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The martyrs of Ripa

This 1980 ‘Spectrum’ radio documentary examines the treatment of a group of conscientious objectors who refused to take part in national military training. The 13 young men were held on Ripapa (also known as Ripa) Island, in Lyttelton Harbour near Christchurch, for some months during 1913. Their treatment was sometimes harsh, and when their case was made public they were dubbed by the press ‘The martyrs of Ripa’.

Year:1913 (Recorded 1980)

Location:Ripapa Island, Lyttelton, New Zealand

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The martyrs of Ripa

This 1980 ‘Spectrum’ radio documentary examines the treatment of a group of conscientious objectors who refused to take part in national military training. The 13 young men were held on Ripapa (also known as Ripa) Island, in Lyttelton Harbour near Christchurch, for some months during 1913. Their treatment was sometimes harsh, and when their case was made public they were dubbed by the press ‘The martyrs of Ripa’.


Year: 1913 (Recorded 1980)

Length: 34:56

Production Company: Broadcasting Corporation of New Zealand

Credits: Presented by: Jack Perkins

Source: Radio New Zealand Collection, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision

Catalogue Reference: 206758 Spectrum. 352, The Martyrs of Ripa.


Location: Ripapa Island, Lyttelton, New Zealand

Tags: Pacifism, Conscientious objectors, Military service, Conscription, Religious objectors, Socialism, Incarceration

Subject: Conscientious objectors – New Zealand ; Pacifism ; Pacifists – New Zealand ; Socialism ; Ripapa Island (N.Z.)


Image Title: Fort Jervois on Ripapa Island, 2015.

Image Source: With permission from Urbex Central.


Listen to the full documentary here.

The Defence Act was passed in 1909, replacing New Zealand’s volunteer defence force with a territorial defence force and making it obligatory for boys and men to undergo Compulsory Military Training. This began with cadet training for teenagers, and then compulsory service in the Territorials between the ages of 18 to 21.

There was opposition to the Act on both religious and moral grounds. Some religions – for example, the Quakers – were specifically exempt due to their nonviolent beliefs. However, they were still required to undertake non-military service. Others objected on religious grounds but did not belong to any exempted religion.

Moral opposition came mainly from two distinct groups – upper- and middle-class liberals, and working-class socialists, with strongholds respectively in Christchurch and on the West Coast. The Anti-Militarist League and the Socialist and Labour Parties organised public meetings and published newspaper editorials decrying the Defence Act. They were vocal in their support for boys who defied the Act by refusing to take part in military training.

The government policy for conscientious objectors and non-exempted religious objectors was that they would be called up regardless of their protestations. The protests against the Act were not large, but they were far-reaching and took place all over the country. Absenteeism at drills was fairly common. The government was forced to defend its position by enforcing the Act, which stipulated punishments for those who refused to attend. Usually, this meant the offenders were fined or given short prison terms.

The young men who were eventually dubbed the ‘Martyrs of Ripa’ were a mix of conscientious and religious objectors. Some, like Nuttall [who he?], objected on religious grounds but were not part of an exempted religion. Some were pacifists from Christchurch. Others were anti-militarist, socialist miners from the West Coast. Although they were not the first objectors to be subject to military detention, their sentences received perhaps the most public attention.

When this took place, during peacetime in 1913, public opinion was divided. Within certain groups and communities (miners, for example, who were traditionally socialist and unionised) there was little support for what they saw as capitalist oppression. However, as the First World War progressed from 1914 onwards, those on the home front became more patriotic and concerned with supporting their boys at the front. By the time conscription was introduced in 1916, public opinion had swung firmly against those opposed to the war. Conscientious objectors were branded cowards and shirkers.