Frederick Jones was born Charles Frederick Benney Dunshea on 16 November 1884 in Dunedin. His mother, Jessie Drummond Dunshea, married Charles Jones, a butcher, in 1890. After attending school in Dunedin and Christchurch, Frederick became an apprentice boot clicker in Dunedin. He worked in a turbulent and unionised trade in which the clickers had successfully established their position, thanks largely to James Arnold.
Having served his apprenticeship, Jones began to play an active role in the affairs of the Dunedin Operative Bootmakers’ Union. His prudence, fluency, and skill at negotiating quickly brought him to the favourable attention of older men who took him on to more complex tasks. He also began courting Jessie Agnes Hudson, the daughter of a Caversham labourer. The couple were married in the Caversham Baptist Church, Dunedin, on 1 June 1910: they were to live in Caversham throughout their married life. Jones continued to be active in the bootmakers’ union and was a member of the Druids. From 1910 to 1931 he worked as a boot clicker at Sargood, Son and Ewen.
Jones first emerged as one of Dunedin's prominent labour leaders during the First World War. The local movement was deeply divided between revolutionary socialists, unionists, and those who wanted a more moderate labour party. Jones eschewed extremism and supported J. T. Paul, Otago's most prominent unionist and a leading figure in the New Zealand Labour Party from its formation in 1916. Jones served on several key committees across this period, working to achieve and maintain the movement's unity behind the new Labour Party, and he was important in bringing a number of Otago unions into the party’s fold. Even those who differed with him came to respect his tolerance, his loyalty to the larger party and the vision of unity, and his patient skill in negotiation. His socialism grew out of his religious and union backgrounds. He strongly supported prohibition, but moderated his stance because he recognised that it threatened Labour’s unity. He became the heir to Paul's legacy in the 1920s, when Labour tried to end the Liberal Thomas Sidey’s firm grip on Dunedin South and the Reform Party’s equally firm grip on two of the other three Dunedin seats. In 1931 he defeated Sidey’s United Party successor to win Dunedin South for Labour. As one of his young constituents recalled, 'he was just working class – the likes of us’.
Jones strongly believed in consolidating Labour as a powerful force in local affairs. In the 1920s he worked hard to secure seats for the party on the Dunedin City Council. In 1933 he was elected to the council and he helped ensure Labour's victory in the municipal elections of 1935, joining fellow Labour MPs D. G. McMillan, J. W. Munro and Peter Neilson on Dunedin’s first Labour council. The Labour council was bitterly opposed by the conservative Citizens’ Association, formed to counter the domination of the city's administration by any political party and 'trades hall’ rule. The fear of the latter soon proved unfounded as the Labour councillors, including Jones, showed considerable independence.
During the depression Jones chaired the council’s tramways committee until September 1936. As a councillor he fought for various radical proposals, but with the return of the Labour government in 1935, and his own elevation to cabinet as minister of defence, postmaster general, minister of telegraphs, and minister in charge of war pensions, he played a much smaller role in Dunedin. The election resulted in a number of the Dunedin Labour councillors who were also MPs being unable to fulfil their civic duties effectively. In the council year ending in March 1937, Jones had only managed to attend two per cent of council and committee meetings. He resigned on 6 December.
As minister of defence from 1935 until 1949, Jones made little mark in matters of policy and strategy but was an effective administrator. His appointment was controversial as John A. Lee had expected to get the job. Some army officers also expressed resentment at having to 'kow-tow to a bootmaker’. However, Jones oversaw the rearmament of New Zealand before the outbreak of war, expanding the navy, creating an air force and improving the territorials so that they could provide leadership when the need arose. He attended the Pacific Defence Conference in Wellington in 1939 and served on the recruiting propaganda committee of the Council of Defence to boost the number of volunteers. (As minister, he was also on the council.) A careful manager and a loyal member of Labour’s team, he worked hard to ensure efficiency.
The Second World War imposed considerable stress on Jones, but he enjoyed the work and the public duties. He continued to serve his constituency well, aided by his wife’s family, the Hudsons, and especially by Walter, his brother-in-law, who also entered Parliament as Labour MP for Mornington. From 1944 to 1949 he was minister in charge of broadcasting and from 1946 to 1949 was also in charge of the Air Department.
Although he survived the fall of the Labour government in 1949, Jones lost his seat in the snap election of 1951, when sizeable numbers of once-loyal supporters stayed home. He had returned to the city council in 1950, however, where he helped revive the party's fortunes as a local force. In 1958 he retired from active political life. He was rewarded for his services to the labour movement by his appointment as high commissioner for New Zealand in Australia from 1958 to 1961. He died in Dunedin on 25 May 1966, survived by three sons. Jessie Jones had died in 1941.
Frederick Jones had not only been an important figure in establishing the Labour Party in Dunedin, holding it together during the lean 1920s and consolidating its dominance during the depression, but he also gave it much of his own broad tolerance and eclecticism. He was a forceful negotiator with colourful and colloquial language. Ministerial rank strengthened his position and also allowed him to provide Dunedin South, and later on St Kilda, with a wide range of new amenities. He both spearheaded and symbolised the ordinary Labour man: modest, hard working, patient, tolerant, and above all, loyal.