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Galbraith, Alexander


Labourer, railway worker, trade unionist, communist, timber worker

This biography, written by Kerry Taylor, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.

Alexander Galbraith was born on 15 February 1883 at Allday, near Otepopo, Otago, the youngest son of William Galbraith and his wife, Leah Rodgers. His Scottish parents had emigrated to New Zealand with their first three children around 1878, settling initially in the Kakanui region, where William worked as a farm labourer and Leah as a cook; a further five children were born in Otago.

In the mid 1880s the Galbraiths moved to Wellington. William worked on the wharves, but after taking part in a strike he found employment difficult to obtain. The family then moved to Marlborough, where he worked as an antimony miner; they lived at Endeavour Inlet and later Picton. William Galbraith died in 1892, leaving a fragile family economy. Leah worked part time as a nurse and the children supplemented her income: Alex had a paper run and was a cleaner at Picton School, which he attended to the upper primary level.

In 1899 the family returned to Wellington, and Alex found work at Staples malt-house. He was then employed variously as a storeman, foundry worker, flax-cutter and bushman in Wellington and Manawatū, often in a gang with his brothers. An active sportsman in his youth, Galbraith was a strong man with a stocky build, who stood five feet eight inches tall. He played senior rugby for Poneke Football Club and rowed for the Star Boating Club, winning a national pairs title in the 1901–2 season. In October 1907 he joined the government railway service in Wellington, working initially as a porter and later as a guard. This change to more stable employment was in anticipation of his marriage to Mary Ellen (Ida) Chemis, in Wellington on 7 April 1908. At this time Galbraith, who had been raised a Presbyterian, converted to Catholicism. Later he would renounce all religion.

Galbraith became an active member of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of New Zealand, serving as vice president of the Wellington branch and chairman of the Westport branch after he was transferred there in 1912. He was active in the industrial struggles of the period, serving on the Buller strike committee during the 1913 waterfront and general strikes, even though his own union did not participate. Also in 1913, influenced by the views he found in the Maoriland Worker, he joined the Social Democratic Party.

Although increasingly militant, Galbraith’s political outlook was still fluid. He considered joining up at the beginning of the First World War but was dissuaded by his wife, who was pregnant with their third child, a daughter, born in March 1915. The couple already had two sons; a third was born in 1925. In 1914 Galbraith was transferred to Napier, in part because of his political activity on the West Coast. By the end of the war he was an active anti-conscriptionist, and more firmly set in his socialist views. His political education was accelerated by friendship with Bill Wood, a veteran of the Red Fed struggles in the Huntly mines. The two men became lifelong friends and political comrades.

Alex Galbraith resigned from the railway service in 1917, in the midst of a major upheaval in his personal life. He was deeply affected by the death of his mother that year, compounding the impact of losing two brothers in 1916: one killed in action during the war, the other by drowning. Despite his own poor health, and against his wife’s wishes, he moved the family to Shannon and took up work in the flax industry. Galbraith’s family tragedies continued in 1918 when another brother fell victim to the influenza epidemic.

In this context his radicalism became more deeply rooted. He was further influenced by activists he met in the flax industry, including former members of the American-based syndicalist organisation the Industrial Workers of the World. In December 1918 Galbraith made his first and most spectacular foray onto the national political stage. Standing as a New Zealand Labour Party candidate, although openly proclaiming himself to be a revolutionary socialist, he polled nearly 2,000 votes in the Palmerston by-election, only 315 short of the successful candidate. The campaign cost him his job, however, and after spending some time cutting firewood in Dannevirke, he moved his family back to Napier, where he found work as a driver.

In 1921 Galbraith became a foundation member of the Communist Party of New Zealand (CPNZ), establishing its Napier branch from a Marxist study group he had formed with Bill Wood in 1919. Ida Galbraith also joined but withdrew when the wives of other members felt that her membership was inappropriate. She never rejoined the party, but remained a lifelong supporter. For the next 20 years political activity dominated nearly every aspect of Alex Galbraith’s life; maintaining stable employment and providing material comfort for his family took a back seat to building a revolutionary movement in New Zealand.

