Story: Pharazyn, William Noel

Page 1 - Biography

Pharazyn, William Noel

1894–1980

Soldier, businessman, journalist, lecturer, trade unionist

This biography was written by Peter Franks and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

William Noel Pharazyn was born in Wellington on 10 April 1894, the son of Maud Eleanor Kempthorne and her husband, Charles Pharazyn, a sheepfarmer from a prominent Wellington business and farming family. His grandfather, Charles Johnson Pharazyn, and an uncle, Robert Pharazyn, were members of the Legislative Council. Noel, as he was known, lived at Longwood estate, Wairarapa, until 1903, when his father died. The family then moved to Pendennis, a large house in Tinakori Road, Wellington, where seven staff, including a governess, were employed. While on a visit to London, Noel objected to the servants there calling him 'Master': even at this early age, he did not like class distinctions.

After attending Nelson College from 1908 to 1909, he went to Dulwich College, London, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He joined the Royal Field Artillery in August 1914 as a second lieutenant and was wounded during the battle of the Somme in July 1916. After spending three months in hospital he rejoined his battery as captain. He was promoted to acting major in May 1917 and awarded the Military Cross in November 1918.

On 26 November 1919 at St Paul's Cathedral Church, Wellington, Noel Pharazyn married Lydia Helen Hughes Field, the daughter of W. H. Field, the Reform MP for Otaki, and his wife, Isabel Jane Hodgkins. There appear to have been no children of the marriage. In 1920, as an officer of the regular British Army, he was sent to join the occupation forces in Constantinople (Istanbul). When the army establishment was reduced in 1923, he retired with a gratuity, and from then until 1928 was in business in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1930 he went to London, where he studied and wrote on economics. The following year he spent a month in the Soviet Union.

Noel Pharazyn returned to New Zealand in May 1932 at the depths of the depression, a committed left-wing intellectual and enthusiast for the Soviet Union. He went on lengthy speaking tours organised by the Friends of the Soviet Union (New Zealand Section), wrote regularly for its paper, Soviet News, and became a member of its national committee. Turning his attention to domestic politics, he and Lydia became members of the committee of the Workers' Defence Organisation. But his main interest was journalism. He was a regular political commentator for the independent left-wing weekly Tomorrow, which was established in July 1934.

As a Marxist but not a communist, Pharazyn was trenchant in his criticisms of the New Zealand Labour Party's economic policy. He attacked monetary reform as a dangerous illusion and crossed swords with John A. Lee, the prominent Labour MP who accepted some social credit ideas. Despite these reservations, Pharazyn welcomed Labour's landslide election victory in 1935. He warned, however, that the next economic slump would cause a political crisis for Labour, and that the party's only hope of avoiding disaster was to educate the workers and farmers of the need for socialism and to encourage strong trade unions. Arguing that the unions must be 'real living organisations of the industrial workers', he attacked compulsory unionism, which was shortly to be introduced by the Labour government as part of its sweeping changes to industrial relations legislation.

The year 1936 was a turning point in Noel Pharazyn's life. He resigned from the Friends of the Soviet Union in protest at Joseph Stalin's show trials and executions of his political opponents. Soon he became a fierce critic of the Soviet Union, defending Leon Trotsky and denouncing the establishment of a new privileged class. Around this time the prominent union leader Fintan Patrick Walsh asked him to become secretary of the new Wellington Clerical Workers' Union.

Labour's introduction of compulsory unionism gave the means to unionise large numbers of clerical workers. Walsh was quick to seize this opportunity and Pharazyn became his loyal lieutenant. Their association in the trade union movement was to last for nearly 25 years.

The clerical unions were formed in the teeth of opposition from employers, and Pharazyn was in the thick of this battle. After his election as secretary of the New Zealand Federated Clerical and Office Staff Employees' Association in 1937, he became the union's main spokesperson. He was its advocate in award negotiations and Arbitration Court hearings. He defended the union in debates in the press, at the founding conference of the second New Zealand Federation of Labour that year, and at turbulent union meetings attended by hundreds of members in Auckland and Christchurch in 1938 and Wellington in 1941. Between 1936 and 1941, Pharazyn was also secretary of the New Zealand Journalists' Association. By 1938 the clerical unions were established on a viable basis, compulsory unionism ensuring a large and compliant membership.

Early that year Noel Pharazyn broke his association with Tomorrow after an editorial was published defending the Moscow trials. He became increasingly strident in his anti-communism, particularly after the outbreak of the Second World War. Walsh and Pharazyn were prominent in defending the policies of the government and the Federation of Labour. For example, they supported Lee's expulsion from the Labour Party and strongly opposed communists being in the trade unions.

Pharazyn was called up for military service in March 1940 and was appointed New Zealand military attaché in Washington with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1941, serving there for four years. After the war he resumed his involvement in the union movement, though in a back-room role. He resigned as secretary of the Wellington, Taranaki and Marlborough Clerical Workers' Union in 1948 but remained an executive member and delegate to FOL conferences. He spent much time assisting Walsh in researching general wage order and other Arbitration Court cases; in a sense Pharazyn and the other clerical union executive members were Walsh's private secretariat. In 1960 Walsh was defeated as clerical union president following a bitter campaign. Shortly afterwards, his supporters, including Pharazyn, resigned from the executive. This ended Pharazyn's union and political involvement.

Noel Pharazyn's contemporaries thought he was very much under Walsh's thumb; their association made him a controversial figure in the union movement. His enemies, such as Lee and the Communist Party of New Zealand, denounced him as a fellow traveller, card-vote magnate and Trotskyist. Others considered him an enigma. His wealth, military background, manner, clothes and high-pitched upper-class English-sounding voice made him 'the last person you would have thought interested in unions'. Yet Noel Pharazyn played a central role in establishing the clerical union and was important behind the scenes as a supporter and friend of Walsh, the most powerful union leader of this era. Pharazyn died on 11 June 1980 in Wellington; his wife, Lydia, had died in 1971.