The New Zealand Legion

Page 4 – Organisation and membership

For the first few months after its February 1933 formation, the New Zealand Legion’s efforts were devoted to organisation and recruitment. Campbell Begg and his fellow organisers travelled more than 15,000 km by rail, car, air and ferry between 17 February and 26 March, with Begg himself clocking up over half of that distance. It was not uncommon for Begg to spend an entire week flying from one meeting to another, only to return to Wellington at the crack of dawn to begin his daily hospital rounds. As he humorously reflected, ‘I must have flown in practically every machine in the country.’

The inaugural meetings in each Division were held in secret. Attendance was strictly by invitation only. This initial secrecy generated an air of mystery about the new movement, and by 11 March it had 2000 members.

A democratic organisation?

At the lowest level of organisation was the Centre, a group of a hundred or so individuals from the same suburb. Centres were grouped under one of 18 Divisions throughout the country. Divisional Councils were comprised of the elected Chairmen of each Centre, and the President of each Division served on a National Council that met quarterly in Wellington. Begg also appointed a National Executive of six to handle the Legion’s day-to-day affairs.

Begg wanted the Legion to be as democratic as possible. Policy was, in principle, produced by front-line members. Centres were supposed to hold rigorous discussions on economic and political issues, and make recommendations to their Division. Division Presidents would collate these remits and bring them to the National Council for consideration. Ideas considered worthy of pursuing would then be sent out to the Centres, and if approved by every Centre would be adopted as official Legion policy.

In practice, though, the Centres usually looked to the National Council for guidance. As a result, most of the National Executive’s work was taken up by printing and circulating material to the Centres for discussion. Several Committees were established in Wellington to produce this material, the most prominent of which was the Economic Research Committee headed by Evan Parry.

The activity of the Centres varied greatly. Some, like Dunedin, developed detailed plans on local government reform, while others dissipated shortly after their first meeting. There was also confusion, both within and outside the Legion, over the material circulated for consideration, which was often mistaken for official policy.

The Legion grows

Publicity around the Legion, combined with its vague policy and the phenomenal efforts of Begg and his fellow organisers, resulted in a rapid membership increase. Total membership peaked at around 20,000 by the end of August – far less than the 400,000 Begg had anticipated, but still an impressive feat.

Despite its appeal to unite the entire country, the Legion’s membership was drawn almost entirely from the middle and upper-middle class. Its ranks overflowed with businessmen, professionals and sheep farmers, with a smattering of journalists and teachers. The average Legionnaire was white, male, in his mid-to-late 40s, and had seen service during the Great War as an officer. Many were also involved in local government and in groups such as Rotary, Chambers of Commerce and the Returned Soldiers’ Association.