Associate Professor Kerry Taylor

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Black singlets and local history

“I think it was the crudely-stencilled company logo that attracted me to the singlet in the first place, says Dr Kerry Taylor, co-author of a recently-released book, Te Hao Nui/ The Great Catch and Head of the School of Humanities. 

The book is an illustrated history based on 40 objects from the Te Manawa collection, of which the singlet is one. It was written with former Te Manawa curator Fiona McKergow to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of a museum society in the city. Kerry is also currently chairperson of the Te Manawa History Society.

“Our aim was to identify 40 objects to help commemorate the museum’s 40th birthday,” he explains.

Dr Taylor used the black singlet to write a piece on the history of the local Longburn Freezing Works.

"It became clear to us that the singlet dating from the 1970s and found in a local op shop, was emblematic of distinctive local stories,” he says.

Taylor notes that the black singlet is usually associated with shearing and sporting heroics – or with affectionate rural figures like Fred Dagg and Footrot Flats.

“The connection with the radical freezing worker, let alone the men and women workers found in the militant shed that was Longburn in the 1970s, is rarely if ever made,” he says.

Taylor revisited the long and often-contentious story of Longburn, focusing on the families and communities – Longburn, Palmerston North, Rangiotu and further afield – that supplied its workforce from 1889 to 1986.

“Working the chain in a place like Longburn was unpleasant and uncomfortable. Employees faced a short season of unpredictable work every year. The place smelled terrible. People would be covered in animal blood and faeces at the end of a shift. Knives and complex machinery made work dangerous. Injuries were common, and often serious.”

Dr Taylor has published and spoken widely on New Zealand history, international communist history, labour history, the politics of protest and comparative history. He joined Massey in 1997 and was head of the School of History, Philosophy and Classics from 2010 to 2012.

View details of Kerry Taylor's research

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