Vale, Bert Roth – leading New Zealand Labour Historian

John Shields

Yellowed books, fragmentary reports
Are my sources. If we see one another again
I will gladly go back to learning with you.
(Bertold Brecht, 1938)

Hummer readers will be saddened to learn of the passing of Bert Roth, the scholar widely recognised as the doyen of the study of New Zealand labour history. Bert died peacefully in his sleep in Auckland on 26 May last, aged 76.

Bert Roth dedicated his life to the cause of working class historical scholarship. A first hand experience of Fascist oppression in his native Austria confirmed his youthful commitment to the cause of democratic socialism and global peace. After emigrating to New Zealand and serving with the RNZAF in the Pacific during World War II, Bert turned to a life of scholarship and learning, taking up a career in university librarianship. During the course of that career, he collected and preserved a wealth of material on the history of organisd labour in his adopted country. He also authored numerous monographs and research guides on the history of New Zealand workers and their unions. Equally importantly, he inspired many others to follow his example. Toil and Trouble (1981), which Bert co-authored with fellow librarian Janny Hammond, made publicly available for the first time much of his invaluable private collection of labour movement material. A keen supporter of the work of New Zealand’s Dictionary of National Biography, his untiring efforts also ensured that the contributions of working people were well represented in that project’s published volumes. He gave to the working men and women of New Zealand a much richer appreciation of their past and of the power of collective action.

Sydney Branch members may recall that on a visit to Sydney several years ago, Bert addressed the Branch on the history of the New Zealand arbitration system and the prospects for workers and trade unions in the wake of the system’s demise.The talk was a marvellous synthesis of historical insight and contemporary analysis, and all in attendance were impressed by his eloquence and urbanity.

As Bert’s longtime friend and Sydney Branch member, Len Fox, reminds us, Bert Roth gave generous research assistance to labour historians on both sides of the Tasman. His death therefore represents a great loss both to the New Zealand labour movement and to trans-Tasman scholarship. Yet his life’s work and comradely support will be remembered with gratitude and affection by all who knew him. Future generations will continue to benefit from his work.

Vale, Bert.