Samuel Duncan Parnell, a carpenter and joiner by trade, initiated the eight hour working day in Wellington. He is said to have been born in London, England, on 19 February 1810, the son of Joan Duncan and her husband, James Parnell, gentleman. Parnell's interest in a shorter working day dated back to 1834, when he was working in a large joinery establishment in Theobald's Road, London. There he engaged in vigorous debates with his workmates, whom he later described as 'a lot of the most red-hot radicals'. London carpenters then worked 12 and even 14 hours a day, and wages and working conditions were bad. A union had been formed but, because it failed to agitate for reduced working hours, Parnell refused to join and left to start in business on his own account.
On 6 September 1839 in London Parnell married a widow, Mary Ann Canham, formerly Wellham. With the money he had saved, he was able to pay £126 for an intermediate passage to New Zealand for himself and his wife, and the right to select 100 acres of country land and one town acre in the new Port Nicholson (Wellington) settlement. The couple left on the Duke of Roxburgh on 17 September 1839, 11 days after their marriage, and landed on Britannia (Petone) beach on 8 February 1840.
Among Parnell's fellow passengers was a shipping agent, George Hunter, who, soon after their arrival, asked Parnell to erect a store for him. 'I will do my best,' replied Parnell, 'but I must make this condition, Mr. Hunter, that on the job the hours shall only be eight for the day.' Hunter demurred, this was preposterous; but Parnell insisted. 'There are,' he argued, 'twenty-four hours per day given us; 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 for themselves. I am ready to start to-morrow morning at eight o'clock, but it must be on these terms or none at all.' 'You know Mr. Parnell,' Hunter persisted, 'that in London the bell rang at six o'clock, and if a man was not there ready to turn to he lost a quarter of a day.' 'We're not in London', replied Parnell. He turned to go but the agent called him back. There were very few tradesmen in the young settlement and Hunter was forced to agree to Parnell's terms. And so, Parnell wrote later, 'the first strike for eight hours a-day the world has ever seen, was settled on the spot.'
Other employers tried to impose the traditional long hours, but Parnell met incoming ships, talked to the workmen and enlisted their support. A workers' meeting in October 1840, held outside German Brown's (later Barrett's) Hotel on Lambton Quay, is said to have resolved, on the motion of William Taylor, seconded by Edwin Ticehurst, to work eight hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., anyone offending to be ducked into the harbour. The eight hour working day thus became established in the Wellington settlement. 'I arrived here in June, 1841,' a settler told the Evening Post in 1885, 'found employment on my landing, and also to my surprise was informed that eight hours was a day's work, and it has been ever since.' The last resistance was broken, according to Parnell, when labourers who were building the road along the harbour to the Hutt Valley in 1841 downed tools because they were ordered to work longer hours. They did not resume work until the eight hour day was conceded.
Parnell's original town section was in Daniell Street, Newtown, but in 1842, the year that his first wife died without issue, his address was Willis Street. He disposed of his 100 acres of country land in the Hutt Valley and in 1843 bought land in Karori, where he established himself as a farmer. On 12 December 1851 he married Sarah Sophia Brunger, a widow with two children. His landholding eventually grew to 35 acres, including 1½ acres laid out in garden and orchard, but he still found time to work at his original trade, building Judge H. S. Chapman's Karori residence, Homewood. In a farm diary, which has survived, he listed his stock in 1861 as 2 horses, 7 cattle, 170 sheep, 2 pigs and 36 poultry. In October 1873 Parnell returned to Wellington, where he lived in retirement in Ghuznee Street and finally in a house he owned in Cambridge Terrace. His second wife died in 1888; it seems there were no children of the marriage.
The approach of the 50th jubilee of European settlement in New Zealand in 1890 stimulated interest in the past. Trade unions, which had multiplied and gained strength in 1889 and 1890, looked to their origins, and in December 1889 a letter in the Evening Post drew attention to Parnell's achievement: 'I sincerely hope, Mr. Editor,' wrote Edward Player, 'the Jubilee will not be allowed to pass over without some notice being taken by the mechanics of New Zealand of one who has done more for them than any, or all, the Acts of Parliament ever has, or could do.'
Parnell was prevailed upon to write a short narrative of the introduction of the eight hour day, and Wellington citizens formed a committee to honour him on the occasion of the first annual Labour Day demonstration on 28 October. Seated on a brake drawn by four horses Parnell headed the march to Newtown Park where, amid prolonged cheers, he was presented with an illuminated address which paid tribute to his 'noble efforts' as 'the father of the eight hours movement'.
'I feel happy to-day,' the old man replied, 'because the seed sown so many years ago is bearing such abundant fruit and the chord struck at Petone fifty years ago is vibrating round the world, and I hope I shall live to see eight hours a day as a day's work universally acknowledged and become the law of every nation of the world.' Only a few weeks later Parnell fell ill and died on 17 December 1890. A meeting chaired by the mayor decided to accord him a public funeral and on 20 December 1890 a crowd of thousands, headed by the Garrison Band, marched in procession from Cambridge Terrace to the Wellington public cemetery. Relays of working men carried Parnell's coffin all the way, and at the cemetery J. C. Harris performed 'a most impressive Socialistic ceremony'.
Alexander Stuart paid tribute to Parnell with an In Memoriam poem in the Sydney Bulletin. In the course of the long poem, Stuart celebrated Parnell's greatest achievement:
He worked with head – with heart and hand,
From early youth to age,
And in a new, unfettered land
He taught this precept sage,
'Eight hours for work, eight hours for play
And eight for sleep excel.'
This was the charter for each day
Of our wise king, Parnell!
A Parnell memorial committee collected subscriptions for a bronze portrait on a marble slab, which was set in a wall of the free public library and unveiled in 1893. A bronze bust, now lost, was later placed in the main meeting room of the Wellington Trades Hall. Parnell's grave, which had fallen into disrepair, was restored in 1962 by the New Zealand Carpenters Union and provided with a new headstone.
There were other aspirants to the title of 'Father of the Eight Hours Movement'. As there is little contemporary corroboration of any of the incidents marking the introduction of the eight hour day which Parnell described, it is not possible to prove his claim beyond all doubt. But it is significant that some of the more detailed claims to priority were not put forward until after Parnell's death, when he was no longer able to contradict them. Thus Henry H. Jackson wrote in Typo (31 December 1892) that he had come to Port Nicholson with the New Zealand Company's surveying staff on board the Cuba, that they had decided during the voyage to insist on an eight hour day, and that they had put this system into operation after their arrival on 4 January 1840, more than a month before Parnell's arrival. Jackson repeated his claim in The Cyclopedia of New Zealand in 1897. Parnell, however, had staked his own claim unequivocally in a letter to the New Zealand Times of 21 February 1878: 'The eight-hours' system,' he wrote, 'was established in New Zealand in the year 1840, either in February or March, by myself'. Many of Parnell's alleged rivals were alive then, including members of the New Zealand Company's surveying staff, but none contradicted him.
By 1890 the eight hour working day had become standard for tradesmen and labourers, but many groups of workers, such as farm labourers, domestic servants, railwaymen, shop assistants and clerks, still worked longer hours. Trade unions publicised the campaign for shorter hours by holding annual processions late in October on what became known as Labour Day or Eight-Hour Demonstration Day. In 1899 Labour Day became a public holiday by act of Parliament; it provided a suitable occasion to pay tribute to Parnell and the other pioneers of the eight hour day.