Early settler Samuel Parnell and New Zealand’s Labour Day

Samuel Duncan Parnell is the ‘founder of the 8 hour working day’ in New Zealand, celebrated first in 1890 with a Labour Day parade for the labouring classes. The celebrations continued yearly with parades of floats and sports demonstrations. In 1899 Parliament created an annual Labour Day public holiday for all New Zealanders on the last Monday in October.

Early Life

Born in London in 1810, carpenter Samuel Parnell had seven sisters and one brother who all remained in the UK. His background was not impoverished, his father’s rank was ‘gentleman’ on Samuel’s marriage certificate to Mary Ann Canham in 1839, Westminster, London. But that was possibly overstated – in the 1841 UK census his father was listed as an ‘egg salesman’ rather than the usual ‘independent means’ signifying gentry.

Marriage certificate of Samuel Parnell and Mary Ann Canham (From Findmypast available through Hutt City Libraries)

Parnell arrived in New Zealand with his new wife Mary Ann on the Duke of Roxburgh ship at Britannia (Petone) beach on February 8, 1840. He paid £126 to the New Zealand Company for passage, 100 acres of country land, and 1 town acre.

Petone 1840, with settlers’ huts and the first four immigrant ships (including the Duke of Roxburgh) anchored between Somes Island and Petone Beach. Shows the Hutt River, Somes Island, Evans Bay and Wellington.(Heaphy, Charles, 1820-1881. Heaphy, Charles, 1820-1881 :Port Nicholson from the hills above Pitone in 1840. Drawn by Chas. Heaphy Esqre. London, Smith Elder & Co. [Presentation copy from Edward Jerningham Wakefield]. Ref: C-029-009-a. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.)

Eight Hour Day

A fellow passenger on the Duke of Roxburgh, shipping agent George Hunter, asked Parnell to build him a store. Parnell famously agreed on the condition he work only eight hours a day.

“There are 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…” (Dictionary of NZ Biography, vol 1, 1769-1869)

With workers scarce, George Hunter (who became the first Mayor of Wellington) was forced to accept these conditions. Parnell also met new ships arriving in port and talked to workers about the eight hour day, and the custom was established.

Portrait of Geo Hunter, 1788-1843, 1st Mayor of Wellington. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Parnell worked for George Hunter in Lowry Bay building a store, but when Hunter complained about Parnell starting a little after 8 am. despite him working later to make up the time, Parnell quit and set up on his own.

Farmer and Carpenter in Karori and Central Wellington

Parnell’s original 100 acres of land was in the Hutt Valley, with a town section in Daniell St, Newtown, Wellington. He was living in Willis St, Wellington in 1842 when his wife Mary Ann died suddenly.

In 1843 Parnell sold his land in the Hutt and bought land in Karori, where he farmed and worked as a carpenter. He co-operated with farmers such as Riddiford in the Hutt to build up his stock of cattle and fruit trees and his carpentry included building the Karori home of  Judge H. S. Chapman.

‘Homewood’ Judge Chapman’s house in Karori, about 1850.Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
The Karori area overlooking the area around the Karori Reservoir, ca 1875, about the time Samuel Parnell moved back to Wellington city. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Parnell remarried in 1851 to Sarah Sophia Brunger, a widow with two children. In the mid-1870s they retired to Wellington, living firstly in Ghuznee St near Cuba St, then in Cambridge Terrace, near Courtenay Place.

Looking south east over Te Aro, Wellington City, about 1880. Shows Ghuznee Street in the centre with St Peter’s Church on the corner of Willis Street. Mount Victoria is in the background. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Trade Unions and the First Labour Day Parade

Parnell’s passion for limiting work to eight hour days began in London in 1834 while working in a joinery factory. Carpenters worked at least 12 hour days, with low wages and bad conditions. The British trade union movement was taking off, but Parnell refused to join his fellow carpenters in the union because they didn’t want to fight for an eight hour day. He left the joinery factory to set up his own business.

Ironically it was the New Zealand trade union movement who championed him. 1890 marked the 50th Jubilee of European settlement in New Zealand. The trade union movement was growing, and a Wellington eight hour day committee formed in honour of Samuel Parnell. He was invited to speak at the first annual Labour Day demonstration on 28 October, 1890, and ride in a carriage at the head of the parade to Newtown Park, Wellington.

The eight hour day committee, 1890, Samuel Parnell centre front.Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Advertisement for the first Labour Celebration, Evening Post 25 October 1890.


The successful day included the procession, sports at Newtown Park, a presentation to Samuel Parnell, his address to the crowd, and evening entertainment at the Opera House.

Evening Post 29 October 1890

Samuel Parnell fell ill and died on 17 December 1890, only a few months after the first celebrations. He was a ‘quiet, unobtrusive man…well liked’  according to his obituary.

Samuel Parnell’s obituary, Evening Post 17 December 1890

Wellington City gave him a public funeral on 17 December 1890, attended by thousands. The funeral procession was headed by the Garrison Band and marched from Cambridge Terrace to Bolton St Cemetery.

A Parnell memorial committee collected funds for a bronze portrait on a marble slab, set into the wall of the Wellington Free Public Library in 1893, together with a memorial drinking fountain at the entrance. Controversially both fountain and memorial were run-down by 1902, the fountain ‘useless’ and the memorial ‘disgracefully dilapidated’. (Evening Post 8 October 1902.)

Redressing the balance, in 1961 Samuel Parnell was honoured with a tombstone inscription by the NZ Carpenters, Plasterers and Bricklayers Union. Samuel Parnell’s second wife Sarah died in 1888, predeceasing him. He had one surviving stepchild, James Brunger.

Gravestone of Samuel Duncan and Sarah Sophia Parnell    Bolton Street Cemetery,  Wellington


NZ Cemetery Records 1800s-2007 (From Ancestry.com available through Hutt City Libraries)

Labour Day Parades

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[Top image] Samuel Parnell. Wright, Henry Charles Clarke, 1844-1936 :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-020462-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

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