Wilfred (Will) John Foote, 1919 -

coverWilfred Foote (usually known as Will) was one of a group of World War II pacifists known as "hoons" or "humanitarians". Unlike many of the pacifists who were held in Military Defaulters' Camps, he did not come from a Christian Pacifist or pacifist family background. He said he had no idea where his pacifism came from.

Nevertheless, Foote became a convinced pacifist and spent more than four years in detention camps in the North Island. After the war, Foote pursued a teaching career, and his peace activism took a back seat until his retirement in 1978. Since then, he has been involved in a range of activities as part of anti-nuclear protests in Nelson and elsewhere.

Early life

Wilfred John Foote was born at Otekaieke in 1919, the middle child and second son of school teacher and farmer, Francis Walter Foote, and his wife, Harriet (“Ettie”) Kane. Foote’s father had spent 15 years at sea before attending night school and training as a teacher. His mother’s family farmed at Grandview, between Tarras and Hawea. Foote’s father was teaching at Otekaieke at the time of Will’s birth, but shortly afterwards, decided to take up farming, first at Ardgowan near Oamaru; then at Kiness near Milton; and finally on the Otago Peninsula above Macandrew Bay. Foote began school at Milton Primary School in 1924 but later that year was seriously ill with double pneumonia. The illness left him with a weak chest for several years.

The foreclosure of his farm in 1926 forced Francis Foote back into teaching. He became the sole teacher at Hazelburn near Pleasant Point for three years, then at Waddington near Darfield. Accordingly, Foote was taught by his father, a stern though loving man, “solid but not inspiring”.1

Foote and his brother, Leslie, were avid readers, who seized on every piece of reading matter they could find. While at Waddington, Leslie, by then a boarder at Christchurch Boys’ High School, taught his brother to play cricket, and the game became an enduring passion. The two brothers also worked hard in the holidays to supplement the family income; their parents kept cows and chickens, and the boys participated in fishing, rabbit hunting, turnip thinning, fruit picking, gathering cocksfoot and potato picking.

In 1932, the family moved again to Hook, 12 miles north of Waimate, so that the two boys could attend Waimate District High School (the payment of two sets of boarding fees was out of the question). Foote cycled to school every day for four years and two terms, more than 20,000 miles (32,000km) by his reckoning. Although he could not play rugby, which meant he was classed with lesser beings at the school, Foote secured respectability with his skills in cricket and fives, and by modest academic achievement. By the sixth form, he thought he had moved from ‘wimp to harmless eccentric’.2

Pacifist beliefs

Foote first heard about pacifism from Leslie, who was studying geology at the University of Otago but was just as interested in philosophy and the arts. Foote learned enough, however, to query the military ethic and to look more critically at the lessons of history. His doubts were reinforced by his experiences in the school cadet corps.

Foote became a full-blown convert to pacifism during his years at Teachers’ College in Christchurch. He was a member of a group at the College which met informally to study the Bible, but did not belong to the Christian Pacifist Society, as he did not agree with its exclusionist policies.

As his thinking crystallised, he simply decided that war was ‘unthinkable’. He had, he discovered, developed a ‘very real, philosophical objection to institutionalised violence’.3 In 1938, he joined the New Zealand Peace Pledge Union founded by Thurlo Thompson, promising to ‘renounce war and … never support or sanction another’.4

Wartime experiences

When war broke out in 1939, Foote believed that New Zealand should remain neutral and supported diplomatic attempts to end the violence. ‘Richard Gregg’s The power of non-violence was a revelation to me’, he said.5  He decided to apply for exemption from military service, and unlike his brother, decided against serving in a non-combatant unit such as the medical corps. He was opposed not just to killing, but to the whole institution of war.

coverIn mid-1940, he was appointed as sole teacher in Kapuka South School in Southland. A year later, he was balloted, and appeared before a Board completely ignorant of the grounds on which conscientious objectors might appeal. The experience was not pleasant; the board ‘poured scorn on my most cherished beliefs, they declared I was insincere, that I cooked up my appeal … to save my cowardly skin, and what’s more I was a Communist…’.6 Because Foote’s was the first conscientious objection case in Southland, his appeal was widely reported, and he faced considerable public anger. The Department of Education regretted it could not sack him, the parents of some of his pupils and his great-aunt refused to speak to him, and one couple withdrew their son from his school. The ‘unkindest cut of all’, he said, was being informed by the secretary of the Railway/Appleby Cricket Club that he was ‘surplus to requirements’.7

Detention camps

Foote was sentenced to a Defaulters’ Detention Camp for the duration of the war, and was accordingly escorted to Strathmore, between Rotorua and Taupo, where he remained for two years. Here he worked as a scrub-cutter, a ‘hard, monotonous, useless’ job.8

For the second half of his detention, he was transferred to a camp at Paiaka in the Manawatu, where he worked in a flax plantation. For this work, Foote received the princely sum of one shilling and three pence a day, paid in a lump sum of 80 pounds on his release in October 1945.

