NZSIS transfers second set of Old Police Records to Archives New Zealand

The New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) has transferred to Archives New Zealand the remaining 25 volumes of its historical file series known as the Old Police Records (“OPRs”), covering the years 1946 - 1957. The OPRs index the reports of the New Zealand Police Special Branch, which existed from 1920 to 1957, when it was disbanded following the establishment of the New Zealand Security Service, the forerunner of the NZSIS. Thirty-one volumes of the OPRs, covering the years 1920 to 1945, were transferred to Archives NZ in August 2013. The OPRs are paper files made up of individual Special Branch Recording Sheets, each recording the receipt of one or more reports and collected into annual volumes.

Special Branch was set up in 1920 “to investigate and report on revolutionary matters in New Zealand”. In 1920 “revolutionary matters” meant anything to do with the international romulgation of communism following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. The Recording Sheets that make up the OPRs index the receipt, undated but numbered by year and order received, of reports about organisations and persons of interest (e.g., in OPR 1920 the very first Recording Sheet, which notes receipt of the Commissioner’s Instruction of 10 September 1920 on the formation of Special Branch, is designated “S.20/1a”). The numbers of the Recording Sheets are not always concurrent; some are missing, and occasionally additional relevant information has been typed in at a later date, so that an entry dated 1957 can be at the bottom of a 1953 Recording Sheet. The reports referred to in the OPRs are held on separate classified files in NZSIS Archives (five have been released with this transfer – see here).

Most Recording Sheets summarise the subject matter of the reports and some list the attendees at public and closed meetings of the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) and its branches, and the memberships of assorted leftist, “progressive” and pacifist groups and workers’ organisations thought to be Communist - influenced. For the years 1932 to 1940 however only year and order of receipt are noted (e.g., “32/946”), with no other information except file references, which indicate that the organisation of most concern to Special Branch was the CPNZ and that persons of interest were usually, but not always, leftists. Examples of three Recording Sheets from the 1946–1957 OPRs are attached.

The 1946–1957 OPRs indicate clearly the preoccupations of Special Branch in this early period of the Cold War. In 1950 the suspected Communist and Soviet spy Alger Hiss, a former senior US State Department official, went on trial for espionage (and was convicted, but of perjury, not of espionage). Then in May 1951 the British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to Moscow. This evidence of Soviet penetration of the Foreign Office was embarrassing for the British and was also of great concern to the Americans, who had shared with the British much of the results of their intelligence-gathering and scientific research (particularly that applicable to defence). The Burgess and Maclean defection was significant for New Zealand too, since in 1951 we relied upon British advice and support in foreign affairs and security matters much more than we do now. Western intelligence agencies were duly tasked with preventing the entry of such “security risks” to their government departments and uncovering spies already embedded within them. Despite this heightened security awareness, however, one of the most effective Soviet spies, Kim Philby, was able to continue working for MI6 until 1963, when he too fled to Moscow.

In New Zealand Special Branch undertook more stringent security vetting of public servants, especially of those employed in or bound for the Department of External Affairs and the Department of Scientific & Industrial Research (DSIR). Officials working in these, departments had access to highly-classified diplomatic, defence and scientific documents shared with New Zealand by its overseas allies. Within the Department of External Affairs, despite the protective efforts of the Head of the Prime Minister’s Department, Alister McIntosh, the careers of some diplomats and potential recruits were curtailed because Special Branch identified them as security risks (although other young diplomats who had shown socialist leanings at university, and who were therefore of security interest, went on to stellar careers).

The security vetting activity of Special Branch in the mid-1950s is described as ” the New Zealand brand of McCarthyism” by James McNeish in his article “Hidden History” in North and South for October 2007. On the other hand, the reality that the Soviets were directing and funding subversive activity in New Zealand during the Cold War also has to be acknowledged. Other government departments were less affected by Special Branch’s scrutiny. Prominent left-wingers, like Bill Sutch and Jack Lewin, both of whom rose to the top levels of the influential Department of Industries & Commerce, remained employed in the Public Service over this period.

1956 was a pivotal year in the Cold War: in February of that year, at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, First Secretary Khrushchev denounced the crimes of Stalin, and in November the Russians brutally suppressed the Hungarian Revolution. The OPR Recording Sheets show that, as elsewhere, news of these events led to debate among New Zealand Communists, and that even those who had followed the Party line in defending the 1936-1938 show trials and the Nazi-Soviet Non–Aggression Pact of 1939 questioned Soviet policy. The Soviet action in Hungary appears to have been the event that convinced Sid Scott, Elsie Locke and Connie Birchfield, among others, to leave the Party.

The CPNZ remained the primary target of Special Branch until the latter’s disbandment. A swan-song enquiry, a request by Special Branch of December 1956 to all Police Districts for each to put in a report on the activities of local Communists, resulted in a 12-page Recording Sheet (S.56/625) listing all known CPNZ members and others in “front” organisations and leftist groups throughout New Zealand.

In addition to the OPRs, five Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ) files containing Police Special Branch reports referred to in the OPRs have also been released in this transfer of NZSIS files to Archives NZ. These are:


CPNZ: Policy on Other Political Parties in NZ, Vols 1 & 2. Volume 1 (1920-1925) includes reports on the activities of International Workers of the World (IWW or the “Wobblies”), and One Big Union proselytisers in NZ and there are frequent mentions of Labour Party politicians Walter Nash, Harry Holland, Bob Semple and Peter Fraser, and the maverick F.P. Walsh. Volume 2 (1925–1954) is made up mainly of reports about Labour Party meetings with speakers addressing international and local political, social, employment and economic matters.


CPNZ: Wellington District, District Committee-General, Directives & Bulletins, District Meetings, Vols 1 & 1A. The first report in Volume 1 (1921-1930) is on the seminal (for the CPNZ) speech of Andrew Barras in Wellington on 27 March 1921 bringing “a message from the Third International, Moscow, to the workers of New Zealand” (copy attached), and includes another report of 27 September 1921 about the history of the Communist Party in Wellington. Volume 1A for 1931 consists mainly of reports on Wellington meetings and marches organised by the Communist Party and Labour Defence League in the third year of the Great Depression.


CPNZ: Wellington District, Sympathisers and Contacts, Volume 1 (1919 -1940) includes reports on IWW activists in NZ.

A Notice for Readers at the beginning of each file advises of the existence of Restricted Access “parallel” files, classified Confidential. These are made up of Recording Sheets removed from the original files under the protection of security and privacy provisions of Sections 6 and 9 of the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA). In most cases redacted Recording Sheets replace the originals on the Open Access files. The main reason for deletions of information has been to remove the identifiers of Special Branch agents or sources. The initials of NZSIS officers who later annotated the files have also been removed under Section 13A of the NZSIS Act 1969, which restricts publicising that any person, other than the Director, is a member of the NZSIS, unless such persons have been publicly identified by name and occupation (e.g., in books or newspaper obituaries), or they are deceased or the initials do not enable identification.

Public Access to the original Recording Sheets in the parallel files is restricted for 100 years after date of the last action on the file, when they will be reviewed for possible declassification. The period of restriction has been chosen following Archives NZ’s Advisory Notice A6 “Making Access Decisions Under the Public Records Act” (2005). Readers may however request earlier access to this withheld information under the terms of the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA).

Enquiries about subjects referred to in the Old Police Records may be made to:

The Archives Officer
New Zealand Security Intelligence Service
P O Box 900