William Theophilus Anderton (registered as Theophilus William) was born on 16 March 1891 in West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England, the youngest of five children of Henry Anderton, a forge labourer, and his wife, Sarah Ann Jarvis. On leaving school he trained as a tailor. He attended a Primitive Methodist Sunday school and became a lay preacher in his early adult years.
About 1906 Bill Anderton left West Bromwich for Lancashire, where he soon joined the Independent Labour Party and then the British Socialist Party when it split from the ILP in 1911. He was to become acquainted with a range of left-wing literature and to consider himself well versed in Marxism. He also became an enthusiastic member of the National Clarion Cycle Club. He shared these interests with Annie Gertrude Mason, a singer, whom he married on 13 June 1913 at Bolton. They settled in Preston and were to have two daughters and one son. Another two children were stillborn.
During the First World War Anderton served for three years in France as a bombardier with the Royal Field Artillery. Exposure to a gas attack left him with life-long respiratory problems. Afterwards he worked occasionally as a tailor and also profited from a long-time hobby when he found employment in a herbalist’s shop. He seems to have rejoined the ILP after the party adopted the aim of socialism in its 1918 constitution.
Another of Anderton’s enthusiasms, spiritualism, led to the offer of paid work within the movement in New Zealand. The family emigrated in mid 1921. Living in Christchurch for a year, Anderton lectured, preached and conducted seances at the Spiritual Scientist Church. From September 1922, in Auckland, he did the same at the Progressive Church of Spiritualism. Anderton listed his occupation variously as lecturer, magnetic healer and faith healer. Church notices described him as a ‘famous psychic’ and a ‘gifted medium’. In 1923 and 1924 he was involved in reorganising the spiritualist churches at the national level; this led to an act of Parliament which recognised spiritualist churches as religious bodies. After leaving the movement in 1926 Anderton came to regard his spiritualist past as an embarrassment. In 1923 he set up his own herbalist practice, an enterprise that was to remain in the family’s ownership until 1983.
Anderton had joined the New Zealand Labour Party while in Christchurch and was active in the Auckland East and then the Eden branch. Election to the executive of the Auckland Labour Representation Committee came in 1927. At the 1928 and 1931 general elections he stood unsuccessfully as Labour’s Eden candidate. His concept of socialism put him on the left of the party. In 1933, when Labour was moving away from its early nationalisation proposals, Anderton pressed for a wide range of industries to be brought under state ownership. That year he supported the proposal that the Labour Party change its name to the Socialist Party. He was a steadfast Anglophile and came to identify strongly with the British Fabian socialists. In 1928 he was the principal founding member of the Auckland Fabian Club and later became its president.
Anderton was elected to the Auckland City Council in 1933 and the Auckland Transport Board in 1935. From these positions he pressed for the development of the municipal transport centre at Britomart Place. He retired from the Transport Board in 1939 and was defeated in the 1941 city council elections. In 1944 he was chosen as Labour’s mayoral candidate for Auckland. Characteristically, he ran on a platform of comprehensive municipal regulation of privately supplied services to the city, and lost.
At the 1935 general election Anderton had become Labour MP for Eden. In caucus he was one of the radical dissidents who wanted easier and more abundant credit together with a more generous welfare state, and who were critical of the prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage, and the minister of finance, Walter Nash. Anderton narrowly retained the Eden seat at the 1943 general election and in 1946 gained Labour’s nomination for the safe Auckland Central electorate.
He was not elected to cabinet when vacancies arose between 1946 and 1949. Anderton attributed this failure to his continuing friendship with two vocal Labour detractors – his son-in-law Norman Douglas and John A. Lee. However, Anderton was not a forceful speaker and was neither concise nor cogent when debating the detail of economic ideas and policy. Moreover, he persisted in denouncing financial orthodoxy and private enterprise, although now making far less of radical credit reform. Anderton’s sympathy for the Soviet Union and China and his continued opposition to Nash’s leadership appeared likely to go on blocking his election to any future cabinet. During 1955 and 1956, however, dogged advocacy of his private member’s bill to abolish capital punishment for murder enhanced respect for him in the Labour caucus.
After the 1957 general election Anderton was narrowly elected to the Labour cabinet. Despite Nash’s initial reluctance, Anderton was allocated his preference – internal affairs. Although he was competent as a minister, his desire to effect some degree of local body amalgamation proved not feasible within the government’s single three-year term. He felt that his most worthwhile achievement was the formation in 1960 of the Arts Advisory Council combined with a substantial increase in government funding for the arts.
Having done all in his power to ensure that Norman Douglas received Labour’s nomination for the Auckland Central electorate, Anderton retired from Parliament at the 1960 general election. Still active, he resumed his herbalist practice which had been virtually suspended during his three ministerial years. He became the inaugural chairman of Labour’s Auckland Regional Advisory Council (1961–62), served on its executive until 1964, and was inaugural editor of its monthly newspaper New Zealand Statesman (1961–64). He was also president of the Auckland Savings Bank from 1961 to 1964. Bill Anderton died on 20 January 1966 at Ōrākei, survived by his wife, a daughter and a son.