The camps were like concentration camps, he said, in that they were beyond the law, but the treatment of prisoners, while ‘unimaginative and inconsiderate’, was ‘seldom brutal’. 9

The treatment of those who did not co-operate with the authorities, however, was ‘harsh, callous, a disgrace to a civilised country’;10 it included solitary confinement, and even transfer to Mount Eden Prison in Auckland for the worst offenders. The prisoners, many of whom were Christian Pacifists or members of various pacifist organisations, ran evening classes for themselves on every subject from hairdressing to astronomy.

Teaching career

When he was released from the detention camp, Foote found himself still unwelcome, both by the teaching profession and by wider society. He boarded with Thurlow and Kathleen Thompson in Christchurch where he was ordered to work as a labourer, first in the Kempthorne Prosser chemical works in Hornby and then with a local orchardist. In the evenings, he studied for his Diploma in Education and he also became secretary of the Peace Pledge Union. The work of the Union gradually petered out, however, as members focused on careers and families.

Foote returned to teaching in 1947 in a private preparatory school in Hamilton. In 1949, he was declared eligible for appointment to State teaching jobs again, but for some time, was unable to find any school willing to take him. In the end, Nelson College offered him a relieving position  which gave him ‘instant respectability’ and paved the way for his future success.11

Foote found Nelson College too large and impersonal in the longer term, and he quickly moved into district high schools, first at Martinborough District High School and then at Tikitiki Maori School, and the Patea, Takaka, Witherlea, and Cheviot Area Schools. In the latter part of his career, he served as a school principal. He also worked in Tonga for three years in the early 1960s, at Tonga High School.

Marriage and family

In 1953, Foote married Doreen Marie Taylor. They were unable to have children of their own, but adopted two sons, one of whom was part-Maori, and two daughters, one part-Polynesian. Doreen Foote died in 1985, and Foote married his second wife, Anne, in 1995.

Activism in retirement

Foote says that during his years as a teacher, he ‘never lost [his] pacifist faith [but he] neglected it’.12

He opposed corporal punishment in schools and encouraged his students to settle differences peacefully. He also contributed funds to anti-war campaigners, and wrote letters to the editor, as well as taking part in one protest march when he was in Auckland on a course. However, he always felt guilty he had not done more to oppose the ‘obscenity’ which was the Vietnam War.13

When he retired in 1978 and settled in Nelson, he became more active, particularly in the anti-nuclear movement. He joined the Nelson Action Committee on International Affairs, which had grown out of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and later became the Nelson Peace Group. This group campaigned vigorously in the early 1980s to have Nelson declared a nuclear-free zone, a goal achieved in September 1983.

Foote was also one of the founders of Peace Movement Aotearoa. He served as the Nelson/Marlborough representative on the Working Group for eight years, and was associated with various publications, including Peacelink. He took part in a number of protest demonstrations at American spy bases in Black Birch, Waihopai, Tangimoana and Harewood, and remains a bitter opponent of the arms trade, which he regards as ‘Public Enemy No. 1’.14

Over the years, he has written many books on various aspects of his life and the peace movement, as well as on his passions, cricket and motor cars. He still believes wholeheartedly in the power of the people; despite ‘Big Business, the New Right, the World Bank, the arms dealers, the Establishment, we can make a difference’.15

Unlike many pacifists, Foote is not religious. As he says, he is ‘an agnostic, a humanist, a humanitarian’, who believes that ‘love, in the widest sense, is the one thing that can save the world. If we love our fellow humans we cannot kill them …’.16

The ‘stars in his firmament’ are people like Ghandi, Te Whiti, Martin Luther King, and Archie Baxter, those who have demonstrated that violence can be constrained by non-violent methods and change can be effected by the power of the people.17

In the words of Jack Shallcross, ‘His mind is alive with generosity and goodwill to all the people he works with in peace movements and who continue to delight him’.18


  1. 1 Foote, W.J. A bit over the top (Tata Beach, 1992)
  2. 2 Foote, W.J. A bit over the top (Tata Beach, 1992) p. 51.
  3. 3 Foote, W.J. Going uphill backwards (Wellington, 2002) p. 62.
  4. 4 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 9.
  5. 5 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998), pp. 10-11
  6. 6 Foote, W.J. Going uphill backwards (Wellington, 2002) p. 59.
  7. 7 Foote, W.J. Going uphill backwards (Wellington, 2002)
  8. 8 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 13.
  9. 9 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 14.
  10. 10 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 14.
  11. 11 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 20.
  12. 12 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 14.
  13. 13 Foote, W.J. Going uphill backwards (Wellington, 2002) p. 108.
  14. 14 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 6.
  15. 15 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 35.
  16. 16 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 60.
  17. 17 Foote, W.J. Going uphill backwards (Wellington, 2002) p. 116, 122.
  18. 18 Foote, W.J. Quest for peace (Nelson, 1998) p. 4.