Galbraith was an enthusiastic and uninhibited speaker in support of communism, a message not always well received. In 1922 he was convicted of inciting lawlessness after a speech in Wellington in which he suggested force was necessary for the overthrow of capitalism. He had earlier lost his job and, after a failed attempt at door-to-door selling, the family again moved, this time to Nelson Creek on the West Coast, where Alex worked in the timber industry for much of the 1920s. He threw himself into local labour politics, becoming president of the Westland Timber-yards and Sawmills Union and representing it at various national labour conferences. He was also active in community affairs, and served as secretary of the local rugby league club.

In 1926 Galbraith made his first significant contribution to the CPNZ at a national level, becoming chairman of the national executive and first editor of its new journal, the Workers’ Vanguard. He was general secretary in 1930–31 and served another term as party chairman in 1936–37. In 1930 he was selected as the New Zealand delegate to a conference of the Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow. The several months he spent in the Soviet Union was a watershed experience, and he returned with an even greater commitment to building a new order in New Zealand. For the next four years Galbraith worked full time for the CPNZ, living off relief and whatever scraps the party could muster. He spent most of this period in Wellington, where the party headquarters was then located. He was intimately involved in its day-to-day running and for a time was the registered publisher for the party press.

Galbraith was neither a great theoretician nor a charismatic speaker. His greatest assets were his energy and his willingness to make personal sacrifices for the cause he believed in. These sacrifices were at times substantial: in 1932 he was sentenced to three years in prison as publisher of an issue of the CPNZ monthly, the Red Worker, which was declared seditious; the term was later reduced to one year. In 1940 he received a twelve-month sentence for making a 'seditious’ speech against conscription; he served eight months. Between these major incidents there was regular harassment by police, and the Galbraith home was frequently raided.

There was a more personal price to pay. Galbraith suffered frequent bouts of ill health, including chronic bronchitis, a condition exacerbated by working long hours in paid employment followed by evenings of unpaid party activity during the 1920s, and by long hours on full-time party work in the 1930s. He fell ill with tuberculosis during his imprisonment in 1932, losing several stone in weight, and suffered a relapse in 1934. Ida’s health was also fragile, and she and the children remained on the West Coast while Alex was in Wellington. His visits home were usually for physical recuperation or for political work on the Coast. Ida depended on the wages earned by her two eldest sons, who were both printers. They were very supportive of their mother, but also accepted their father’s politics: both worked for the party printery in the 1930s and one, Doug, was a long-serving party member.

Alex and Ida Galbraith moved to Wellington in 1937 and bought a house in Newtown, where they lived the rest of their lives. Slightly reducing his political work, Alex found stable employment with a radio-assembly firm, first as a cleaner and night-watchman, and later as a radio assembler. In this job he did not need to be so careful about his politics, as his employer was a secret supporter of the CPNZ. Galbraith continued working well beyond retirement age, in part because he was keen to repay Ida for his earlier neglect.

From the mid 1940s, although still an office holder (he was Wellington district chairman for much of the decade and became national chairman again in 1949), Galbraith was a less significant actor in the CPNZ leadership. A new generation was firmly in control of the political line of the party. During the 1950s Galbraith was increasingly treated as a living icon, a direct link to past struggles rather than a serious player politically. His nickname, ‘The Old Bolshevik’, was not always used as a term of endearment by younger party members.

By the time his 50th year of labour activism was formally celebrated in 1953, Galbraith had already begun to withdraw from the centre of party activity. In 1951 he ended his last term as national chairman and two years later he retired from the National Committee, although he retained an honorary membership and a seat on the disciplinary National Control Commission until his death. The latter position indicated his political orthodoxy in a party which was increasingly factionalised through the 1950s. In 1956, when this conflict emerged into the open following the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Galbraith strongly defended the CPNZ’s support for Soviet actions.

Alex Galbraith died in Wellington on 7 October 1959, after suffering from chronic pneumonia for several months. He was survived by his children; Ida had died the previous year. His life was one of toil and sacrifice for a goal he never came close to achieving, yet he remained convinced that his political vision was correct. Although considered by some an ideological dogmatist and an unrepentant Stalinist, Galbraith was nevertheless a passionate and selfless advocate for socialism.

How to cite this page:

Kerry Taylor. 'Galbraith, Alexander', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1998. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/4g2/galbraith-alexander (accessed 26 June 2024)