Saturday, June 23, 2012

Where's the Section on Censorship? A Personal Encounter with Provenance

Some of my writing published by Archifacts October 2011-April 2012 (Journal of the Archives & Records Association of New Zealand).

On the eve of his execution in 1915, Joe Hill—radical songwriter, union organiser and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—penned one final telegram from his Utah prison cell: “Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.”1 After facing a five-man firing squad Hill’s body was cremated, his ashes placed into 600 tiny packets and sent to IWW Locals, sympathetic organizations and individuals around the world. Among the nations said to receive Hill’s ashes, New Zealand is listed.

Yet nothing was known about what happened to the ashes of Joe Hill in New Zealand. Were Hill’s ashes really sent to New Zealand? Or was New Zealand simply listed to give such a symbolic act more scope? If they did make it, what ever happened to them? These were the questions I set about trying to answer late in 2009 as a first-time researcher, initially out of curiosity and then predominantly out of obsession. In the process I published my first book,2 learnt a great deal about the treatment of New Zealand’s radical labour movement during the First World War and gained valuable research skills. I also gained an awareness of the power of archives and the importance of archival theory.

Before I began my research on Joe Hill’s ashes I had only visited an archive once—way back in 2002 as a graphic design student at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. Navigating Archway, reference interviews and the concept of provenance therefore, was an entirely new experience. It must have proved fruitful however for I now find myself immersed in a Masters of Information Studies at Victoria University, majoring in archives. The program has given me a theoretical lens into the past, facilitating some interesting reflection about my personal archival interaction. What follows is that reflection: my encounter with archives as a (inexperienced) user, the discovery and use of provenance search methods and grappling with archival gaps.

Archives, Archival Theory & Archway

New Zealand has a small but strong community of researchers focused on labour history. Yet much of this history “remains undocumented and unpublished. New Zealand work practices and cultures are relatively unexplored compared with other fields of social history.”3 Likewise, only recently have works appeared on transnational aspects of our working past—the transient nature of the early twentieth century workforce, interactions between national movements and the influence of ideas across borders. My work on Joe Hill’s ashes is a material manifestation of such migration and is reflected in part by the archival records I encountered throughout my research.

Joe Hill’s ashes, if they did make it to New Zealand as claimed by a long line of historians, would have arrived by way of post. On 20 November 1916—one year after his execution—Hill’s ashes were given to delegates present at the Tenth Convention of the IWW in Chicago. The remaining packets were then posted around the world on 3 January 1917. According to the minutes of the Chicago Convention, held at Wayne State University, no New Zealander was present. These records, and the fact that the New Zealand IWW had been receiving a steady stream of radical material in the post since 1908, seemed to suggest a postal possibility.

With the help of my friend Mark Crookston—who, at that time, was the Senior Advisor at the Government Digital Archive Programme (Archives New Zealand)—I began to canvas what kind of potential ‘hot spots’ could be present at the National Archives. Discussions with Mark also helped me come to grips with concepts like ‘original order’ and ‘provenance’ and prompted thinking about the postal systems of the past. However my initial experience with the physical archive was accidental. Due to its upgrade the Alexander Turnbull Library had just moved into Archives New Zealand’s Wellington premises—the ever-informative Bert Roth Collection having encouraged me to leave Christchurch and visit the capital. After finishing with the collection early I decided to make use of the Archives New Zealand reference room, and it was here that I experienced the uniqueness of archival principles and the concept of provenance firsthand.

My reference interview at Archives took place early on in my research, so my understanding of the postal system during the war years was still pretty limited. It was also my first archival reference ‘in the flesh’. As part of the Google Generation, my natural approach to Archway and the archivist was that of subject keywords, with a vague notion of their wider context. I quickly realised that simply punching ‘Joe Hill’ into Archway or asking for the ‘postal censorship section’ at the reference desk was not going to cut it. As we discussed my needs the archivist related them to the archive’s series system through looking into the records of the Customs Department. My subject-based enquiry became one of provenance, although I did not understand it fully at the time.

As a new user of archives I found this experience both confusing and fascinating. I had a loose idea of original order and provenance thanks to those late night, kitchen-based discussions with Mark, but I did not realise that description of records would be based on such principles rather than subject. Likewise, employing provenance was a new concept. Thankfully my introduction to archival theory in practice was made a lot easier due to the excellent service I received during that first visit. To cut a long interview short, the result of that experience left me with the seeds of a powerful search method that soon became crucial to my research.

The Power of Provenance

Provenance gave me a powerful framework to use when searching for possible documentation of Joe Hill’s ashes in New Zealand. I began to tease out ideas around records creation: who would have maintained the record/s I needed to uncover in order to show what happened to his ashes, and where would these records fit within the function and structure of its parent organization? If not explicitly described in a finding aid, where could they be located instead? This led me to gather contextual information about how censorship was instigated and operated during the First World War.

Censorship during the Great War has, unfortunately, been written about very little.4 The lack of information is probably due to the complex system of control put in place by the Massey Government and the confidential nature of its implementation. This confidentiality made an understanding of provenance even more pressing, as structural/functional information was simply not available.

Through the few secondary sources available and many hours on Archway I identified four key players with regard to wartime censorship: the Customs Department, the Post and Telegraph Department, the Army Department, and Sir John Salmond—Solicitor General of New Zealand from 1910-1920. Each was the creator of separate series of records, though provenance (and to an extent the administrative histories provided on Archway) helped make visible the relationships between them.

