Page 1: Biography
Cornwell, Frederick Daniel
Painter, trade unionist
This biography, written by Melanie Nolan, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
Frederick Daniel Cornwell was born in Hamilton, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on 30 September 1875, the son of Susannah Stammers and her husband, Daniel Cornwell, a sergeant in the 73rd Regiment of the British Army. After serving an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator in southern England, he emigrated to New Zealand in 1907, and carried on his trade in Wellington.
Fred Cornwell quickly moved through the ranks of Wellington's trade union movement. He was vice president, then president, of the Wellington Amalgamated Society of Painters and Decorators from 1910 to 1912, when he was elected full-time secretary. He held this position until 1929, and from 1915 to 1937 was also secretary of the New Zealand Federated Painters and Decorators Association. Cornwell acted as his union's delegate to the Wellington Trades and Labour Council (TLC) from 1910 to 1937. Within a year he was a member of its management committee, and in the mid 1920s he chaired its property committee, which oversaw an ambitious building programme on the Vivian Street site the TLC had owned since 1918. He was president of the council when the first section of the Wellington Trades Hall was opened in 1928, and secretary when the building was completed the following year. For most of his period as secretary, from 1929 to 1937, Cornwell, who never married, lived in bachelor lodgings in nearby Roxburgh Street.
Cornwell also became involved in the political labour movement. He was an executive member of the first New Zealand Labour Party in 1911, was active in the second New Zealand Labour Party from 1916, and was a delegate to the Wellington Labour Representation Committee for a number of years until 1936. He was also involved in social organisations such as the Wellington Free Ambulance and the WEA, in which he held office as national vice president. However, Cornwell never sought political office, claiming that he was 'too busy' with industrial activities.
His mediation skills were recognised and utilised early. When in 1924 the Labour Party wanted to reach a joint position with the New Zealand Alliance of Labour on basic wage and standard of living questions, Cornwell was chosen, along with Tom Brindle and Charles Chapman, to negotiate with the industrial militants. Cornwell was a strong supporter of unity within the industrial movement, and together with the Wellington TLC secretary, Walter Bromley, headed the campaign that saw their organisation become a district council of the Alliance of Labour in 1927. This association was shortlived, however, and the TLC soon resumed its membership of the moderate New Zealand Trades and Labour Councils' Federation.
Fred Cornwell's commitment to unity and his management skills led to his election as the inaugural secretary-treasurer of the New Zealand Federation of Labour (FOL), a unified organisation formed in April 1937. He had been involved for some time in preparing a draft constitution and negotiating with rival factions within the Alliance. Described as of 'quiet disposition, but firm of principle and upright of character', Cornwell was an acceptable compromise candidate for the FOL's secretaryship. To some extent he was a figurehead – F. P. Walsh, Angus McLagan and Dick Eddy were the effective leaders – but Cornwell had earned a deserved reputation as a workers' advocate, making him a popular, as well as a prudent, choice. He was re-elected unopposed each year until his retirement in 1944. During these years the FOL was a moderate and respectable organisation with strong links to the Labour government.
As the New Zealand workers' representative at the International Labour Organisation's 1935 conference in Geneva, Cornwell contributed to discussions on the 40-hour week and paid holidays, and on his return to New Zealand he became a national advocate of these causes. The Labour government's 1936 Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Amendment Act required the Court of Arbitration to fix maximum working hours, but they were to be implemented industry by industry. Cornwell, who had begun taking arbitration cases for unions in 1913, helped prepare a large number of union applications in connection with the 40-hour week, and acted as a workers' advocate in the court's standard wage case in 1937.
Cornwell was a director of the New Zealand Worker Printing and Publishing Company, and served on a range of official bodies during the Second World War. These included the Industrial Emergency Council, established in 1939 to regulate wartime conditions of employment and apprenticeship ratios; an industrial manpower committee, which administered the direction of labour and heard appeals; and the 1944 Commission of Inquiry into Apprenticeship and Related Matters. In 1942–43 he was a member of the influential Economic Stabilisation Commission, which controlled prices and wages through subsidisation, regulation and rationing. During these years the FOL's commitment to the Labour government's stabilisation programme and other wartime policies was crucial to their success.
After his health deteriorated Cornwell resigned from all official positions in November 1944, and retired to Stokes Valley, where he had lived since 1935. He died at Hutt Hospital on 5 December 1948. The Reverend Moses Ayrton, a former secretary of the Labour Party, conducted the funeral service; labour stalwarts Jim Roberts, Ken Baxter and Angus McLagan acted as pallbearers. The funeral procession to the Karori crematorium paused for a minute's silence outside the Wellington Trades Hall.
Fred Cornwell was described as a trade union official 'of the old type, solid and consistent'. Compared with other FOL leaders, his career was remarkably free of controversy and acrimony; indeed, there are few figures in the New Zealand labour movement who held high office for so long, about whom so little is recorded. Cornwell's life was spent on the routine of reform: that work without which no progress is possible.