Story: Arnold, James Frederick

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Arnold, James Frederick

1859–1929

Boot clicker, trade unionist, politician, factory inspector

This biography, written by Erik Olssen, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

James Frederick Arnold was born at Mount Durant, St Peter Port, Guernsey, on 6 June 1859, the son of Eliza Perry Davis and her husband, Julius Arnold, a notary public. The family emigrated to Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1864. James was apprenticed to a boot clicker in 1875. From his Methodist father he acquired a high level of fluency and a strong sense of personal integrity. He became active in the Independent Order of Good Templars, the Ancient Order of Foresters, and the Freemasons. He moved to Dunedin in 1882 when he obtained work with Sargood, Son and Ewen. On 17 June 1884 at Dunedin, Arnold married Isabella Lowden.

James Arnold inherited a faith in trade unions, but clickers could not belong to the Dunedin Operative Bootmakers' Society (re-styled a union in 1885 or 1886). He emerged as the clickers' champion and in 1890 finally secured admission to the union. His skill in debate saw him quickly become one of its most powerful members. He attended the first federal conference of the bootmakers' trade in 1890, and in 1891, because of his ability in negotiating with employers, he rose to national prominence in the union.

During the 1890s Arnold established himself as a major figure in Dunedin. He was a borough councillor in Mornington, a leading figure in the Methodist church, and served on the Mornington School Committee and the Dunedin Technical Classes Association. Arnold also helped ensure the survival of the bootmakers' union through the early 1890s when union membership was falling off and conditions of work were being eroded. He represented his union on the Otago Trades and Labour Council and the Workers' Political Committee.

Unlike many unionists Arnold quickly recognised the potential of the newly created arbitration system. In 1896 the bootmakers chose him to take their case before the Board of Conciliation, chaired by a solicitor. When the Court of Arbitration upheld Arnold's interpretation of the law over the solicitor's he became known as the 'bootmakers' lawyer'. In his advocacy for his union he distinguished himself by his grasp of issues, his quick understanding of the legal process, and his forensic ability. Over the next two years he worked strenuously and successfully to bring the northern unions under Otago's higher wage rates.

In 1899 the Workers' Political Committee, anxious to regain the influence it had lost when the prohibitionists defected in 1896, chose Arnold as one of its three parliamentary candidates for City of Dunedin. The local branch of the Liberal and Labour Federation of New Zealand endorsed the choice. Arnold identified himself with the city's labour tradition, Richard Seddon's government, and the British cause in South Africa. He was elected and quickly settled into parliamentary life, where his tact and skill resulted in his appointment as chairman of the Labour Bills Committee.

Arnold typified the 'Lib–Lab' member in being conscientious and loyal. He worked hard for his constituents and for the city while continuing to play an active part in the church and various voluntary societies. He also continued to take a close interest in his union – he had become president in 1899 – and in the labour movement, attending conferences and meetings. For a short time he wrote a regular labour column for the Evening Star. However, by 1911 even in Dunedin a combination of industrial unrest, dissatisfaction with the arbitration system, and a feeling that the Liberals had ceased to advance workers' interests had begun to erode loyalty to the Lib–Lab tradition. Faced by sharpened class conflict, the Liberals seemed to be bankrupt. Arnold lacked the ability either to understand the changes or offer leadership to the old cause. In 1911 the newly formed New Zealand Labour Party ran an employer against him. Arnold easily beat off that challenge but lost to Charles Statham, a lawyer, who stood for Reform.

Arnold was employed as an inspector by the Department of Labour, working in Dunedin from 1912 to 1915, New Plymouth from 1915 to 1916 and Timaru from 1917 to 1925. He served for nine years as chairman and national conference delegate of the South Canterbury section of the New Zealand Public Service Association, was national vice president in 1924–25, and became the association's second life member in 1924. He was also active in the Libraries Association of New Zealand, and served on the Timaru Borough Council. Arnold died at Timaru on 10 July 1929 and was survived by two daughters, his wife having predeceased him.

How to cite this page:

Erik Olssen. 'Arnold, James Frederick', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2a14/arnold-james-frederick (accessed 17 June 2019)