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Shaw, Samuel

by Erik Olssen


Samuel Shaw, an early campaigner for the eight hour working day, was baptised on 10 January 1819 at Littlebury, Essex, England, the son of Zechariah Shaw, an inn-keeper, and his wife, Susannah. In December 1847 he shipped aboard the John Wickliffe, arriving at the Scottish New Jerusalem in Otago in March 1848. A painter by trade, Shaw had apparently persuaded a wealthy patron to lend him the money for his fare. In December 1848 and January 1849 he advertised his services as plumber, painter, glazier and house decorator. He also busied himself on his own plot of land, where he planted a wide variety of vegetables and flowers, including tobacco, 'all growing beautifully'. In a letter to his patron, eulogising the colony – a letter published in the New Zealand Journal, unofficial organ of the New Zealand Company – he remarked that while wages were not high, the price of land was too high, and some settlers wanted it lowered.

The hours of work had been an issue within the Otago Association from its inception. In the first plans the eight hour working day figured as one of the more important principles, along with provisions for churches and schools, but as no imperial statute provided a legal basis for limiting the freedom of free settlers 'beyond the seas' the idea was dropped from the articles of association. Captain William Cargill, the leader of the colony, announced on arrival that he would employ skilled men at 5s. for a ten hour day. The Reverend Thomas Burns, however, while on board the Philip Laing, had promised an eight hour day, and employed labour on this basis on his farm at Grants Braes. The association's labourers also insisted that they had been promised an eight hour day. Shaw organised a widely attended public meeting in January 1849 which supported the labourers, and helped the men draw up a petition to William Fox, the agent for the New Zealand Company. Fox, on a visit to Dunedin in 1849, sided with Cargill, who set out to harry Shaw from Otago, denouncing him as 'a Cockney spouter'. Cargill, supported by Charles Kettle, the association's surveyor, now insisted 'that according to good old Scotch rule, 10 hours were to constitute a legal day's work'.

The workmen refused to agree to this, and in February 1849 Shaw organised a mass meeting which unanimously condemned the breach of faith by the association and agreed that the men should work only an eight hour day and demand their full rates of pay. Cargill fumed but the arrival of W. H. Valpy, a wealthy English capitalist, tilted the struggle towards the eight hour principle, for he (like Burns) offered high wages and an eight hour day. Shortages of labour strengthened the movement for the eight hour day in the 1850s.

Shaw was married to Isabella Watson (also known as Isabella Mole) by Thomas Burns on 3 December 1849. She was the widow of T. S. Watson, who had bequeathed to her the Commercial Hotel, where she and Shaw apparently lived before the marriage. The last reference to their living in Dunedin or Otago occurs in 1857. It seems likely therefore that they left the province, and possibly the colony.

Although the credit for first establishing the eight hour working day in New Zealand should probably belong to Samuel Parnell, the battle was to be fought again in different parts of the country. Samuel Shaw's activities in Otago entitle him to be counted among the precursors of the New Zealand labour movement.

Links and sources


    Letters from Otago, 1848--1849. Dunedin, 1978

    Salmond, J. D. New Zealand labour's pioneering days. Auckland, 1950

How to cite this page:

Erik Olssen. 'Shaw, Samuel', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)