Hettie Ross Formerly Hedwig Weitzel

By Sullivan, Martin | Hecate, May 1996 | Go to article overview

Hettie Ross Formerly Hedwig Weitzel


Sullivan, Martin, Hecate


Hettie Weitzel's earliest recollections were memories of New Zealand's North Island. Her childhood and adolescence were spent in Wellington at a time when the labour movement there reflected the militant and volatile reaction of exploited working classes around the world. In 1913 Weitzel was old enough to witness hundreds of mounted farmers acting as special constables opposing strikers on the Wellington wharves.(1) And before she left New Zealand the Russian Revolution had put a Red Scare into ruling classes everywhere.

Weitzel had been born on 17 September 1900 in Palmerston North, the first New Zealand-born child of the newly arrived German settlers, Gustav and Maria Weitzel. Hettie Weitzel's father had become a naturalised New Zealander in 1902. Gustav Weitzel was a brass founder, but turned to farming when Hettie was two years old. By 1912 the family had moved to Wellington.

Hettie Weitzel attended Wellington Girls' College from 1914 and graduated BA with majors in economics and philosophy from Victoria University College, Wellington in 1920.(2) As Peter Fraser (later Prime Minister) said in the New Zealand House of Representatives in October 1921, 'she was a wonderfully brilliant student - brilliant enough to graduate before reaching the age of twenty.'(3)

Fraser was discussing Weitzel in parliament because a few months earlier, in August, she had been convicted in the Wellington Magistrates Court of selling seditious literature, to wit, an Australian publication, the Communist, which she had sold to a policeman.(4) In December 1916, nearly two years before his election to parliament, Fraser had a similar experience. He had been charged with and convicted of sedition and served twelve months' imprisonment.(5) Weitzel's conviction outraged him (in its own enormity) and, as he rose to her support, he avoided any reference to his own courageous stance. Nor were his political opponents ready to remind him and they listened to his speech almost without interjection. Fraser saw Weitzel as 'a young girl on the threshold of womanhood' and few of his parliamentary colleagues wished to support the misplaced officiousness of the police.(6) Fraser reported that Weitzel 'held Communist views [and had] joined the party which calls itself the Communist Party,' but he vigorously declared that 'the persecution of Miss Weitzel will rank in the history of New Zealand as one of the meanest and most contemptible episodes in our political life.'(7)

Her family home, the Crown Prosecutor had asserted, had been (during the recent war), 'the rendezvous of anti-militarists and revolutionaries.' One had married Weitzel's sister; others had been 'arrested and imprisoned for talking anti-conscription.' Weitzel's father had died in 1917 and, soon after, her mother and two of her siblings emigrated to the United States.(8)

Weitzel was a student at Wellington Teachers' College from which place, after her convictions - 'a brilliant girl with a brilliant intellect' as Fraser averred - she was expelled.(9) The Minister of Education was convinced that 'the Wellington Training College and Victoria College were simply seething with communism, sedition, disloyalty and all sorts of terrible opinions,(10) and an inquiry was established.

Presumably Weitzel had few reasons to remain in Wellington and she sailed for Sydney during the summer of 1921-2. Sydney in the early 1920s was a welcoming harbour for a young woman of Weitzel's political views. The Domain was only one forum where arguments sympathetic to the labour cause were heard. From 1919 the Australian Socialist Party had met at 115 Goulburn Street; by 1922 it had systematised its operations, and even open-air meetings (including many at Bathurst Street) were convened by a chair with designated speakers. Moreover, the party used the occasions to sell its paper, the Australian Socialist.(11)

Another Left faction, the Sydney branch of the Communist Party of Australia, founded in October 1920, met at 395 Sussex Street and it was to this body that Hettie Weitzel paid her dues. …

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