Eight-hour-day champion

This portrait of Samuel Parnell was taken by Wellington businessman and keen amateur photographer Henry Wright, probably in preparation for the Labour Day celebrations in 1890.

Image credit: Samuel Parnell, 1890 by Henry Wright. Ref: 1/1-020462-G Alexander Turnbull Library.

Portrait of Samuel Duncan Parnell.

It was Samuel Parnell who in 1840 first led the eight-hour workday movement in colonial Aotearoa New Zealand. Today, this is marked by the statutory holiday, Labour Day. Find out more by exploring our collections and curated resources.

Read a story about Samuel Parnell, our eight-hour-day champion

For many Kiwis, Labour Day is simply a holiday weekend at the end of October and they are unaware of its origins. These lie in the actions of a carpenter who, on first setting foot in this country, established a labour relations benchmark that endures to this day. When London-born Samuel Duncan Parnell (1810–1890) arrived at Pito-one (Petone) aboard the Duke of Roxburgh on 8 February 1840, one of his fellow passengers, shipping agent Thomas Hunter, asked him to build a warehouse. Parnell’s response has gone down in history:

I will do my best, 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 for men to do what little things they want for themselves. I am ready to start tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.

Parnell’s words echoed the 1817 slogan of Welsh manufacturer and social reformer Robert Owen: ‘Eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest’. Parnell established a custom that spread from Wellington to many other parts of the country. He met all ships arriving in Port Nicholson (Wellington Harbour) and told the new migrants not to work for more than eight hours a day. His determination gained the support of other workers, and the general shortage of labour gave employers little leverage. A meeting of Wellington workers in October 1840 resolved to work no more than eight hours per day, between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., and promised those working longer hours a dunking in the harbour.

The year 1890 marked the jubilee of organised European settlement and also, for a by now powerful trade union movement, the institution of the eight-hour working day. This would be celebrated at an inaugural Labour Day demonstration in October. Parnell was living in retirement in Wellington, and a committee of Wellingtonians was formed to honour him at the event.

On 28 October 1890, Parnell rode on a brake drawn by four horses at the head of the Labour Day parade to Newtown Park. He died shortly after, on 17 December, and was given a public funeral, with a crowd of thousands — accompanied by the Garrison Band — marching in procession from his home in Cambridge Terrace to the Bolton Street Cemetery.

A decade later, the Liberal government made Labour Day a statutory holiday.

Story written by: John Sullivan

Copyright: Turnbull Endowment Trust

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Te Marautanga o Aotearoa

Tikanga ā-iwi:

  • Te whakaritenga pāpori me te ahurea
  • Te ao hurihuri
  • Ngā mahinga ohaoha.

Te Takanga o Te Wā (ngā hītori o Aotearoa):

  • Kaitiakitanga
  • Mana motuhake.

New Zealand Curriculum

Social sciences concepts:

  • Identity, culture, and organisation
  • Continuity and change
  • The economic world.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories:

  • Māori history is continuous
  • Colonisation and its consequences
  • Relationships and connections between people.