Chartism in New Zealand

This biography, written by Herbert Roth, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

George Binns was born in Sunderland, Durham, England, on 6 December 1815, one of 16 children of George Binns and his wife, Margaret Watson. George Binns senior, a member of the Society of Friends, was a well-to-do draper and George Binns junior worked in the family business until about 1837, when he opened a bookshop and newsagency in partnership with James Williams. Binns and Williams participated in the growing movement for political reform and in November 1838 they founded the Sunderland Chartist Association. 

Their bookshop became the town's centre for radical agitation and for the publication and distribution of tracts, handbills and poems, many of them written by Binns. The two young radicals also toured the countryside, holding meetings in support of the Chartist cause, and Binns made a great impression as a forceful orator. 'Williams and Binns', wrote the Chartist historian R. G. Gammage, who knew them personally, 'kept the County of Durham in a perpetual state of agitation.'

In July 1839 Binns and Williams were arrested for sedition, but were freed on bail. Their trial at the Durham assizes did not take place until August 1840, when both were found guilty and sentenced to six months' imprisonment. They had earlier refused an offer of freedom if they pleaded guilty and promised to keep the peace.

When Binns was released from Durham gaol in January 1841, thousands of Sunderland citizens turned out to welcome him home. In June he was elected to the executive of the National Chartist Association. He re-entered the drapery business in Sunderland with a new partner, but this venture ended in bankruptcy. He then decided to emigrate to New Zealand to recoup his fortunes, in the hope that he would soon be able to return to England. He left Gravesend on the barque Bombay in August 1842. During the voyage he wrote a 96-line poem on the subject of reform, using the metaphor of emigration to a new land:

Bear, bear me to a land, 
Where hirelings cannot land 
The law-protected band 
Of rude marauding fraud; 
Where Heaven's blessings sweep 
The universal main, 
And millions do not weep 
To feed a robber's gain; 
Where Famine's iron maw 
Ne'er hurries to the grave, 
Ne'er crushes 'neath its law, 
Ne'er buries 'neath its wave.

Binns arrived in Nelson on 14 December 1842. He obtained employment supervising a whaling establishment for a merchant who, by coincidence, was named James Williams. Soon after his arrival Binns entered into a controversy over the sale of shortweight bread, and Alfred Saunders attacked him as 'a chartist ringleader' in a letter to the Nelson Examiner. 

Binns replied indignantly: 'When I came to New Zealand, it was after I had suffered imprisonment, sacrificed my business, and lost the good-will of relations, in an endeavour to free my country; and I was and now am desirous of atoning, in some measure, for my past hostilities, by a life of "peace and good-will" here. 

I did not expect the word Chartist would be employed against me as a term of reproach in a distant land like this. We are all united here by a community of interests, and though I am not ashamed of my principles, yet I should never render myself obnoxious by their intrusion upon others. I have nothing to do with Chartism in New Zealand, and my past enthusiasm might have been forgotten where there is no grievance to redress and no enemy to our weal.'

There were of course grievances to redress in Nelson. During 1843 the New Zealand Company's labourers were agitating for higher wages. However, there is no evidence that Binns was involved. His name, on the other hand, appeared on a joint letter in July of the same year concerning the Wairau incident which denounced the 'ferocious character of the savages, who, in cold blood, massacred our friends and their own previous benefactors'. A year later, in June 1844, Binns signed a petition to the House of Commons complaining about the governor's refusal to conduct a legal investigation into the events at Wairau.

The whaling business failed in 1844, Williams returned to Britain, and Binns was again left with a serious financial loss. This reverse, which destroyed his hopes of an early return home, depressed him profoundly. He found new employment in Nelson as a baker, but on 5 April 1847 died of consumption after three years of illness. He was only 31 years old.

He will be remembered, said his obituary in the Northern Star, as 'a handsome high-spirited, talented, true-hearted man – every inch a Democrat.' According to the same obituary, 'He inspired all who knew him with sentiments of warm attachment, and his death has led to expressions of regret and sympathy from men of all ranks and of all opinions.'


William Griffin was born in Britain probably in 1810 or 1811, the son of John Griffin and his wife, Ann Bolt. Very little is known of his life in Britain, but he is said to have been active in the Chartist movement. He arrived in Auckland, New Zealand, about 1842 and married a widow, Elizabeth Wallace, in St Patrick's Church, Auckland, on 10 June 1849. They had a daughter and a son. Griffin worked as a painter and glazier, but throughout his life was involved in promoting social reforms.

With the aid of the Auckland Building Operatives Society, which he helped to form in 1851, Griffin agitated for shorter working hours on Saturday afternoons, and established a working men's freehold land company, known as the Auckland Land Association. Also in 1851, with the backing of the society, he called a meeting to select a working men's candidate for the Auckland municipal elections. The response was unfavourable but, undaunted, in 1853 Griffin promoted a meeting of the 'operative and labouring classes' to select candidates from among themselves for the newly established Auckland Provincial Council. Three men were chosen, Griffin among them, but the committee later decided to have only one candidate, James Derrom, who gained election. Griffin stood at the next provincial council election in 1855 but was defeated.

