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Story: Boswell, Charles Wallace

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Boswell, Charles Wallace


Teacher, politician, diplomat

This biography, written by Neill Atkinson, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Charles Wallace Boswell, who was to become New Zealand’s first diplomat in the Soviet Union, was born at Coromandel on 5 August 1886, the son of Laura Jane Avery and her husband, James Boswell, a goldminer. He was educated at Driving Creek School and by 1903 was teaching on Waiheke Island. He played rugby and cricket, and became a keen tramper. Over the following decade he taught at the tiny Tangowahine, Katui and Aranga schools in Northland, where he met Emma Adelaide Beatrice (Jean) Smith; they were married in Auckland on 16 January 1912 and had one child.

Boswell became an assistant teacher at Thames Central School in 1915 and from 1921 to 1934 taught at Richmond West (later Westmere) School in Auckland. He studied part time at Auckland University College and graduated with an MA in education in 1926. While in Thames he had helped establish a branch of the New Zealand Labour Party, and in 1928 he was a founding member of the lively Auckland Fabian Club, later serving as its president. From 1933 to 1938 he was an executive member of the New Zealand Educational Institute.

In 1935 ‘Chas’ Boswell returned to Northland to become headmaster of Kawakawa District High School. Maintaining his Labour Party activities, he set up a branch at Kawakawa and contested the Bay of Islands seat at the 1938 election. Although he was well regarded locally, his victory (by 163 votes) was unexpected: the electorate, stretching from north of Hikurangi to Cape Reinga, was overwhelmingly rural, and Labour had not even contested it in previous elections. In Parliament Boswell spoke strongly on education issues and sought to promote the economic development of the isolated far north. He was elected to the party’s national executive in 1939 and under the pen-name ‘Spotlight’ contributed humorous political articles to the Labour paper the Standard. In 1943, however, his slender majority was overturned by the National Party’s S. W. Smith.

During the Second World War the Labour government, determined to formulate and implement foreign policy independent of Britain, established diplomatic posts in the capitals of New Zealand’s leading wartime allies: the United States, Australia, Canada and, more controversially, the Soviet Union. In early 1944 Boswell was chosen to head the New Zealand Legation in Moscow, with – after some debate – the rank of minister. The conservative press and National opposition swiftly condemned the appointment of a former Labour MP as political cronyism and queried his qualifications for diplomatic service.

With apparently a minimum of guidance and briefing, he arrived in the Soviet capital in August 1944. Initially shocked by wartime conditions, Boswell, his wife and his staff of five (who were equally inexperienced in operating a foreign diplomatic mission) endured considerable hardship. While critics in New Zealand publicised reports of extravagant spending on clothing and furnishings, the legation struggled to secure suitable premises and did not occupy its residence until May 1946; in the meantime they lived and worked in cramped hotel accommodation. Although his own circumstances were difficult, Boswell earned a reputation for parsimony and was criticised by the secretary for external affairs, Alister McIntosh, for saving instead of spending his entertainment allowance. His initial reports were contained in chatty letters to the minister of external affairs, Prime Minister Peter Fraser, but he later sent formal dispatches. The legation’s most valuable reports were produced by Desmond (Paddy) Costello, a brilliant Cambridge-educated Marxist who was later accused of being a Soviet spy.

Boswell had arrived in Moscow a sympathetic Fabian socialist, but was quickly disillusioned with Stalin’s ‘new civilisation’: ‘The stuff we read in pro-Soviet books and papers is a tissue of lies’, he told his brother. Contact with Soviet officials, obsessed with secrecy and wary of foreigners, was ‘practically non-existent’, and legation staff had to rely largely on diplomatic colleagues for information. Hopes of fostering trade between the two countries were thwarted by New Zealand’s bulk-purchase agreements with Britain. In April 1949 Boswell admitted (perhaps unwisely) to Fraser, ‘I feel useless and frustrated here’. Three months later the government recalled him to New Zealand, leaving Costello as chargé d’affaires (the legation was closed by the National government in June 1950).

Boswell’s final report was an eloquent condemnation of the Soviet regime (‘There is no socialism here, nothing but a bureaucratic capitalism headed by a tyrant as able as he is ruthless’), but aside from some comments on Russian military capabilities it contained little insight into political and international affairs. He had hoped to be appointed head of the new Paris legation, but was overlooked in favour of career diplomat Jean McKenzie. Labour’s defeat in the 1949 election dashed his chances of another posting. Returning to Auckland, both Chas and his wife, Jean, wrote and spoke widely on their experiences in Moscow. A justice of the peace since 1937, Jean Boswell was a talented writer and public speaker, and in her later years published two breezy, attractive books on her childhood days in rural Northland. Chas died in Auckland on 17 June 1956, survived by his wife and son; Jean died in 1963.

Dogged by domestic political controversy and undermined by the onset of the Cold War, New Zealand’s Moscow legation – and Boswell’s leadership of it – was at best an unsuccessful experiment. Nevertheless, it boldly signalled the Labour government’s determination to pursue a foreign policy independent from Britain and to play an active role in shaping the post-war world.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson. 'Boswell, Charles Wallace', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5b35/boswell-charles-wallace (accessed 19 June 2024)