Page 1: Biography
Coalminer, trade unionist, bank director
This biography, written by Len Richardson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
John Dowgray was one of a cluster of Lanarkshire miners who made their mark on New Zealand coalfields in the first decade of the twentieth century. He was born in Bothwell, Scotland, on 6 June 1873, the son of a miner, Andrew Gray (or Dowgray), and his wife, Jane Laird. He attended a mining academy at Coatbridge, then followed his father into the mines. Life on the Lanarkshire coalfields was uncertain, however, and over 1904–5 Dowgray's parents and brothers paid their own passages to New Zealand. They settled at Granity Creek, north of Westport. His father found work with the Westport Coal Company and successfully sought assisted passages for John, his wife Elspeth Sey, whom he had married at New Seaham, County Durham, on 6 April 1895, and their four children.
Dowgray arrived at Wellington on the Corinthic in April 1907, then landed at Westport with, it has been claimed, '15s. in his pocket and…two tons of books'. He brought a formidable knowledge of mining, considerable experience as a unionist and a commitment to socialism shaped by active involvement in the Independent Labour Party. In October 1908 he was elected to the executive of the New Zealand Federation of Miners, formed after the Blackball strike that year. In 1909, when the federation officials converted their purely miners' organisation into the New Zealand Federation of Labour, Dowgray was elected treasurer.
Less given to verbal pyrotechnics than his fellow 'Red Fed' leaders, Dowgray brought to the FOL a toughness of mind and the ability to present the mounting grievances of the pits in coherent form. In 1911, along with Bill Parry, he represented the miners on a royal commission to investigate the mining industry. The pair distanced themselves from the commission's final recommendations and appended a minority report, a succinct and informed statement of the case against the contract and piece-work systems in the pits. The contract system in conjunction with shift work, they contended, invited accidents in a naturally hazardous industry. It promoted 'rushing' – vain attempts to increase earnings at the expense of mine safety. Dowgray also wanted inspectors appointed by the men to report directly to the Mines Department and to have the power to 'stop a place'. Their report spelt out in specific terms the miners' case for more influence in their workplace.
As a member of the FOL executive, Dowgray played an important role in the industrial crises of 1912–13. He shared the reluctance of the FOL leadership to convert the Waihī dispute into a general strike. After the débâcle which saw the organisation driven ignominiously from the gold town, he was an influential voice at the 1913 unity conferences that attempted to put labour's ranks together again. He was elected vice president of a new industrial body, the United Federation of Labour, in July, and became its acting president during the November 1913 general strike when the president, Tom Young, was arrested. The ruthlessness with which the Massey government dealt with the strike strengthened Dowgray's conviction that labour needed to give more attention to political organisation.
After the collapse of the general strike Dowgray was blacklisted on the coalfields, but by mid 1914 he was back in the pits at Millerton and quickly became the driving force behind attempts to reconstruct mining unionism. In 1915 he did much of the spadework for the launching of a new miners' federation. Based initially on the West Coast, the federation was able to become a more truly national body during the war, which fuelled the demand for coal, increased the miners' bargaining power and encouraged efforts to force the government to abandon military conscription. Some wanted the federation to lead a general strike; others favoured a go-slow in the pits. Dowgray steered a careful and consistent path throughout these debates. He preferred to avoid a direct showdown with the government over conscription, and to link the issue to his campaign against piece-work and for improvements in working conditions in the mines. On balance it was a successful strategy. It failed to achieve the abolition of piece-work, but did result in significant wage increases and influenced the government call for a Board of Trade report on the coal industry.
In the 1920s a new generation of activists began to assert themselves on the coalfields and Dowgray's influence waned. From his position as underviewer at Millerton, on the Buller coalfield, he continued to push his particular brand of political unionism. In 1916 he had become president of the Buller Labour Representation Committee, and throughout the 1920s he worked closely with Harry Holland to win the miners over to the New Zealand Labour Party. His knowledge of mining and his administrative ability made him valuable to the first Labour government, which appointed him to a variety of positions. In 1937 he was made a director of the Bank of New Zealand.
During the Second World War Dowgray played an important role in resolving industrial difficulties on the Waikato coalfields. After the war he was appointed chairman of the Coal-mines Council, serving from 1945 to 1947. On the coalfields he was also active in a number of community organisations, most notably the Granity School Committee and the Buller District Hospital Board. He had a fine private library. His wife, Elspeth, died in 1946 and he died in Granity on 28 January 1950, survived by three daughters and a son.