Eight Hours


When Samuel Duncan Parnell stepped off the barque Duke of Roxburgh in Wellington (then known as Britannia), New Zealand, in February 1840, he was on a mission. Not only was he coming to a new land to begin a new life, he was also planning on instigating change.

Back in England, Parnell had trained as a carpenter, working long hours but always debating with other artisans and labourers about the long length of their working day, which was typically between 10 and 16 hours a day, six days a week. When the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union was formed, he asked representatives to support the shortening of the working day. They wouldn’t, so Parnell promptly quit his job and started his own business.

Now in New Zealand, Parnell saw an opportunity to introduce a new work ethic into a new world.

On the Duke of Roxburgh was another passenger, also determined to begin a new life in this land of opportunity. George Hunter intended to be a shipping agent, but first he needed a shed, a warehouse. He asked Parnell to build it for him, which Parnell agreed to do with one condition: he would work only an eight-hour day.

Hunter wasn’t impressed. He needed his shed and he needed it now. He haggled and argued but Parnell was firm. “We have 24 hours per day given us; eight of these should be for work, eight for sleeping and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves.”

It’s not the way things worked in London,” Hunter said.

Parnell replied, “We are not in London.”

The lack of tradespeople in New Zealand worked in Parnell’s favour. Hunter had little choice but to employ him. Parnell got his eight-hour day.

Rule Of Eights

Parnell’s famous statement was not entirely original. In 1810, Englishman Robert Owen had raised the demand for a 10-hour day. By 1817 he had formulated the goal of the eight-hour day and coined the slogan: “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

Australia’s slogan, when it caught on to the idea, was: “Eight hours to work, eight hours to play, eight hours sleep and eight bob a day.” In America, the issue of workers’ rights was also surfacing. In 1776, America had gained independence from Britain, yet its workers faced the same problems as their counterparts.

An eight-hour day would be achieved but at what cost?

Meeting the Ships

Parnell wasn’t going to stop at having achieved an eight-hour day for himself. He made it his mission to meet the ships that sailed into harbour, instructing disembarking passengers to insist on an eight-hour day and implying that the normal practice was to work eight hours only.

A meeting of Wellington carpenters culminated with a pledge “to maintain the eight-hour working day and that anyone offending should be dunked into the harbour.”

Although tradespeople were considered successful in their quest for a shorter day, the reality was not without its troubles. There were no national laws to govern working hours, so the eight-hour limit depended entirely on the resolve of the workers or the goodwill of their employers. Shopkeepers, farm workers and domestics were clearly expected to work long hours, often working 12-hour days.

There were strikes and demonstrations. Bills were brought before parliament but they were treated as a joke. The entire social fabric of a nation would unravel, it was maintained, if an employer were unable to expect workers to be available as and when needed.

As Bert Roth observed in his book, Days of Action, imagine what would happen if “a coachman [were to] refuse to take his master to the opera at night, or a domestic [to] refuse to bring a glass of wine for a guest or a bedroom candle.

Just imagine!

The Chicago Martyrs

The battle for an eight-hour day was not without sacrifice. On May 3, 1886, in Chicago, police had fired into a crowd of strikers, killing and injuring workers. The following day, at a peaceful demonstration to protest police action, which would come to be known as the Haymarket Affair, as the crowd were about to disperse, a bomb was thrown, killing a police sergeant and injuring dozens more, many of whom later died of their injuries.

The police responded with indiscriminate gunfire, killing several people and wounding at least 200. Hundreds of workers were arrested and prosecuted, but it was eight anarchist agitators who bore the brunt of the police anger, each charged with conspiracy to commit murder.

There was never any evidence produced to prove that any of the men were guilty, just as the thrower of the bomb was never identified. But with a rigged jury and a biased judge there was no hope. Seven of the men were sentenced to death with the eighth released. One of the seven committed suicide before his day came. Four were executed by hanging, one of whom, Albert Parsons, wrote a letter to his children: “I die not alone for you but for the children yet unborn.”

Six years later the remaining two men were released, with the new governor acknowledging their certain innocence.

Parnell’s Success

On October 28, 1890, 50 years after Parnell first set foot on New Zealand soil, workers took to the streets to commerate the eight-hour day, an event that became celebrated annually. Nine years later, the government legislated that the day—Labour Day—be a public holiday from 1900, making New Zealand the first country in the world to officially adopt the eight-hour work day.

When Parnell died in 1890, 3000 people followed his coffin, carried by relays of working men from Parnell’s house to the cemetery. Alexander Stuart, in a tribute in the Sydney Bulletin, wrote, “A king of men has passed away, not from a palace great, but from a simple cottage home, devoid of pomp and state. An uncrowned king, a Grand Old Man, who loved the people well, the author of the Eight Hours Plan Of Campaign, our Parnell!

Our Lives Today

In the twenty-first century, most countries in the developed world accept an eight-hour work day as standard. Employers might ask em-ployees to work longer. Employees themselves might choose to do so.

But the next time the opportunity to work a longer day comes up, remind yourself: people laid their lives on the line, people died and people persevered so that you might have the luxury of working only an eight-hour day.

image Subscribe to our eNewsletter