Legislation was the first signpost. The Customs Act of 1913 prohibiting the entry of ‘indecent’ literature into the country soon lead me to an Order in Council of 1915. This Order of Council specifically amended the Customs Act and addressed the material of the IWW directly, “prohibit[ing] the importation into New Zealand of the newspapers called Direct Action and Solidarity, and all other printed matter published or printed or purporting to be published or printed by or on behalf of the society known as ‘The Industrial Workers of the World.’”5 This legislation connected the Customs Department to the Post and Telegraph Department, and gave me a number of record series to research. For example, I found memorandums within the Post Department explaining the 1915 Order in Council and its implementation, highlighting key agents within the department’s structure to watch out for.

I then tried to focus on the relationships between these two record creators. Both Customs and the Post and Telegraph Department had a number of censors working within their ranks, the latter including the Deputy Chief Censor, W A Tanner. But I discovered that it was the military that managed censorship during the War. A number of key records (memorandums, reports on the British censorship model and how to apply it) helped me establish a sense of how censorship functioned: Tanner and other censors located across the country answered directly to Colonel Charles Gibbon, who was both Chief Censor and Chief of the General Staff of the New Zealand Military Forces. Censors were mostly officers of the Post Office and worked in the same building “as a matter of convenience”, but censors acted “under the instructions of the Military censor. The Post Office is bound to obey the Military censor.”6 It was therefore the records of the Army Department and a chain-of-command leading to Sir John Salmond that became a focus of my archival trawling.

Salmond, author of the stringent War Regulations imposed during the First World War and keen censor of socialist material, directed wartime censorship through Colonel Gibbon and his own Crown Law Opinions. When Joseph Ward, the Postmaster General, asked Salmond whether American socialist newspaper the International Socialist Review fell under the 1915 Order in Council, Salmond replied:

there is not sufficient evidence that the International Socialist Review is in any way connected with the Industrial Workers of the World. Nonetheless this publication is of a highly objectionable character advocating anarchy, violence and sedition. All copies of it therefore should without hesitation be detained…7

Similar correspondence between Salmond and various departments is archived in both Archives New Zealand and the Crown Law Library—painting a picture of a comprehensive system of censorship and completing the puzzle that faced me when I first visited Archives New Zealand. While subject keywords played a small part in locating information at a records level, provenance search methods made sure I did not overlook the key player—Sir John Salmond.

Further traces of IWW censorship are evident in a number of other records. In a file titled ‘Miscellaneous Administration Matters—Prohibited Literature—“Janes Fighting Ships”, Newspapers and other Printed Matters’, a worker at the Post and Telegraph Department reported the withholding of 8 bundles and 14 copies of IWW newspapers; while Salmond, in an Opinion to the Commissioner of Police, arranged “with the Post Office to have all correspondence addressed to [Wellington anarchist] Philip Josephs whether within New Zealand or elsewhere stopped and examined. It may be that such examination will show that Josephs’ is an active agent of the IWW.”8 In the same Crown Law Opinion to Ward referenced earlier, Salmond instructed that the International Socialist Review “should merely be detained” but that “all IWW publications should be destroyed.”9

Remains to be Seen

The outcome of my research is essentially about the records I never found—the lack of any record documenting the detention or transmission of the packet containing Joe Hill’s ashes. This archival gap—or what remained unsaid—suggested a pretty clear fate. In tandem with found documentation on IWW censorship, the overbearing absence of any records on Hill’s ashes themselves suggests that they never made it beyond the national border. The monitoring of correspondence that existed in 1917 alone is enough to warrant such a conclusion. That Sir John Salmond, War Regulations, and Orders in Council specifically targeted the IWW on a number of occasions (as further examined in my book) surely sealed the deal. It would have been a small miracle for the ashes of Joe Hill to see the light of day in the Dominion.

Yet I would never had identified this gap if I had not embraced the concept of provenance and delved into the functions and structures of the relevant records creators. Subject keyword searching may have turned up important records but, on its own, did not fill in the blanks.

Provenance gave me a tool in which to navigate the previously hidden relationships between the departments and their agents in charge of wartime censorship. It allowed me, as the user, to get a better picture of where the interaction between Joe Hill (through his ashes) and the New Zealand State may have taken place, and how the preservation of that interaction through time and space is due to archival principles such as provenance.

It is clear, having now spent a solid amount of time on Archway using provenance search methods, that provenance is a powerful tool for the user. The initial confusion around its meaning and the coming to terms with Archway is worth the potentialities they both uncover. What I gained from an understanding of the functions and structures of relevant record creator/s confirmed that ‘The Power of Provenance’10 is more than just a snappy title.


1 Joyce L. Kornbluh (ed), Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1964), 130.
2 Jared Davidson, Remains to be Seen: Tracing Joe Hill’s ashes in New Zealand, (Wellington: Rebel Press, 2011).
3 Labour History Project, Membership Brochure, (Wellington: LHP, 2010).
4 By far the best source on the subject is John Anderson, “Military Censorship in World War 1: Its Use and Abuse in New Zealand,” (Thesis, Victoria University College, 1952)
5 The New Zealand Gazette, September 20, 1915.
6 Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1917, F8-8.
7 J W Salmond to Comptroller of Customs, November 29, 1915, Crown Law Office, Wellington.
8 J W Salmond to Commissioner of Police, October 20, 1915, “Opinions – Police Department 1913-1926,” Crown Law Office, Wellington.
9 Ibid.
10 David A. Bearman and Richard H. Lytle, “The Power of the Principle of Provenance,” Archivaria 21 (1985-86): 14-27.

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