Story: Lister, Samuel

Page 1 - Biography

Lister, Samuel

1832/1833?–1913

Printer, newspaper proprietor and editor, radical

This biography was written by Erik Olssen and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 2, 1993

Samuel Lister was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, probably in 1832 or 1833, the son of Isabella Inglis and her husband, William Lister, a house-factor. Little is known of his years in Edinburgh except that he served an apprenticeship as a lithographic printer, and on 17 July 1862 married Jane Miller, a dressmaker. In 1865 Jane and Samuel Lister and their two children sailed for Auckland, New Zealand, on the Resolute. At least six more children were to be born in New Zealand. On the voyage Samuel Lister served as precentor for the Presbyterian congregation on board.

By 1868 Samuel Lister's name was appearing in the Dunedin paper Punch as a lithographer. The family lived at first in Roslyn, later buying a comfortable villa in the new suburb of South Dunedin. Over the next 20 years Lister mastered the engraving and printing trades, and was involved in three business partnerships, all short-lived. The death of his eldest son in 1875 may have turned him to heavy drinking and led to a break with the church. In 1887, from his business premises in Princes Street, he published the first issue of the weekly paper which was to make him famous (or infamous), the Otago Workman. The next year he moved his office to South Dunedin where he lived in the area known as The Flat.

The Otago Workman (incorporating the Forbury News ) carried news from The Flat, theatre reviews, sporting notes, gossip, poetry and short stories. The paper's anonymous correspondent, the 'Chiseler', wrote a regular satirical column and professed himself 'very apt to speak the truth, unpleasing though it be.' Chiseler pulled no punches, delighted in sharp invective, and attracted a sizeable following. Lister may have written the column, but he invariably wrote the trenchant editorials. The Workman, he promised, would 'fearlessly take up the cause of the industrial classes, and advocate the rights of labour as against the selfish greed, and tyranny of unscrupulous capital.' Lister did not believe in 'levelling' but insisted 'upon the toilers getting an honest, fair share of the results of their labour, so that they can live in decent comfort'. Only through unity, he believed, could this modest Utopia be realised.

Over the next five years Lister's Workman played a major role in shaping a sense of working-class identity, not only on The Flat but in Dunedin as a whole. He also helped shape the political platform and strategy of the fast-multiplying trade unions and the local labour party. As a republican, an atheist and a democrat, Lister kept alive the traditions of artisan radicalism and shaped them to the needs of his 'New World'. He attacked the church and the clergy as sanctimonious hypocrites, the Queen and the aristocratic principle as expensively useless, and lampooned anybody who claimed deference or put on airs. Chiseler wrote witty and satirical paragraphs as a foil to Lister's thunderous polemics. The Workman exposed graft, defended 'larrikins', mocked the prohibitionists and took issue with the idea that the unemployed were lazy and thriftless. Like many British radicals, Lister distrusted the state and regarded public servants as parasites. In 1890 he thought reduced borrowing, more effective exclusion of 'undesirable immigrants', a democratic system of education and tariff protection for local industries the limits of state action. He believed that New Zealand could 'maintain itself outside and independent of the outer world'.

In 1889–90, the year of the sweating commission and the maritime strike, Lister and his Workman strongly supported the growth of trade unionism and the new spirit of self-assertion. The little weekly now claimed to have a larger circulation in Dunedin than any daily newspaper. The police harassed the delivery boys. Robert Stout, who had cancelled his subscription in a rage, successfully prosecuted Lister for having printed a handbill without an imprint. Some 200 people gathered to protest, and elected a committee to help Lister pay his fine. Throughout this turbulent year Lister kept preaching the imperative need for labour to organise politically and develop a programme that would appeal outside the city. When a labour party was formed in Dunedin he gave it full support. Over the next three years, however, he became disillusioned with the party because its leaders supported women's suffrage and prohibition – two causes which Lister opposed with increasing fury. In 1893 the Workman unsuccessfully urged that the labour men be defeated.

Despite the paper's increasing enthusiasm for co-operation and socialism, Lister had trouble accepting the need for a political party; but by 1896 he accepted this need and praised the Liberal government's achievements to the sky. The ultimate test of all measures and men was simply this: did it aid the worker and help provide work at fair wages? In 1899 Lister renamed his paper the Otago Liberal and one of his sons became the printer and publisher. There was less trenchant political comment and more on food, fashion and the home. The tone became staid and soothing. The old printer doubtless felt that he and his country had done well.

Samuel Lister became a legend in his own lifetime on The Flat, but 'respectable' Dunedin detested him in his heyday and never forgave him. His determination to tell the truth and expose hypocrisy, no less than his insistence that the well-being of the country's workers was the most important test of public policy, made him popular with his readers. The incident which made him a legend for a further 50 years occurred in 1893, when Chiseler described the London Gaiety Burlesque Company's show as immoral and claimed that the performers were paid so badly they were forced to resort to prostitution. The 'Gaiety Girls' and several men visited the Workman's office, armed with miniature horse whips, and demanded to see the editor. They broke the windows, spilt the ink and tossed about type and papers. 'Old Sam' landed the day's best punch, however, and later withdrew charges on condition that the company paid for the repairs.

Lister withdrew from the business as his sons came of age, but remained a well-known figure on The Flat. His wife died in 1901. Samuel Lister died at Dunedin on 29 November 1913 after an operation to clear an intestinal blockage. No newspaper provided an obituary.