The Saturday half-holiday
In the mid-19th century most workers with regular jobs worked a six-day week. As the century progressed many workers obtained Saturday half-holidays. Saturday afternoon became the time to hold sports matches. Some employers supported the half-holiday, hoping it would discourage ‘Saint Monday’, the workers’ custom of taking Monday off to recover from Sunday leisure activities.
The practice of Saint Monday, skipping work on Monday to recover from Saturday night and Sunday, was apparently widespread in 19th-century Britain. Colonists liked to argue that it was less common in New Zealand. In 1874 it was noted, ‘as a general rule, Monday is now expected ... to see each man in his place, ready to commence with all cheerfulness the work of another week and that the habitual patrons of “Saint Monday” have almost died out altogether.’1
School children also generally had Saturday off school, although for many this meant working to help their families.
Throughout the 19th century, and well into the 20th, Saturday was pay day for most workers. Saturday night was therefore a major shopping night. For those who had finished their work by the early evening, Saturday nights were a time for entertainment. Families went shopping together, with towns having a lively market atmosphere. Concerts, lectures and, from the early 1900s, movie shows were held on Saturday nights. Music halls, billiard parlours and pubs, generally the haunts of working class males, provided entertainment to a late hour. Such establishments were popular, but were often frowned upon by ‘polite society’. Groups such as sports clubs, lodges, volunteer corps and unions often held ‘smoke concerts’ on Saturday nights. These consisted of social dining, with musical or comic items by those present, speeches, smoking and drinking many rounds of toasts.
In the late 19th century the Saturday half-holiday was by no means universal. Some workers, including many office workers, still worked a six-day week. Shop assistants often worked very late hours, with the shops open until after 11 p.m.
Shop assistants’ hours
In 1900 an Auckland shop assistant wrote in favour of shops closing at 10 p.m. on Saturdays. ‘We are now, some of us, working 14, 14 ½ and even 15 hours on Saturdays, and for this there is no need if the working men would have a little consideration for the shop assistants, who do not, like themselves, enjoy a Saturday half holiday.’ 2
From the late 1840s ‘early closing’ associations began to appear in New Zealand. They aimed to reduce the working hours of retail and office workers, and to obtain a weekly half-holiday. The movement included businesspeople, clergymen and activist groups such as the Knights of Labour, but also had strong support among workers themselves. Drapers’ assistants led the campaign in Wellington and Christchurch. From the 1870s many towns adopted shopping half holidays, but these were often on Wednesday or Thursday, rather than Saturday.
Waiting for the weekend, 1873–1936
In 1873 female factory workers were guaranteed a weekly half-holiday, finishing work at 2 p.m. on Saturdays. The law was extended in 1881 to cover male factory workers under 18 years of age. In 1891 the factory half-holiday was extended to begin at 1 p.m. The Shops and Shop Assistants Act 1892 gave shop assistants a half-holiday, also starting at 1 p.m., but not necessarily on a Saturday.
Further legislation in 1894 stated that most shops would be shut from 1 p.m. on one working day a week. Local bodies had the right to decide the day of the week for this half-holiday, and from 1907 electors could have their say by voting at a poll held during local body elections. Disagreements over the best day for the half-holiday often produced heated debate within local communities. Groups such as the Saturday Half Holiday Association, founded by the Softgoods Employees Union in 1915, campaigned for a nationwide half-holiday.
In 1920s New Zealand a weekly half-holiday had become standard, but only some areas held it on Saturdays. Saturday afternoon had become the accepted time for sports matches, while Saturday night was entertainment time for those with the money and the inclination. Since 1917 pubs shut at 6 p.m., but larger towns had cabarets where people could dance to live jazz music. Saturday night was also the big night for going to movies, concerts, variety shows, boxing matches and wrestling bouts. The 1930s saw a decline in Saturday nightlife and shopping, as money became scarce during economic depression. However, going to the movies remained a popular escape from harsh realities. For those who could afford it, nightclubs became a feature of the larger cities.