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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.




The Noble Order of the Knights of Labour was founded in the United States in 1869 as a secret fraternal society. Its aim was to unite all classes of labour, regardless of skill, sex, colour, or creed, for a programme of social reforms. The order reached the peak of its influence in 1886. In later years its membership was drawn increasingly from rural areas while single tax and land nationalisation theories predominated in its propaganda. The knights were already in decline in the United States when they extended their influence to New Zealand. The first contacts were made by correspondence with an organisation of Christchurch unemployed, the Canterbury Labour Union. In December 1887 this body changed its name to “The New Zealand Knights of Labour”. An Auckland assembly was formed in June 1889, but real progress dated from the following year when an organiser from the United States toured New Zealand and formed assemblies which he affiliated to the parent body in Philadelphia.

In the South Island the knights were confined mainly to Christchurch, Dunedin, and the West Coast. Their strongholds were in the North Island and particularly in the Wellington Province where virtually every township had an assembly in the early nineties. Two district assemblies functioned at Auckland and Wellington until 1895, when the whole of New Zealand was joined together as a national assembly under a national master workman. Peak membership of the knights in New Zealand has been estimated as 5,000 in some 50 assemblies, but even higher figures have been claimed.

In New Zealand, as elsewhere, the knights broke away from narrow craft unionism and promoted the “new unionism” by helping to organise unskilled and semiskilled trades. Their membership was not confined to manual workers, but included clerks, shopkeepers, small businessmen, farmers, and land-hungry settlers. They were one of the first political organisations to admit women not only to membership but also to leading positions. In their propaganda the knights were greatly influenced by the single tax theories of Henry George. Many of the reforms which they put forward were adopted by the Liberal Government. They strongly supported the principles of cooperation and arbitration and their educational work prepared the ground for the acceptance of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act. They paid much attention to the political education of their members who were required to read and discuss papers at the regular assembly meetings.

The knights' influence was strongest in the early nineties when they claimed the allegiance of 14 members of Parliament. They were the first national political organisation in New Zealand and, according to one writer, they “taught the progressive party how to organise”. Their influence declined under the Seddon administration when many knights, who had taken up land in special settlements, forsook their earlier radicalism. The last meeting of the national assembly took place in 1897. A year later the knights had ceased to exist in New Zealand.

by Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.

  • New Zealand Labour's Pioneering Days, Salmond, J. D. (1950).