Monday, December 14, 2020

Samuel Duncan Parnell's unproven claim to fame


"The Eight Hour Day Committee", 1890, image by Winifred Gladys Rainbow. Really, the six signatories to the illuminated address presented to S D Parnell at the Labour Demonstration Day. Parnell died two months after this photo was taken. PAColl-2324, National Library.

This blog, since July 2013, has been linked with the Facebook page also called Timespanner, and vice versa. On 24 October this year, due to my misgivings regarding the veracity of the common and oft-repeated story regarding an early Wellington carpenter named Samuel Duncan Parnell and his connections with the established custom of the eight hour day in New Zealand, I did a post. 

Paul Corliss, author of a 2008 book published by the NZ Council of Trade Unions and Unions Canterbury entitled Samuel Parnell, A Legacy – The 8 Hour Day, Labour Day and Time Off, left a comment on the post’s thread: 

“I won't bore you with detail, but there is some supportive evidence for Parnell's ascendancy as claimant in the attached book [cover] (2008) ... if he was 'fibbing' he must have been pretty convincing as his 'preferential' treatment by thousands of supporters and among those leaders who were industrially/politically active must have been based on some history...”

When I pressed Corliss for the “supportive evidence”, he replied:

“You'll need to read the details in the book detail...which is why it took a book to outline it. Unfortunately Facebook sound-bites don't allow the sometimes necessary length.”
What that told me at the time was that Corliss seemed to be not prepared to discuss or have his evidence examined on Facebook. Bit of a shame, because that is exactly what happens on Timespanner FB. 

Okay, I’m happy to take a look at another point of view. So … I went to the trouble of getting a copy of his book from the library. 

Corliss’ book is A5 in size, and 81 pages long. It doesn’t set out to examine the S D Parnell story (most of the book talks about the “legacy” rather than Parnell himself), but instead spends time arguing against any other suggestions as to what happened at Petone in 1840, without actually bringing up an event that did take place there, and which was referred to by others during Parnell’s lifetime. This was after he began to make his own version of the story known publicly from 1877, and before his death in 1890. Not “after Parnell’s demise” as Corliss puts it. But, Corliss’ book was prepared before Papers Past and other online newspaper archives virtually exploded with additional sources and ease of access in the past ten years. Even my own Zoo War, from the same year as Corliss’ work, needs a much revised and added-to new edition. 

Parnell has become something of a “patron saint” to supporters of labour and union causes in this country, especially since the latter part of last century when his gravestone at Bolton St Cemetery was erected by the NZ Carpenters, Plasterers and Bricklayers Union in 1961 with wording reflecting Parnell’s status in their eyes. His story has become a favourite to relate with each and every Labour Day, assuring it of legend status. That S D Parnell, carpenter, had George Hunter, store keeper, agree to an eight hour day on Petone Beach in early 1840 is told to school children, repeated in television programmes, newspapers, magazines, and today, of course, the internet. “You have Samuel Parnell to thank for your Labour Day!!” 

To me, though, it is all just too pat. And for Parnell to be an “inaugurator” of a “movement” – well that movement seemed to go fairly slow, and in patches, in New Zealand. We didn’t seem to really wake up to how flimsy the by-then established “custom” of an eight hour working day was here, until workers across the Tasman started striking for it in the mid-1850s, and Auckland tradesmen realised that it really wasn’t a guaranteed thing. They knew it was customary in Wellington, and Otago had followed it, by a separate origin, from the time of their first colonial settlement. 

There are really two main things to look at, then. Question one: Did Parnell inaugurate the custom of the eight hour day in Wellington? And – Question two: How did his story, and no one else’s, get to be so popular? But also – what’s behind the idea of an eight hour day anyway? 

There are really a lot of conflicting theories as to why “eight hours” as opposed to any other number, but the even division of the 24-hour day plays a big part, and that points to the notion of evenly dividing up the day (work/rest/sleep) going back centuries. After all, an eight-hour sleep is still held to be the benchmark of a good night’s snooze, even though some sleep a bit more, others less, and some follow the old pattern of breaking sleep to do something then going back to bed. 

In the early 19th century, up to the late 1830s, the English newspapers referred to discussions on the eight hours of work in relation to child labour (many held that children below certain ages should not work longer than eight hours), the hours of work on slave plantations in the West Indies, and the hours for coal pit miners. One rather interesting example however, relevant to our history here in New Zealand, came from the testimony given to a Parliamentary Committee in 1838. 

John Flatt (1805-1900) was an Anglican Church Missionary Society catechist who worked in the Matamata and Tauranga areas for the CMS, and was one of those who assisted setting up the garden at The Elms in Tauranga. In 1838, he was asked by the Committee: “When you had made the agreement with the native servants to work for you, how many hours’ work did they perform in a day?” His answer: “They worked eight hours a day.” (Morning Advertiser [London] 24 October 1838 p. 1) 

So, the idea of eight hours work per day was definitely in the public mind. Work hours varied, though, up to 14 hours referred to for some occupations and age groups. 

So, on to question 1: Did Samuel Duncan Parnell inaugurate the custom of the eight hour day in Wellington? 

