Page 1: Biography
Black, William Pierpont
Wood carver, journal editor and publisher, journalist
This biography, written by Herbert Roth, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
William Pierpont Black's career illustrates some of the more unusual aspects of the New Zealand labour movement in the early twentieth century. William Peter Negrescu was born in Bucharest, Romania, probably in 1876 or 1877, the son of John Negrescu, a labourer, and his wife, Fana. A wood carver by trade, he emigrated to Australia around the turn of the century where he married in Melbourne, on 17 June 1902, Harriett (later known as Henrietta) Jane Rice, the daughter of a miner. That year the couple moved to Auckland, New Zealand, where their first son was born. On 19 November 1904 Negrescu was naturalised as William Pierpont Black.
Black was then foreman with Tonson Garlick Company Limited, a Queen Street furniture warehouse, and president of the Auckland United Furniture Trades Union, but after the arrival of his elder brother, John, in 1905 the brothers set up the Artistic Wood Carving Factory in Karangahape Road. William Black became an active member of the New Zealand Socialist Party and in 1908 began publishing a small radical monthly, the Leader (later the New Zealand Leader), 'A journal for the worker'. In 1909 he contested the municipal elections in Auckland on behalf of the Socialist Party.
Inspired possibly by the example of American journalists in exposing graft and corruption in government and business, the Leader early in 1910 published articles denouncing the financial dealings of the prime minister, Sir Joseph Ward. As colonial treasurer, Ward had conducted negotiations in 1894–95 to prevent the threatened collapse of the Bank of New Zealand and the Colonial Bank, to which his own company, the J. G. Ward Farmers' Association, was heavily indebted. A Wellington accountant, Victor Braund, had researched the Colonial Bank collapse in great detail and had published his findings as A romance of trade and politics in 1905.
Braund's work formed the basis of the Leader articles, which appeared anonymously. According to Black, a Wellington 'Socialist and…spiritualist' had given him the material, remarking, 'If you are true to the cause, you should publish this.' 'I got a shock when I read it,' recalled Black, 'but I published it.'
Black had learned to speak English quite fluently, but wrote it with some difficulty, and the articles were probably the combined effort of a small group of people. The main compiler, reputedly, was Fred Way, a fellow socialist and union secretary who had earlier published a pamphlet on the Auckland electric tram swindle and who had accused an Auckland city councillor of profiting from brothel-keeping.
Black tried to obtain the financial backing of members of the Reform Party. When this failed, he decided to bring out the articles himself as a 20-page pamphlet, Unauthorised biography of Sir Joseph Ward, premier of New Zealand. The poor printing, with garish covers, matched the lurid, sensational style. First published in May 1910 the 'Black Pamphlet' (as it became known) was sold from house to house for sixpence, and such was the demand that Black brought out a second edition in June 1910, as well as a sequel, Second and most sensational part of the unauthorised biography of Sir Joseph Ward, premier of New Zealand. Thousands of copies circulated throughout New Zealand and the pamphlet was mailed to influential people in Australia and England.
Ward defended himself strongly in Parliament. The Progressive Liberal League of New Zealand published his speech as a pamphlet, Dastardly attack on Sir Joseph Ward, of which 100,000 copies in four editions were distributed. Parliament also passed the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1910 designed to prevent public men being slandered.
Black by then had lost a libel action instituted by E. J. Carey, the president of the Wellington Trades and Labour Council, whom the Leader had attacked as 'a Lying Labour Traitor'. Unable to pay the damages awarded, Black had himself declared bankrupt. The Leader ceased publication, but a year later Black reappeared as editor of a new weekly paper, the Voice of Labour, ostensibly owned by his wife.
Not only did the title change, but the policies altered radically. The Voice of Labour attacked the miltant New Zealand Federation of Labour, which the Leader had supported, and allied itself with the conservative trade union officials who had successfully sued the Leader. 'In my early days and intense enthusiasm for the cause of Labour,' Black explained later, 'I went through the usual and natural stage of revolutionary tendencies and extremism; but with age, increased knowledge and experience came wisdom and moderation.'
Black became a prominent member of the United Labour Party in Auckland. During the bitter Waihī miners' strike in 1912 the Voice of Labour published special anti-strike editions, and Black himself helped to set up an 'arbitration' miners' union in Huntly. His strike-breaking activities were too much for the United Labour Party which, in November 1912, repudiated the Voice of Labour. The Auckland District Council of the ULP asked Black to resign but he then set up his own labour party in support of Prime Minister William Massey and unsuccessfully sued the Federation of Labour's Maoriland Worker for libel.
In 1917 Black emerged as editor of the NZ Capital and Labour Review, said to be for 'employers and employees alike'. He launched the National Labour Party in Auckland and thought of standing for Parliament. In 1921 he again appeared in public as sponsor of the short-lived National Progressive and Moderate Labour Party which, in Dunedin, gained the support of the mayor and of two local MPs, Charles Statham and Edward Kellett. Soon afterwards Black returned to Australia where he seems to have worked as a journalist. He died in Sydney on 29 April 1942, survived by his wife and five children.
When Fred Way visited him in Sydney a few years before his death, Black claimed that in his heart of hearts he was still a socialist. His enemies viewed him as a vicious, unprincipled and unpleasant man. His main claim to fame, or rather notoriety, was his connection with the Black Pamphlet, 'the greatest scandal that ever emanated from a printing-press in the country'.