William Joseph Jordan, widely known as Bill, was born in Ramsgate, Kent, England, on 19 May 1879, the son of a fisherman, William Jordan, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Catt. The decline of the local fishing industry soon obliged the family to move to London, where Bill obtained his only formal schooling at St Luke's Parochial School, which he called 'St Luke's Poor School'. He was later to comment that he attended for the same reason as some others went to Eton College: the financial position of his parents.
Jordan emigrated to New Zealand in 1904. By the time of his death 55 years later, he had served nearly 14 years as a Labour member of Parliament, followed by a record 15 years as New Zealand high commissioner in London. He had been the country's best-known representative abroad, and the recipient of many honours: a knighthood, membership of the Privy Council and honorary doctorates from the universities of Cambridge and St Andrews, and the Freedoms of London and Ramsgate. This was a remarkable rise. In England Jordan had been apprenticed as a coach painter and, according to his own account, had served briefly in the Metropolitan Police before leaving for New Zealand. In later life, when he became a member of the Privy Council, he enjoyed pointing out that the 'PC' had moved from preceding to following his name.
In New Zealand Jordan followed a variety of occupations, not remaining long in one place. But he was soon involved in politics, becoming secretary of the Wellington branch of the first New Zealand Labour Party and later president of the branch in Waihi. During the First World War, however, he did not follow other prominent Labour politicians along the path of conscientious objection. Instead, in February 1917, at the age of 37, he enlisted in the army. He had been married 17 days earlier, on 30 January, at Ngaruawahia, to Winifred Amy Bycroft, a draper's assistant. At the time of his marriage he was working as a painter.
Jordan did not see action until March 1918 in France. Two weeks later he received wounds severe enough to prevent his return to action. He was then appointed to the army's education service, rising to the rank of warrant officer second-class and third-class instructor. During his time with the education service he taught beekeeping.
After returning to New Zealand, Jordan stood unsuccessfully for Raglan at the 1919 general election. Three years later he scored a triumphant win in the Manukau electorate over the long-standing incumbent, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, Sir Frederic Lang. According to John A. Lee, Jordan and he were the only ex-soldiers among the 17 Labour MPs elected that year. Jordan, said Lee, made no contribution to policy but no member so zealously served his constituents; he 'was a Gallup Poll politician before the Gallup Poll was invented…a representative for Onehunga before he was a Labour man'. His assiduity served him well, for his majorities increased.
When Labour won the 1935 election, Jordan might have expected (and perhaps did expect) a cabinet post, but instead he was appointed New Zealand high commissioner in London, a position usually filled – before and since – by former cabinet ministers from the party in office. In 1935 the high commissioner was the country's only diplomatic representative. He also spoke for New Zealand at meetings of the League of Nations, an organisation distrusted and neglected by previous New Zealand governments. The new government, however, was determined to take its own stand on international issues, based on moral principles. This independent approach brought New Zealand into conflict with British policy on such issues as Spain and Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and Jordan into corresponding public prominence.
His blunt, down-to-earth manner, his Cockney wit, his high falsetto voice (when excited) and an instinctive nose for publicity drew good media coverage. As New Zealand representative on the league's council from 1936 to 1939, and president in 1938, he represented a government that was determined to pursue a policy of complete loyalty to the covenant. So convinced was Jordan that another world war was inconceivable that he reported accordingly to the government and the New Zealand people. He was unwilling to follow instructions inconsistent with this view. In September 1938 he wrote to the prime minister, M. J. Savage, that, in his opinion, 'we shall not see war involving our Empire in our lifetime'. Just before war broke out he spoke in similar terms in a broadcast to New Zealand. As he said six months later, right up to that date 'I could not believe that the world was so mad as to go to war'.
During the Second World War and afterwards Jordan received deserved accolades for his assiduous concern for the welfare of New Zealand servicemen and -women stationed in Britain. He was accustomed to lend small sums (whether from his own pocket or from patriotic funds), which were almost invariably repaid. This well-publicised generosity contrasted with his reputation among officials for tight-fistedness.
Jordan again hit the headlines at the Paris Peace Conference in 1946. He was photographed pushing his own baggage cart on a railway platform, and sleeping peacefully at full stretch on a banquette as the American and Russian delegates battled. Exasperated by interminable delaying tactics on A. Y. Vyshinsky's part, he electrified the meeting by shouting 'Here we sit listening to quack, quack, quack, hour after hour. We are sick of it.' The press applauded.
Jordan's reputation stood high, and his determination to hold on to his post was strong. When Labour was defeated in 1949, instead of commiserating with the outgoing prime minister, Peter Fraser, and offering his resignation to the National Party leader, Sidney Holland, he swiftly cabled congratulations and an offer of his continued services to the new government: too swiftly, as it turned out, since there was a fortnight's interregnum before the National government took office. Contrary to all precedent, he was kept on: so popular a personality could not safely be dismissed, and Jordan would not have gone quietly.
There can seldom have been a wider gulf between the public perception of a national figure and his reputation among his subordinates and other public servants who had to deal with him. His two deputies, Dr R. M. Campbell and Major General W. G. Stevens, were the especial victims of his volcanic and vindictive temper, which could be sparked off by the most trivial of imagined slights. 'One of us will have to go, brother,' Jordan told Campbell at one point, 'and it will Not be ME'. To Stevens, he was 'the most unforgetting and unforgiving man I have ever known. His hatred of Wellington transcends all reason'. Public servants (clerks) were a despised class. When the secretary of external affairs, Alister McIntosh, dared to remind him that both of them were servants of the government, Jordan exploded: he was not a servant, he was a colleague. This sense of collegiality did not extend, however, to all the members of the cabinet. Jordan pursued a lengthy, if one-sided, feud with Labour's deputy prime minister, Walter Nash. Sparked off by a dispute over precedence at the coronation of King George VI in 1937, the fires were reignited when Jordan was denied a place as a delegate at the Commonwealth prime ministers' meeting in 1946, where Nash stood in for Fraser.
After the death of his wife in 1950, Jordan asked his long-time secretary, E. M. Iggulden, to live with him; when her sense of virtue caused her to indignantly refuse, he turned his back on her. He retired to Auckland in 1951 and there, on 1 July 1952, he married Elizabeth Ross Reid, née Riddell. Jordan died on 8 April 1959 in Auckland, survived by his second wife and two children of his first marriage. After his death, Jordan's public service was the subject of glowing tributes, including one from Walter Nash, by then prime minister.