Edwin John Howard was born Edwin Harney at Bristol, England, on 18 June 1868, the son of Edwin John Harney, a house painter, and his wife, Sarah Ann Osgood. It is said that his parents later ran a theatrical company. Edwin, known as Ted, was always secretive about his early life. He was educated at Plymouth and at 16 went to sea as an ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy. He was married under the name Edwin Howard Harney on 12 February 1889 in Christchurch, New Zealand, to Harriett Garard Goring. In March 1891 he jumped ship in Auckland and took the name Edwin John Howard. He then joined Harriett in Australia and worked for several years in the mining and metal industries in South Australia and Western Australia, developing a considerable expertise at engineering.
Following Harriett Howard's death in 1903, and according to her wishes, Ted Howard returned with their three daughters to Christchurch. There he soon became involved in the labour movement, just as support for an independent and socialist approach began to grow. In 1908 the Canterbury General Labourers' Union elected him as organiser. Howard, with others, transformed unionism among unskilled workers in Christchurch: in three months he signed up nearly 400 new members and within two years most of the city's labourers had joined. Thus organised, the union helped secure the election of labour candidates to the Christchurch City Council in 1911 and won significant wage increases in 1913.
By 1911 Howard was an important figure within the radical wing of the country's labour movement. When the New Zealand Federation of Labour began publishing the Maoriland Worker that year, he became a frequent contributor. Most of his writing appeared under the pen-name 'The Vag', and was uncompromising in its opposition to the empire, capitalism and militarism. Howard's principal concern was to expose the injustices suffered by the 'bottom doggers', and to exhort the sufferers to exert their latent political influence. Much of his writing was addressed to the archetypal 'Henry Dubb', the worker who always accepted the boss's propaganda and wondered why he ended up getting kicked by the system. During the First World War he wrote: 'Henry, you Dubb, you are the cause of all this trouble. For a pound a week and a few beers you would hang your grandmother. Your masters know this. They know you never reason a thing out.…It's you, Henry, that keep the system going.'
On occasion Howard achieved heights of irreverence. Of Robert Falcon Scott's fatal Antarctic expedition he wrote that the mourning was 'getting on my nerves. It was a gamble, and they lost, and why howl about it?' And, he continued, 'The other week a poor old bottom-dogger was told that he had a clot of blood on the brain, and if he didn't give up work he would die. He had a wife and four children. He went to work, because he was not prepared to see his children starve, and they buried him that Wednesday! Any monuments? Not much! His wife will have to go out washing.'
For many years Howard also conducted a children's column in the Maoriland Worker. This allowed him to indulge the sentimental side of his personality, while enabling him to extend his propaganda. In his first column, 'Uncle Ted' encouraged children to 'love one another and not murder each other', and to 'ask your teacher to take those pictures of soldiers fighting away from the school'. He carried on this journalism throughout the war while continuing to work for the General Labourers' Union and organising relief for the families of those gaoled for resisting conscription. He also sat on the Christchurch City Council from 1917 to 1919 and again from 1923 to 1925.
In 1919 Howard won the Christchurch South seat for Labour. He remained in Parliament until his death in 1939. His electorate was dominated by bottom doggers, and despite occasional privately expressed frustration with real-life Henry Dubbs, there was an unusual degree of loyalty between Howard and his constituents. In Parliament Howard soon attracted attention, speaking most frequently on education, wages and arbitration, and New Zealand's administration of the Pacific island territories. He was a vehement advocate of the universal right to education and culture and, indeed, was still educating himself through the Workers' Educational Association in the 1920s. His wide reading was particularly evident in his contribution to economic debates.
During the 1920s and 1930s Howard sat on the board of governors of Canterbury College (later Canterbury University College), and won respect for his promotion of university education. He argued also for the preservation of Christchurch's public buildings, especially the provincial council chambers, which he saw as an essential part of the community's heritage. On Pacific island matters, he urged a measure of self-government, recognising the existence of thriving indigenous cultures in the islands.
When Labour won the 1935 election Howard was bitterly disappointed to be left out of the cabinet. However, his health was failing and he was the oldest member of the caucus. The prime minister, M. J. Savage, offered him the post of administrator in Western Samoa, but Howard felt that to accept would be to betray the trust of his electorate. Instead, he became chairman of committees from 1936 to 1938, and was thus virtually promoted to elder statesman.
Labour's victory had, in personal terms, come too late for Ted Howard. His greatest contribution to socialism in New Zealand was made between 1908 and about 1930, as an organiser of the unskilled, a journalist and propagandist, and a parliamentary advocate for the least well-off. He summed his career up in his maiden parliamentary speech: 'Every time that I get a chance from the public platform I preach to the workers one story, and one story only – have respect for yourselves, and demand that you shall have conferred on you just as much as the other fellow gets.'
Ted Howard died in Christchurch on 26 April 1939, survived by two of his three daughters. One, Mabel, later followed him into Parliament and achieved distinction as the country's first woman cabinet minister.