Not far from Shannon on the Foxton Road are two farms with concrete foundations in the paddocks. They are the relics of Paiaka and Whitanui, the conscientious objector camps where 250 men were held in detention in World War 2. We went along to our local library, Te Takere, on Sunday afternoon to find out about this previously unknown (to us) slice of local history. The lecture was presented by Margaret Tate, of Historic Places, Manawatu-Horowhenua, and she delivered her talk to a packed hall. Many of the people present had connections with those who had been interred at the camps.
In 2012, Shannon farm owner Mary Bielski began finding remnants of barbed wire, copper pipe and concrete foundations sticking out of her paddocks. Through piecing together bits and pieces of information she discovered that the ruins were the remains of Whitaunui camp, one of two nearby sites that were among New Zealand's largest camps to house men who refused compulsory military conscription.
Mary Bielski with the foundations
Nationally, over 800 “military defaulters” as they were known, were confined during WW11, in 13 camps around the country, with the two Shannon camps at Paiaka and Whitaunui housing 250 men between them. Conscription began in 1940 for men between the ages of 18 and 40. Objectors could appeal on the grounds of hardship, essential employment or conscientious objection. If their appeals were rejected, the camps were the only option for these men, as no other form of service was offered to conscientious objectors in New Zealand.
A historical photo believed to have been taken of prisoners in front of 'public works huts' that housed them, at the Whitaunui camp, during WWII. Photo by Warwick Smith/Fairfax NZ.
They worked weeding flax which was a big local industry at the time. There were very large stands of flax, and they spent a lot of time cutting down blackberry bushes growing around the flax. They also worked in the camp garden. Some library books were allowed, letters were controlled, few visitors were allowed, and prisoners were often moved between camps arbitrarily. The small huts were sparsely furnished, and very cold in the winter. Being confined for the duration of the war made an enormous impact on the men, and it was very difficult for the wives and families at home who suffered financially, and from the stigma of their husband’s beliefs. Many of the men suffered from depression, hence the term, “Wire Happy”. Once finally released, the men were not allowed voting rights for 10 years.
Some well-known New Zealanders spend time there at the Shannon camps. Rexford Hillary, brother of Sir Edmund Hillary was there, as was Terrence Baxter, brother of well known poet James K Baxter.
Regardless of individual views on war and the men who opposed it, it was very interesting to learn about this unknown to us slice of local history. There are plans to erect signage or information boards if funding can be found, now that these sites have resurfaced into the public spotlight.