Topic: Who was Red Travers? by Chrissie Ward

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Who was Red Travers? by Chrissie Ward was an entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

ITrav Christie, his wife Enid and their daughter Chrissie, Nelson, 27th August 1949 first realised that my father had featured in the official history of New Zealand left-wing politics when, at Victoria University in the 1960s, I mentioned his name to a boyfriend who was studying political science.

“My father’s name is Travers Christie,” I said in passing.

“You mean ‘Red Travers’?” he asked.

“Er … I suppose so,” I said.

It had to be my father, but – Red Travers? How strange it was, to find that he had a nickname he was known by to others. It’s a normal part of growing up to realise that your parents had a life before you came along, but this was something a bit different.

I knew that my father had belonged to the New Zealand Communist Party, which is fairly unusual. He had left the Party by the time he married my mother, Enid Robinson, in Christchurch in February 1947. They moved to Nelson in 1948 and I was born there in March 1949. I called my parents by their first names, Trav and Enid, and that was unusual too. Apparently it was Enid’s idea.

Trav described himself a socialist. What always struck me was that his ideals were strongly based on a belief in the need for justice and fairness in society. We talked about these things in our small family unit – Enid, Trav and me.

It was during World War II that Trav, in his ‘Red Travers’ persona, became nationally prominent. In the 1930s he was a student radical and joined the Communist Party. In 1941 he was prosecuted, along with his friend Harold Ostler, for publishing subversive statements in People’s Voice, the Communist Party weekly newspaper.Note 1 

For this he was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour.

My father and Harry Ostler fell foul of emergency censorship regulations brought in at the beginning of the war. Under these, it was illegal to publish anything which might be seen as criticising the government war effort. When People’s Voice ignored the regulations the Attorney-General ordered that it should be closed down, and its printing press was seized. Trav and Ostler continued to produce the newspaper as cyclostyled copies, which were distributed in an underground fashion in Christchurch. They were caught because of a faulty typewriter.

The police noticed that the issue of 2 August 1940 had a peculiarity – something had happened to the letter ‘r,’ which was missing.  They assumed that the machine would be taken to be repaired, and traced it to the firm where it had been left by Trav, using a false name. He was seen collecting the repaired typewriter and taking it to Ostler’s rooms. Later that evening a police raid found the incriminating typewriter, a parcel of typing paper, a tracing paper with a People’s Voice heading on it, and 60 copies of the People’s Voice issue of 8 August. A subsequent visit to Trav’s rooms at his parents’ house found another typewriter, six copies of the 8 August issue, and other material.

Trav Christie (right) with twin brother Les and their cousin Emily Munro, Christchurch, c.1926The two men were jointly charged on several rather repetitive counts: that they published a subversive statement; that they attempted to publish a subversive statement; that they had in their possession certain copies of the People’s Voice, with a view to facilitating the publication of a subversive statement; and that they had in their possession typewriters, paper and material with a view to facilitating the publication of a subversive statement. They pleaded not guilty to all charges.

When the case was heard in Christchurch Supreme Court on 12th February 1941, Trav and Ostler represented themselves. They were found guilty on only one of the charges, that of attempting to publish a subversive statement, and on 18 February they were sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment.

They appealed the sentence. A petition to the Prime Minister asking for their release on bail to allow them to prepare their case for the Court of Appeal was signed by more than 1300 people, mostly from Canterbury, but was not successful. They remained in Paparua Prison until their appeal hearing on 17th March, where again they represented themselves.

Trav declared that the fact he was a Communist was irrelevant and had been brought in only to prejudice the jury.

“By refusing to find them guilty the jury would … strike a blow for freedom and the rights of democracy.”

Ostler declared that the fact that his father was a judge was irrelevant. Both of these statements seem extraordinarily naive, but that impression may arise from the way the case was reported. Not surprisingly, their appeals were dismissed, and the sentence of twelve months imprisonment with hard labour was confirmed.

Enid told me later that ‘hard labour’ was no hardship. Trav was sent to a prison farm where he joined such dangerous characters as conscientious objectors and recent immigrants from European countries. They mostly shared an intellectual bent and passed their spare time listening to music and playing chess. The hard labour consisted of working on the farm, which Trav didn’t mind at all; he enjoyed physical activity and was always a keen gardener.

