Story: Birchfield, Constance Alice
Birchfield, Constance Alice
Housekeeper, trade unionist, hotel maid, communist, bookseller, political activist
This biography was written by Maureen Birchfield Williams and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998
Constance Alice Rawcliffe, known as Connie, was born on 27 July 1898 at Haydock, Lancashire, England, the daughter of Catherine Williamson and her husband, John Rawcliffe, a police constable. Measles as a baby left Connie permanently deaf in her right ear, but her family and teachers ensured she heard what was being said. She left school at 13 to join her two elder sisters as a weaver in a local cotton mill and later worked in a silk mill.
Connie arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, in January 1923 to care for the two children of her widowed uncle, Sam Pilkington, who worked at the Mangatoki Co-operative Dairy Factory in Taranaki. In 1925 she moved to Wellington, and after losing several jobs as a hotel maid because she belonged to a trade union, found work at the Midland Hotel where the boss told her, 'you'll be safe here but beware of the housekeeper'.
Connie was introduced to socialism and atheism by her Uncle Sam and his friend Charlie Benn, a messenger at Parliament. She extended her political education by attending WEA economics classes and by joining the New Zealand Labour Party. From 1926 to 1929 she was a trustee and executive member of the Wellington Hotel, Club and Restaurant Workers' Union and the union's delegate to the WEA. She also represented the union on the Wellington Labour Representation Committee and was a delegate to Labour Party conferences. In 1927 she was a delegate to the open conference of the New Zealand Alliance of Labour. She served as secretary of the Wellington Labour Social Club in 1927 and 1928, and attended the national conference of Labour women in 1928 and 1929. She was elected secretary at the 1929 conference.
At the start of the depression in late 1929 Connie lost her job, but as a woman she was not eligible for unemployment relief. With £100 she had saved, she paid a deposit on land at Stokes Valley where a friend from the WEA built her an unlined bach. There she and her friend, Etta Baikie, survived the depression by growing vegetables and earning money through house-cleaning.
Connie belonged to the Friends of the Soviet Union (New Zealand Section) in Lower Hutt and in 1933 agreed to work for the Communist Party of New Zealand in Wellington for 15 shillings a week, combining office work with preparing soup for the unemployed. She seems to have joined the party around this time. In 1934 she helped organise the first national conference of working women. She chaired the first day of the conference and was elected to the national committee of the Working Women's Movement. From 1934 to 1937 she managed the International Bookshop for the Communist Party.
Connie gained notoriety in 1935 when she stood as a communist candidate for the Wellington City Council and opposed the Labour candidate, Bob Semple, for the Wellington East electorate in the general election. After polling 70 votes at the parliamentary election, she had the audacity to speak from the balcony of the Evening Post building, telling the crowd what the new Labour government would do wrong. Her fighting spirit was reported in the Evening Post, while Tomorrow magazine described how men in the crowd yelled comments such as, 'Go home and mend the socks,' and 'I'm glad you're not my wife anyway,' at the stocky, dark-haired woman of five feet two inches who dared give them advice.
As a street-corner speaker, Connie was passionate and fearless; she had a powerful voice and thrived on heckling. The 1936 Victoria University College extravaganza satirised her as 'Miss Rawbeef', and for the next 20 years she was one of Wellington's most colourful political personalities, renowned for her soap-box oratory and one of few women on both local and national committees of the Communist Party. Although she wrote little – a few articles for the Working Woman and the Workers' Weekly in the 1930s and a pamphlet on Wellington's housing shortage in 1941 – what she said was often reported.
On 8 August 1936, in Wellington, Connie Rawcliffe married fellow communist Albert James Birchfield (Birchie), a divorcee. Birchie's working life had begun at about 12 and included jobs such as farm labouring, coalmining, tram-driving and boiler-making. When he and Connie married he was a linesman. He served in Egypt and Italy during the last two years of the Second World War.
Connie continued her political activity after the birth of their two daughters in 1937 and 1939, and was also involved in local issues near where they lived. She was president of the Rongotai–Kilbirnie Residents' Association, which won compensation from the city council for smoke damage caused to houses by the Evans Bay powerhouse, and she was on the Miramar South School Committee. She kept a vegetable garden, and she sewed, knitted and crocheted for her daughters.
As a communist she stood four times for the Wellington City Council, twice for the Wellington Hospital Board, and five times for the House of Representatives. She never polled more than a few hundred votes in general elections but as a council candidate her votes were in the thousands. In 1944, when the USSR and New Zealand were wartime allies, she polled her highest number of votes: 9,143 for the Wellington Hospital Board. Later, when the Cold War had begun, Connie stood for the last time, polling 120 votes for Petone at the 1954 general election.
In February 1957 Connie was expelled from the Communist Party for 'factionalism', a charge she rejected. She had allowed people to come to her home to hear expelled party leader Sid Scott from Auckland. Both she and Scott were shocked at Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 exposure of Stalin as a ruthless tyrant, and neither supported the Soviet invasion of Hungary in the same year. Connie's support of Scott and her own stand brought her into conflict with many of her communist comrades, and led to her expulsion; Birchie was expelled soon after.
Connie had been convinced that the Soviet Union was a workers' paradise, and it was traumatic to discover that everything she had believed of it was false. Although she remained a socialist, Connie never joined another political party. In retirement in Paekakariki, she discussed solutions to the problems of the world with friends and continued her exhortations against the injustices of capitalism from her armchair. Her audiences often included one or more of her eight grandchildren, with whom she shared a loving relationship. She also read books on social issues, learnt yoga, and gardened. Birchie died in 1984. Connie lived another 10 years, dying in Wellington, aged 95, on 9 May 1994.