Today, the 28th of October, is Labour Day.

Auckland children enjoy the holiday, 1931

This is the 129th Labour Day celebrated in New Zealand. But what are we celebrating? The average New Zealander has probably never really thought about it, and might not know much about the shadowy concept of “Labour”, or the history of the Labour Movement in New Zealand.

So what is Labour?

Labour is the working man. You can dress it up with all sorts of political bells and whistles, but ultimately the Labour Movement is just a manifestation of the working class, their historic fight for greater rights and privileges, and their ongoing attempt to defend those rights against the forces of oligarchy and capitalism.

The Labour Movement has a very long history in this country. Where did it begin?

You may have heard of the first organised settlers to come across the sea from Mother England; they were called the New Zealand Company. They were an incorporated company, a money-making venture lead by the Wakefield family and their associates.

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Fancy dress picnic at Linwood Park, Labour Day 1941

These weren’t settlers sent by the British government to annex our islands just to make old Queen Vic smile. They left England without the government’s authority, lead by petty aristocrats and capitalists whose goal was to set themselves up as a new landed elite.

The plan was quite simple. The New Zealand Company would purchase land from the natives. The Company would sell this land off in lots to the rich, who would then either act as absentee landlords and rent the land out to lower class colonists at a profit, or build businesses on the land using imported European labour.

According to the “Terms of purchase for rural lands in the Company’s settlements”, as published in their New Zealand Gazette (6th September, before they even left England), purchasers of land orders intending to emigrate would be reimbursed for the cost of emigration for themselves, their families and their servants.

Purchasers of at least three hundred acres who did not intend to migrate were entitled to send a land agent over, at the Company’s expense. Some enthusiastic emigrants would pay for their passage themselves, while members of the Company did not have to. Poorer labourers, farmers and craftsmen could be eligible for free passage if approved by the company, and especially if they were “under engagement to work for capitalists intending to emigrate”.

On the ship Bolton, which left Gravesend in November 1839 – and would not arrive in New Zealand until the end of April in the next year – travelled five wealthy men bringing with them what were, essentially, indentured servants.

The Reverend John Gare Butler, who had been a missionary at Kerikeri, and was the first ordained clergyman to live in this country, brought with him his wife, daughter and son in law. A man named Thomas Clover and his wife were listed as servants.

Butler would die only a year after arriving in New Zealand.

John Edward Collett, Esq., of London, was accompanied by both his wife and an eighteen year old servant named Henry Midgley.

Joseph Minet, Esq., of Weybridge in Surrey, who also had a wife and four children, brought out James Creamer, Thomas Curry and William Judd (who was only 16) as agricultural labourers, as well as a maidservant named Jane Trist.

Henry Shaftoe Harrison, Esq., from Wakefield in Yorkshire had a wife and three children. He also had a twenty-one year old nursemaid named Mary Ann Atkinson, as well as several men and their families as servants.

George Duffield and his wife, William Packham and his wife and six children, George Scott (+ wife and five children), Samuel Madden and Robert Spinner (both loners) all made their way to New Zealand as Harrison’s servants.

The wealthy Yorkshireman would go on to settle near Wanganui, fighting in the New Zealand Wars and representing Wanganui in Parliament between 1861 and 1870, as well as serving on the Wellington Provincial Council.

Reverend John Frederick Churton, emigrating from Wrexham, brought out not only eight members of his own family, but a number of servants. John Castle, Thomas Craven and Griffith Lowe were also listed as agricultural labourers; two of these men also had wives, and between them they had nine children. Churton also had two young girls as servants, Mary Jones (aged 15) and Sarah Maddox (16).

The Reverend would soon become the first vicar of Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Auckland, as well as chaplain to the imperial troops stationed in New Zealand. A memorial plaque in his memory can still be found today at the Emily Place Reserve.