Griffin next resumed his agitation for shorter working hours. In the other main centres the eight hour working day had become established, but not in Auckland. Late in May 1857 Griffin attended a meeting of the House Carpenters and Joiners Society, where he moved that a public meeting be called to discuss the reduction of daily working hours from ten to eight. That meeting, held on 8 June, decided to introduce the eight hour day within three months and to do so in agreement with the employers 'on the principle of Moral Suasion'. There was some opposition, but Griffin argued that workers were expected to help govern the country and that an eight hour day would give them leisure to educate themselves. A committee elected at the meeting promoted the campaign and on 1 September 1857 the new working hours, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour off for lunch, came into force in Auckland.

This success helped Griffin to gain election to the provincial council in October 1857, on the 'Constitutional Party' ticket. He sat on the council for four years until September 1861. During the depression after the withdrawal of imperial troops Griffin promoted the Flax-Hackle Benevolent Association, which distributed hackles to the unemployed so that they could engage in flax dressing as a means of support. He agitated for the opening of the Thames goldfield in 1867, and at the request of a meeting of the unemployed, went to Thames to explore the prospects there. Lack of work in his own trade induced him to move to Thames where he worked as a miner and, according to an obituary notice, 'took a leading part in the various public agitations on the goldfield'. He also contracted a liver disease in Thames which hastened his death, in the Auckland Provincial Hospital, on 13 July 1870. The memory of Griffin's achievement was revived in 1890, when the Auckland Operative House Painters Union launched a fund to erect a memorial over his grave.


William Henry Barnes was baptised on 8 April 1827 at Manchester, Lancashire, England. He was the son of Jane Bonsell and her husband, George Barnes, a labourer. William, also known as Bill or Billy, had some education; his few surviving letters are well written. He may have served an apprenticeship in the metal trades. Manchester had a long tradition of labour militancy and William was aware of what could be achieved when workers united. In 1842, when he was a teenager, 50,000 workers in Manchester went out on a general strike organised by Chartist leaders.

William Barnes married Elizabeth Colley on 10 September 1854 at West Ham, Essex. They had eight children, but three daughters died of scarlet fever in 1864. In November 1857 the Barnes family emigrated to Canterbury, New Zealand, on the Roehampton, arriving at Lyttelton on 7 March 1858. Barnes was described as a smith on the passenger list.

In 1859 there was an upsurge of unemployment in the province and skilled immigrants turned to roadmaking. Barnes called a meeting of concerned workers in early September to discuss the depression and propose relief measures. An orderly crowd of about 200 attended. They resolved to warn prospective immigrants, in placards and newspaper articles, of the true state of affairs in Canterbury.

Barnes and his supporters became the focus of criticism: the Lyttelton Times ridiculed 'the lounging new-chum.' After a second meeting in September Barnes was accused of intending 'to crush the Government and the capitalist', a rather hysterical reaction to his moderate demands. He wanted a temporary halt to immigration, offices where employers could meet the unemployed, and more roadworks.

In 1862 Barnes started the Railway Foundry in Manchester Street, Christchurch, and took A. C. Newton into partnership. Within the next few years he became active in the Canterbury Working Men's Association. As secretary in 1866 he publicly challenged another member, S. P. Andrews, then standing for the provincial council and a future member of Parliament. Andrews advocated compulsory secular education and manhood suffrage. Barnes opposed these policies, but found himself out of step with popular opinion. Subsequently he resigned as secretary, and was replaced by Andrews. Barnes stood for the Christchurch City Council in 1868, advocating a ward system and underground drainage, but won few votes.

Meanwhile Barnes's business was moderately successful. In 1867 five artesian wells were sunk for the Christchurch Borough Council. In the same year a fire alarm was erected near the fire station on a structure 66 feet high, which also acted as a look-out. By 1869 the foundry had several buildings, with casting, turning, pattern and coppersmith shops, and a smithy. The partnership with Newton had dissolved by 1868, and a year later Barnes faced bankruptcy proceedings, but he was not judged insolvent. He sold his foundry to Scott Brothers in 1872 and moved to Temuka, later returning to Christchurch. He continued to work as a blacksmith and in 1878 built a dredge for the Waimakariri Harbour Board.

Barnes had a keen interest in the Canterbury Rifle Volunteers, which he joined in 1861. He was first a private, and later a gunner when his company became an artillery corps. He often entered rifle-shooting competitions, and won the Bealey Cup for his company in 1870. He served on the Volunteer General Committee and on the council of the Canterbury Rifle Association, and donated prizes for competitions.

Barnes was Canterbury's first significant labour leader. Discredited politically, he threw his energies into his business and the Volunteers. His wife died on 16 May 1911 and he probably spent his last years in Nazareth House, an old people's home in Christchurch. He died there on 23 July 1918.