Samuel Parnell and the fight for the 8 hour workday.

Hi all I feel like telling a local tale for once this week. Please be prepared, dear reader, for one this will feature more New Zealanders than normal on this channel… for another it won’t be the usual quirky, obscure or horrible fare I peddle most weeks.

The man in the featured photo today may be familiar to some Kiwis out there, if not, his name was Samuel Parnell – and we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Parnell was born in London in 1810. Though from a wealthy family, he gravitated towards a career as a tradesman – apprenticing as a carpenter. He trained at a time of increasing militancy from the growing trade union movement. You see unions were outlawed during the Napoleonic wars, and the immediate years afterwards – the country needed to present a united front to Bonaparte if they ever hoped to defeat him – but that ban was lifted in 1824, and unions popped up all over the sceptered isle. I would not do the topic, or my subject, justice here to attempt to summarize- but in 1834 Parnell came out of his time and took a job at a large joinery firm in Holborn. At around the same time the case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs brought a lot of disparate unions together under the Utopian Socialist Robert Owen and his Grand National Consolidated Trades Union.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were a group of six agricultural workers from Tolpuddle, Dorset who took an oath to a union organization – and were arrested and deported to Australia for their troubles. The backlash was massive, and intense – and the crown eventually relented, repatriating the six back to the United Kingdom. Most of the group returned in 1838; all but James Hammett – detained on assault charges, and sent home in 1839.

This iteration of unionism would lose steam in the late 1830s however, as Chartism – the call for the right to vote for all men over 21 (without criminal convictions, or a mental illness so not quite universal) – overtook the movement for several years. It was in this brief flowering, and petering off of the unions that Parnell grew to maturity in.

From the get-go Samuel Parnell hated giving 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week to his employer. One can understand this – in an age where working lives were still brutish and short, where does leisure fit into a life, let alone a work week? He approached the union, but the union refused to back his crusade for a shorter work day. Parnell left his job to pursue self employment. In 1839 he fell in love with Mary Ann Canham and soon married. 11 days later the couple set sail for Wellington, New Zealand aboard The Duke of Roxburgh.

1840 sketch of Petone by Captain W. Mein- Smith.

On 8th February the ship anchored at Britannia Beach – now called Petone. A shipping agent named George Hunter struck up a conversation with Parnell. Hunter needed to build a store, so he could launch his business. He heard Mr Parnell was handy with a hammer and a chisel. Parnell’s reply has become New Zealand lore.

I will do my best” Parnell stated “but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day … There are twenty-four hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all”

A little flustered, Hunter retorted

“You know Mr. Parnell, that in London the bell rang at six o’clock, and if a man was not there ready to turn to he lost a quarter of a day”

We’re not in London” was Parnell’s reply.


Sometimes origin stories are as simple as this – Parnell later commented “the first strike for eight hours a-day the world has ever seen, was settled on the spot”. This is, of course, a little disingenuous of me – the concept of ‘8 hours labour , 8 hours recreation, and 8 hours rest’ was something Parnell borrowed from Robert Owen – Owen first articulating the idea in these specific words in 1817. Newly established employers fought against the eight hour day, employees adopted the eight hour day en-masse – the small populations of Europeans in New Zealand, and shortage of skilled workers particularly, gave the workers an advantage. Parnell remained actively involved in the spread of the concept.

It is also fair to say I’m mythologizing, were I to present New Zealand as some workers’ paradise thereafter – unions had numerous other battles to fight, some as bloody and costly as the battles fought overseas. The 1912 Waihi gold miners strike – fought over low pay and work conditions which led to very few miners ever seeing their 40th birthdays – escalated till 10% of News Zealand’s police force were sent in. In a gunfight between miners and police, 12th November 1912, a miner named Fred Evans was killed and a couple of police officers wounded. The 1951 Waterfront dispute – a strike action which ran for 151 days, after decades of conflict between dock workers and employers, clamed no lives but was similarly violent. Unions continue to fight for workers rights, employers for more from the workers, at lower wages. For now, let’s not make the great the enemy of the good, however. Back to Mr Parnell…

the 1951 Waterside dispute.

In the 1870s concepts of an 8 hour day, or 40 hour work week increasingly became a goal of unions across the globe. People started to look for ground zero of the 8 hour work day in practice, and Samuel Parnell, quite rightly I believe, asserted himself as the originator, stating in an 1878 letter to the New Zealand times ‘The eight-hours system was established in New Zealand in the year 1840, either in February or March, by myself’.

In 1890, the 50th anniversary of the 8 hour work day in New Zealand, the New Zealand labour unions honoured Parnell, parading through Wellington in his honour – Parnell given pride of place on a horse drawn carriage. He would die later that year, the labour movement honouring him in death with a large funeral procession.

We have observed Labour day in New Zealand on the fourth Monday of October, annually since 1900. Regardless of political affiliation, or lack of downwards movement in work hours (John Maynard Keynes for one would be horrified we don’t work a 15 hour work week in 2020) it is always worthwhile stopping a few minutes to think on Samuel Parnell and his contribution, to our own lives and of those before us.

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