Page 1: Biography
Silverstone, Mark Woolf
Cabinet-maker, socialist, local politician, financier
This biography, written by Richard V. Tubbs, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
Marks Woolf Silverstone was born at Poltusk, Poland, in 1883, the son of Barnet Silverstone, a tailor, and his wife, Esther Gotshank. The Silverstone family settled in London in 1889 having left Poland in the wake of anti-Semitic persecution. After attending the Jews' Free School, Marks was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker. Amid the poverty of London's East End he became an ardent socialist, and at 19 was representing foreign workers on a committee of the London furniture trade unions. Meanwhile, he had begun to reject not only his Jewish faith but religion in general, and was an active member of the National Secular Society.
At London on 25 June 1904 Silverstone married Esther Ethel Feld, a fellow socialist and émigré. Shortly after the wedding Silverstone sailed alone for New Zealand. He arrived in Dunedin in August 1904 and before long went to work for the cabinet-making firm of J. & A. Wilkinson. Esther arrived in New Zealand in 1906. From around 1910 Marks dropped the 's' from his first name.
In Dunedin he joined the Political Labour League of New Zealand, the New Zealand Socialist Party, the Social Democratic Party and a furniture workers' union. Advocating revolutionary socialism, Silverstone alarmed leading labour moderates. He realised the importance of a united labour movement, however, and always sought to weld together militant and moderate factions. From 1916 he helped establish the New Zealand Labour Party in Otago, and also played an important part in setting up the New Zealand Alliance of Labour.
A keen civil libertarian, Silverstone acted as secretary of the Dunedin branch of the National Peace and Anti-militarist League from 1913. During the First World War his international socialist stance in opposition to the hostilities was at odds with most of the labour movement. Short, stockily built and articulate, Silverstone was prepared to declare his position at public meetings, although he invariably faced a barrage of loyalist abuse that often became racist. He nevertheless took a humane interest in the welfare of returned servicemen. While serving on the Otago Labour Council he was responsible for a resolution seeking to safeguard their interests, especially as trainees in new occupations.
Over the years Silverstone's political activities brought him into conflict with his employers, Wilkinsons', where he had become a foreman. In 1921 he was dismissed and soon after established his own joinery business. The venture was successful and Silverstone decided to enter local body politics. After two unsuccessful attempts as a Labour candidate, he was elected to the Dunedin City Council in 1933. He was re-elected in 1935 and became chairman of the finance committee. In 1935 he was elected to the Otago Hospital Board but was defeated at the 1938 election.
While serving as a city councillor Silverstone was also president of the Dunedin branch of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement. As chairman of the council's finance committee he was able to assist NUWM members. He recommended that £32,000 in contributions to the renewal fund be withheld and utilised to bring the wages of relief workers up to standard rates. When new work was offered preference was given to NUWM members. However, a scheme he announced in December 1936 to raise a £100,000 loan to employ relief workers on street improvements was defeated by a poll of ratepayers in April 1937. Full-time council employees also had their conditions improved when Silverstone was on the council. Paid holidays, sick pay and wet weather payments were introduced and full wages restored. In 1937 the council began a housing scheme which improved the living conditions of many working-class families and stimulated the local building trade.
In 1938 Silverstone failed to secure Labour's mayoral nomination and lost his seat on the council. Rumours had circulated prior to the election that his son David, a lawyer, had gained a disproportionate share of the conveyancing work for the municipal housing scheme. Moreover, Silverstone's financial policies were perceived as being largely for the benefit of non-ratepayers. In fact the city's finances had not been mismanaged or run down and its assets had increased.
Much of Silverstone's financial acumen had been gained through attending classes at the Workers' Educational Association, a movement he had supported since its inception. He taught a WEA course on working-class education based on principles laid down by workers' colleges in Britain. He was also a tutor for the Plebs' League, and his knowledge of social, economic and political matters was frequently aired at meetings and in letters to the press, usually under the pen-name 'Diplomaticus'.
Silverstone's economic expertise was recognised when his friend Walter Nash, the minister of finance, appointed him to the board of directors of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand in 1936. Although Nash may have wanted Silverstone to be his agent on the board, he did not always fulfil this role. He sided with John A. Lee and other left-wing members of the Labour Party in attempting to keep interest rates low and in supporting the introduction of exchange controls. He was reappointed to the board in 1941 and 1946 and was still serving when he died at Dunedin on 7 September 1951. He was survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters.
Mark Silverstone had remained a Labour Party member until his death, although he had never adhered passively to the party line and had been disillusioned by the Labour government's adoption of peacetime conscription in 1949. At times his sympathies lay closer to the Communist Party of New Zealand, an organisation he financially supported but never joined.