Labour Day bowling at Mount Eden, 1936

It was a similar situation on the other New Zealand Company emigrant ships. Most of these servants were drawn from the rural poor rather than the urban workhouses, as the initial wave of settlement called for builders and farmers to set up the colony before the mass of workers could be brought in.

The Times urged the “humbler classes of society to distrust all the accounts of emigration, and to weigh well before they quit the places of their birth, even deformed as they now are by their prison workhouses,” and believed the whole enterprise to be nothing more than a trap to ensnare the working class in perpetual servitude, on the other side of the world, in a place that was outside of British law.

They were kind of right.

A whig politician, Henry Labouchere, 1st Baron Taunton and Under-Secretary for the Colonies, was asked to give a statement on the nascent New Zealand Company early in 1839. According to the Evening Mail he could “assure the honorable gentleman that such companies were not in any manner recognised by the Government, as the parties connected with them had left this country on their own responsibility without any sanction or authority from the Government.”

He also said that the Government had “considering the present situation of New Zealand, come to the determination to take such steps as would probably lead to the establishment of British authority in New Zealand. Looking to the number of persons going thither, and the necessity of protection for the aborigines, the Government were very desirous to establish law and order there.”

You may have already known about Charles de Thierry’s attempt at French colonisation as one of the factors owing to the British’s eventual decision to colonise New Zealand, along with the unruly lawbreaking sailors in Russell. However, there was another, lesser known goal desired by the crown: to prevent the British company from turning New Zealand into a giant sweatshop, mistreating both the poor emigrants and the Maori.

Highland dancing at Southbridge, Labour Day 1937

By the time the New Zealand Company settlers started to arrive, New Zealand was already a British territory. FOILED! The company’s leaders – the Wakefield family – would continue to have huge influence in the colony, especially in Wellington and Nelson, and there were clashes between “government men” and “company men” for years.

They even had rival newspapers! The short lived New Zealand Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser was set up for the sole purpose of countering the Company’s narratives that, even after colonisation, were being pushed in the New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator.

Eventually the remnants of the Company power base – and its establishment of a firmly British, class-based oligarchy – just sort of ended, partially thanks to the government’s enforcing of the big book of rules (e.g. rule #1833 – “Don’t enslave bro that’s rude”), but also due to the attitude of the working class settlers.

As early as 1842, a man writing under the pseudonym “A Working Man” was regularly sending letters to Wellington’s fledgling newspapers, agitating for the purpose of the rights of working men in the area, still mostly owned and lead by a smaller group of wealthy men.

I would advise the landed proprietors not to tamper too much with the rights of the working men; for the worm will turn when trod upon; but to turn their serious consideration for the wellbeing of the Colony – I am, Sir, Respectfully yours, A WORKING MAN”

This man was Joseph Masters, a Derbyshire-born cooper. He would go on to found the Small Farms Association and lead a band of working class Wellington and Hutt Valley settlers to set up their own independent communities in the Wairarapa, away from the established order on the other side of “the Hill”.

One of the New Zealand Company’s emigrant ships was the Duke of Roxburgh, and it was this ship that brought out another man who would become a pivotal figure in the history of New Zealand’s Labour Movement.

His name was Samuel Duncan Parnell, he had been born in London on the 19th of February, 1810, and was accompanied by his wife. He is the reason we have a Labour Day.

It might sound like an exaggeration to put the existence of a public holiday down to some guy nobody has ever heard of, who died more than a hundred years ago, but it’s true. Unlike in most of the world, Labour Day in New Zealand actually commemorates a specific event, the establishment of the eight-hour working day.

In early Industrial Britain, it was normal to work for ten to sixteen hours a day, for six or even seven days a week. As of 1833 it was illegal for a child under thirteen to work more than eight hours a day, but older teens would still work twelve hours every day, and it wasn’t until the end of the century that it became usual for men to work less than ten.

