Contacts - Canterbury University Press - University of Canterbury - New Zealand

'Second rank' provides first-class record for historian

15 February 2006

Associate Professor Melanie Nolan.
Photo credit: Robert Cross, Victoria University of Wellington.

A new book from Canterbury University Press breaks new ground in New Zealand historiography by integrating the stories of a working class family into our country's labour history.

Melanie Nolan, Associate Professor of History at Victoria University, has produced an account of the McCullough family who arrived in New Zealand in 1880.

The five siblings whose lives she examines in Kin: A collective biography of a New Zealand working-class family were not movers and shakers whose names will ring on in the consciousness of people today. They are simply a great example of a working-class family through which Professor Nolan can consider the variance within the working class.

"Because of the problem of sources, collective biography, whether statistical or qualitative, has tended too frequently to concentrate on prominent and powerful people, groups or families. The McCulloughs are clearly of the 'second rank' and possibly more attractive for that very reason. Learning more about people such as the McCulloughs brings a more nuanced and varied history of New Zealand."

Professor Nolan's research on the McCullough kin dates back more than two decades to the MA thesis she completed at the University of Canterbury in 1985 on Jack McCullough, Worker's Representative on the Arbitration Court 1908-1921.

In 2000 she returned to the project with the intention of publishing a political biography of Jack McCullough, but found herself reconsidering her approach on rereading McCullough's diary entries.

"As I reread the diaries it became clear [McCullough] had not spent his life in a homogenous male, public, skilled and political labour environment. He had a life before and after 'the court', and outside the court, even when he sat on its bench. Hence my interest came to be in a wider story."

This wider story looks at the life, culture, and identity of Jack McCullough alongside his four siblings — Margaret, Jim, Sarah and Frank. Religious, friendly society, domestic, patriotic, and rising working-class experience is considered along with the archetypical 'skilled working class'. The book addresses the idea of a typical member of the New Zealand working class and plots some of the major changes in New Zealand society between 1880 and 1950.

"This account contradicts traditional labour narratives based wholly on the idea of a monolithic working class represented by trade union masculinity."

Professor Nolan says the McCulloughs in many ways were a labour historian's dream.

"To get a working-class family with such a wealth of records in the archives is a rarity and they are an incredibly good example of a group which challenges the entrenched stereotypes we have of the working class. These 'peas in the same pod' were more varied than one would have expected."

  • Kin: A collective biography of a New Zealand working-class family, by Melanie Nolan, published by Canterbury University Press, February 2006, RRP NZ$39.95, Paperback, 252 pp, b/w photos and cartoons. ISBN 1-877257-34-6. Link to more new title information for this book

For further information please contact:
Maria De Cort
Canterbury University Press
Tel: +64 3 364 2072
Fax: +64 3 364 2679
Mob: 027 224 5104