PARNELL, Samuel Duncan
Founder of the eight-hour day.
A new biography of Parnell, Samuel Duncan appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Samuel Duncan Parnell was born in London on 19 February 1810. He was apprenticed to the carpentry and joinery trade and, in 1834, when he had finished his apprenticeship, he worked in a joinery shop in Theobald's Road, London. This was a period of much social agitation. Inspired by Robert Owen, a Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was being formed. Parnell refused to join the new union unless it fought for shortening the hours of labour. Taunted by his workmates, he left the shop to set up his own business. As soon as he had saved up the money, he paid £126 for an intermediate passage to New Zealand for himself and his wife and for the right to select 100 acres of country land and 1 town acre in the new settlement at Port Nicholson, Wellington, which was being planned by the New Zealand Company.
The Parnells took passage in the Duke of Roxburgh which reached the infant settlement of Britannia (now Petone) on 7 February 1840. Parnell had brought out his own house in precut sections which he erected on the banks of the Hutt River. A fellow passenger, G. Hunter (sen.), then asked him to build a store at Korokoro. Parnell seized the opportunity to put his ideas of shorter working hours into practice. “I must make this condition, Mr Hunter,” he replied, “that on the job the hours shall be only eight for the day.” “Ridiculous, preposterous,” demurred Hunter. “There are twenty-four hours per day given us,” Parnell insisted: “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 to do for themselves”.
Hunter accepted under protest. A wage of 5s. per day of eight hours was agreed on. Parnell began work on the store but he soon had a quarrel with Hunter and did not complete the job. The eight-hour system caught on, however, despite several attempts to stop it. Incoming ships were met and new arrivals told not to accept any other conditions. Although wages fell to 3s. 6d. for a time, the eight-hour day remained the standard working day for most classes of labour.
From Wellington, the movement spread to other parts of New Zealand and to Australia. In later years, provincial rivalries caused Parnell's claim to priority to be questioned but, although contemporary evidence is lacking, there is no reason to doubt Parnell's own account of the introduction of the eight-hour day in 1840.
On 28 October 1890 Parnell, who had lived all these years in Wellington following his trade as carpenter and builder, was guest of honour at the first Eight-hour Demonstration. He was presented with an illuminated address on behalf of the labouring classes of Wellington and New Zealand and, in his reply, he expressed his pleasure that “the chord struck at Petone fifty years ago is vibrating round the world”. A fortnight later Parnell fell ill. He died at his home in Cambridge Terrace on 17 December 1890 and was accorded a public funeral. Relays of working men carried his body all the way to the cemetery where a socialist ceremony was performed at the graveside.
Labour Day, a statutory holiday since 1899, commemorates the introduction of the eight-hour day in New Zealand by Parnell in Wellington, Samuel Shaw in Dunedin (1849), William Griffin in Auckland (1857), and others. A bust of Parnell stands in the council room of the Wellington Trades Hall.
by Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.
- Samuel Duncan Parnell, Potter, H. W. (1891).