There had, however, been a few experiments. In 1817 the Welshman Robert Owen established an eight hour working day at his Scottish textile mill, espousing the belief that a man should have “eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation and eight hours’ rest”. He later founded a weird sect in the desert, but that’s not important right now.

Samuel Parnell was apparently a disciple of Owen’s, and had been agitating for a shorter working day from as far back as 1834, when he was a young labourer in London. He finally got an opportunity to make this dream a reality when landing in New Zealand, and being employed to build a wooden store for another colonist, George Hunter.

Parnell insisted that he would only work for eight hours a day. The other man was surprised at this, and a bit put off about it, because it meant he would have to wait longer to get his building finished – but due to the lack of available labour at the time, he was forced to allow this condition.

Soon the other working men of Wellington started asking for the same terms before they would take a contract, and this spread out with the settlers into the Hutt Valley. Every time a new emigrant ship berthed in the area, the “new chums” onboard would be greeted by Parnell or some other worker and informed about the eight hour work day.

In October 1840, the workers of Wellington met at Barratt’s Hotel at Clay Point in the first ever Labour Conference and pledged to maintain the eight hour working day, with any offenders to be ducked in the harbour. A few years later there was an attempt to increase the length of the working day, but navvies building a road to the Hutt Valley lead a strike until it was dropped, and the eight hour day has been standard in Wellington ever since.

Workers in other parts of New Zealand would also have the eight hour day much earlier than those in Britain, Australia or other countries. Samuel Shaw lead the workers of Otago to an eight hour day in 1849, and William Griffin secured the same right for the Auckland working men in the 1850s.

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Labour Day procession in Dunedin, 1901

On the 28th of October, 1890, thousands of workers paraded through Wellington and other cities and towns in New Zealand; they had been given the day off to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the eight hour day. This was the first Labour Day in New Zealand.

An elderly Samuel Parnell personally attended the celebrations in Wellington, riding in a carriage at the head of the parade and then addressing the crowd:

I feel happy today, because the seed sown so many years ago is bearing such abundant fruit. The chord struck at Petone fifty years ago is vibrating round the world, and I hope that 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.

It is the outcome of very early convictions on entering upon the battle of life. I was convinced the working hours were too long, and time for recreation too short. I spoke to my shopmates in London about the long hours we had to work, but they saw no hope of getting things altered.

However, on coming out to this colony I determined to do what I could to alter things, and the first opportunity I got I made a stand for eight hours a day, with the result as you know.

Again I thank you for the recognition you have shown me of the part I took to benefit my fellow men.”

Samuel Parnell died a few weeks later, on the 16th of December, 1890, and was buried in Wellington’s Bolton Street Cemetery. Advertisements for his funeral were placed in all the newspapers, and it was attended by thousands, the procession lead across the city by a brass band.

A memorial plaque in his memory can be found today in the Bolton Street Chapel – but a greater memorial is Labour Day itself, no matter how few people today know his connection to it.

Labour Day picnic at Linwood Park, 1935

So while you are enjoying your day off, maybe spare a thought for old Sam, and all the workers who made it possible.

One thought on “Labour Day”

  1. So much for ‘white privilege’.

    Apart from the attempts to establish an oligarchy by the NZ Company, usury remained a significant burden on the settlers, and the influence of the Bank of NZ, including its role in the Land Wars, is a now forgotten part of NZ history; suffice to say that a Labour stalwart, John A Lee, made the comment, ‘Maori think Pakeha won the Land Wars but he only won the debt’.

    What happened to the 8 hour day? That feature of NZ society seems long forgotten in a society that should be gradually reducing working hours, not increasing, due to a flawed financial system.

    The Labour Party, like most socialists, proceeded to serve big capital, and hence today cannot even build a few viable state houses, where during the Great Depression, they ‘somehow’ found the ‘money’ to fund the iconic state housing project, and led the world in economic recovery, while the mighty USA with its much-lauded ‘New Deal’ did not truly recover until the 1940s war economy.

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