Trav returned to Canterbury University College as a mature student in 1944, completing his BSc degree in 1947 and his MSc in 1948. He and Enid moved to Nelson when he got a job at the Cawthron Institute as a micro-biologist. He worked at the Cawthron from 1948 until about 1968.

During school holidays he would take me with him when he travelled around the Waimea Plains and Moutere Hills, talking to farmers and growers about their crops. I especially loved the hop gardens of Riwaka; the scented, gold-green rows seemed like a fairyland for a little girl to play in.

When Cawthron Institute policy changed, Trav embarked on a new career as a science teacher. The encouragement for this probably came from Enid, who had been teaching English in secondary schools for many years. Eventually he and Enid sold their Nelson house and moved to Kapiti, where they both taught at Kapiti College. They later moved to Wellington, and it was there that Trav died, in January 1974, as a result of an accidental fall.

As the manner of his death is related to a significant event in his childhood, I should briefly describe that.

Travers Burnell Christopher Christie, to give him his full name, was born in Christchurch on 6th December 1909, the younger of identical twins. His brother was Andrew Leslie Munro Christie, known as Les. In 1916 a scarlet fever epidemic broke out in Christchurch. Trav caught it and subsequently developed mastoiditis, which is an inflammation of the bones behind the ear. He went in and out of hospital, underwent five operations, and, so the story goes, only survived because of his mother’s devoted nursing care.

Les was kept out of school for a year to avoid getting ahead of him. Unfortunately the metal plates that were inserted into Trav’s jaw to replace the diseased bone left him with a facial disfigurement of which he was very conscious, and he avoided being photographed.

Twin brother Les left New Zealand with an MSc in 1934. He became a surgeon, served with the Royal Army Medical Corps in North Africa, and was Consultant Pathologist at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital in England until retiring in 1974. He died at the age of 93.

Despite living in different countries for forty years, the Christie twins retained many characteristics in common. They held firm socialist ideals, were accomplished bridge players, were interested in sport, particularly cricket, and loved gardening.

Trav Christie at Cawthron Institute, Nelson, c.1960Les died of old age. Trav died after a fall down a flight of steps following a neighbourhood dinner party that took place on 23rd December 1973. His skull, weakened by the childhood scarlet fever, couldn’t withstand a relatively minor shock; he developed a haematoma (blood clot) on the brain, and died in Wellington Hospital on 7th January 1974. He was aged just 65, two years older than I am as I write this memoir.

So, who was ‘Red Travers?’ In one sense, it’s still a puzzle. I don’t know who gave him that nickname, which I hadn’t heard before the boyfriend mentioned it in the 1960s and which I haven’t been able to trace since.

In another sense, the nickname was appropriate to a particular period of Trav’s life. I must admit I had been told a slightly expurgated version of events, and when I first read the newspaper reports of the 1941 trial and appeal I was shocked to see him referred to in a negative way – shocked and hurt.

I’ve now come to terms with the ‘Red Travers’ episode. During the 1930s, many intellectuals embraced left-wing views. Trav Christie was a man of strong, firmly-held political ideals. He was clever, interesting, gentle and kind. My mother loved him, and so did I. He was a wonderful father, and I’m proud to be his daughter.

 

Note 1: I am indebted to www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz  for details of this episode.

 

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This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/L34D-NVUH

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Who was Red Travers? by Chrissie Ward


Year:c.1930 and c.1940
Note:Chrissie Ward was born in Nelson and returned to live there in 1998 via a circuitous route – Christchurch, Auckland, Wellington, Toronto, London, Oxford and the Shetland Isles. She is the author of numerous short stories, articles on diverse subjects, and three non-fiction books: Dear Lizzie: a Kiwi Soldier Writes from the Battlefields of World War One, an edited collection of her maternal grandfather’s letters (HarperCollins, 2000); Kia Ora Postie: a Love Affair with Kiwi Letter Boxes (New Holland, 2006); and the children’s book Curious Kiwi Creatures (New Holland, 2007.)
First Names:Travers
Last Name:Christie
Date of Birth:6th December 1909