roberts was termed 'the uncrowned king of New Zealand' for his dominance of the Labour Party, and, through the Party, of the Labour Government; the justice or otherwise of this title is not demonstrable from the material in the papers described here.'


11200 linear_centimeters

Language of Materials



Roberts was secretary of the N.Z. Waterside Workers' Federation from its revival in 1916 until his 1940 appointment to the wartime Waterfront Commission; he was also secretary of the Transport Workers' Advisory Board, and of the New Zealand Alliance of Labour from its 1919 establishment to its 1937 demise. He was a Wellington City Councillor from 1950 to 1959, and Member of the Legislative Council from 1947 to 1951.

The collection originated from the office files of the Alliance of Labour and the Waterside Workers' Federation, and as such it contains no Labour Party material and only a handful of personal papers, which seem to have been preserved by accident.

This listing is copied from the finding aid created by Library staff in 1985.


The collection was received in the Library in 1972 and remained unsorted until 1976 owing to accommodation problems and the pressure of other work on available staff. The listing is almost entirely the work of Mrs N.M. Taylor, working on a part-time basis, and the size of the collection (there are nearly 1400 items) and its initial disorder meant that preparation of the original draft required nearly two years. In its unfinished state it has been useful to several researchers, and it is hoped that this published version may be equally useful to a wider group. The various removals undergone by the papers before they were deposited in the Library meant that when we came to sort them no system could be discerned, and the work of preparing this list has, of necessity, included imposing a system. We hope that the resulting arrangement is reasonably logical, and not too far removed from any system Roberts himself (or his office staff) might have established.

The papers are chiefly the working records - minute books, correspondence files, financial records, clipping files - of the Waterside Workers' Federation (1891-1945), the Transport Workers' Advisory Board (1916-1922), and the Alliance of Labour (1919-1938), all with gaps. There are also isolated portions of the records of some other unions affiliated to the Alliance of Labour, some City Council papers of 1957, and some personal papers.

The collection is housed as a single sequence, except that the physically awkward photographs and newspaper volumes are kept in separate (outsize) stacks. As received from Professor John Roberts (the son of Jim Roberts) the original order had been completely destroyed in multiple repacking and removals, and the arrangement was devised in the course of preparing the inventory.

The collection is divided into ten series (A-J), covering the two major and four minor organisations that Roberts dealt with, plus the Office Library of printed matter (including clipping files), a collection of photographs, Roberts’s personal papers on his activities in public affairs, and a few private papers.

N.B. For resource reasons, the brief descriptions of individual items have been incorporated into this online finding aid as subseries notes, rather than as separate item records. Also, there was an index to all except the printed matter and the photographs; this has not yet been incorporated into the online finding aid.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The Roberts papers were deposited in the University Library in 1972 by Professor John Roberts, Jim Roberts's son, to form the nucleus of the Labour Archives Trust material, when the Trust was finally established in 1973. We understand from Professor Roberts that the papers were stored in a garage at his father's property after being cleared out of the office in Manners Street, presumably on Roberts's retirement from the Waterside Workers' Union. Because of the circumstances of the collapse of the Alliance of Labour the files of that organisation remained virtually intact, and the destruction of the Waterside Workers' Union in 1951 meant that no organisation laid claim to the records of its predecessor Federation which Roberts had taken with him, perhaps inadvertently, when he left in 1940.

Administrative Information

All text and images are copyright to Victoria University of Wellington. Enquiries for re-use should be made in the first instance to the J C Beaglehole Room, VUW Library.

Finding aid for the Papers of James (Jim) Roberts (1878-1967)
N. M. (Nan) Taylor. This finding aid has been created by scanning and OCRing information from the 1985 publication 'A Finding List to the Papers of Jim Roberts', compiled by N. M. Taylor in the Victoria University of Wellington Library (Victoria University Press, 1985). Because the OCR process is imperfect, there may be occasional typographical errors, which are regretted and will be corrected as resources become available. Please contact the Library if you would like to advise us of any amendments. Please note that the Index on pp. 112-142 of the original publication has not yet been incorporated into this online finding aid.
Created 1985; scanned and input November 2009
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Finding aid is written inEnglish
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Repository Details

Part of the Tapuaka Heritage & Archive Collections - JC Beaglehole Reading Room, Victoria University of Wellington Library Repository

P O Box 3438
Wellington 6140 New Zealand
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