It is said that Parnell was born in 1810, somewhere in England. By the late 1830s, he found work as a carpenter in London. He married, on 6 September 1839, widow Mrs Mary Ann Canham, née Wellham. How old Mary was is not known – she may have been the same Mary Ann Wellham who had married Edward Martin Canham in Suffolk in 1824, which would mean she was around 10 years older than Parnell. As she died from heart disease in Wellington in March 1842, this may have been the case. 

The couple left London in 1839 aboard the Duke of Roxburgh, and arrived at Petone 8 February 1840. Already at Petone, having arrived on 31 January 1840 aboard the Oriental, was fellow carpenter/builder William Taylor and his wife. There would have been others there following the trade, but numbers aren’t known. 

Parnell’s earliest written statement about the events around the “inauguration” of the “movement” for the eight hour day in New Zealand dates from 21 February 1878, 38 years later, in a letter he sent to the NZ Times and published on that date. He claims that on “either in February or March” he established the system “by myself” when he got George Hunter to pay for eight hours work per day. 

Fast forward to 1885. At the time, repeated efforts were being made in Parliament, unsuccessfully, to have an Eight Hours Bill passed. Each time, it was all for nought. On 15 January 1885, the Evening Post published a letter written anonymously by “An Old Colonist”, which shed some more light on what happened on Petone Beach in the first half of 1840. 

“I will briefly state the way this system was introduced by the early settlers of Wellington. They met on Petone beach shortly after their arrival, and carried a resolution to the effect that eight hours should constitute a day's work in Wellington. I arrived here in June, 1841, 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. Many of the early colonists of this place went to Canterbury; therefore the movement in the same hours became the rule in that part of the colony. Neither Dunedin nor any other part of New Zealand has any claim to the honour achieved by the few colonists that assembled on Petone beach. Therefore I say, honour to those that honour is due to— and that is to Wellington only.”

A meeting? This doesn’t tee up with Parnell’s 1878 assertion that he had started things by himself. 

As it happens, yes – a meeting was advertised, set to take place at W Elsdon’s Commercial Inn and Tavern on Petone Beach in the evening of Thursday 21 May 1840, the notice in the newspaper addressed “To Carpenters and Joiners” and calling it “an important meeting.” 

Elsdon’s Inn burned down in December 1841, so it is not a well-remembered part of Wellington’s history. 

You may have wondered why I referred to one William Taylor earlier in this article. He was the one who arrived at Petone just over a week before Parnell. Well, it is because of this: 

“At the meeting of the Benevolent Society on Tuesday, the Secretary reported that one of the old men, named William Taylor, aged 80 years, who for some time past had been on the books of the Society, had died the previous day at the Hospital. He had been taken suddenly ill at the boarding-house, and Dr Henry, who kindly visited him two or three times, ordered his removal to the Hospital, where he died the day following. Mr Danks, in very feeling terms, alluded to the deceased, who had first initiated the eight hours movement in this city, whence it spread to other parts of the Colony, Australia, England, and the United States. He was sorry that it could not be made known to the trades in Australia that the originator of the eight hours movement was living on charity in Wellington. “And that he tried to pay for his support by picking oakum,’’ remarked Mr Wardell. “The Secretary stated that the deceased arrived here in the year 1840, and he, with a few others, initiated the eight hours movement at Petone.
“An old colonist, who arrived here in 1841, has kindly furnished us with the following particulars : —“The deceased, William Taylor, arrived herein the month of January, 1840, in the Oriental, one of four emigrant ships which left England the previous year for New Zealand. He was a builder by trade, and for some years carried on business—several of the first buildings in the city being erected by him—with the aid of any help which could be procured from other carpenters in those days. He was one of those present at a meeting held soon after his arrival, at which it was determined that from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. should constitute a day’s work, and it has never been altered since. Therefore, from such humble beginnings the eight hours movement spread all over the colonies. “Taylor was somewhat of an erratic disposition. When his own trade got slack he took to coasting between Wellington and the Wairarapa, taking up supplies, and bringing back wool. He was rather improvident, generally acting on the maxim that ‘sufficient for the day was the evil thereof,’ which led to his being in indigent circumstances in his old age. Poor Taylor deserved a better fate.” (NZ Mail, 4 September 1885, p. 22) Bolding mine.

Someone was swift to inform the Evening Post, by the time of the following day’s issue, that no, it wasn’t the late Taylor who originated the movement, it was Parnell. (5 September 1885, p. 2) 

Two years later, Taylor’s story came right back up again, and in the Evening Post – except that things had become rather muddled. Now, the meeting was said to have taken place at “a house” in Pipitea about 1840 or 1841, where the “principle (of the eight hour day) was affirmed at a meeting of carpenters … when a motion for that purpose was proposed by Mr W M Taylor and seconded by Mr D S Parnell [sic]. Mr Joseph Palfrey presided over the gathering.” (Evening Post 24 September 1887, p. 2)  

Parnell wrote in, saying he’d never heard of any such meeting, he was living in Willis Street when it took place at Pipitea, and he reiterated that he and George Hunter started the movement, no one else. (Evening Post, 29 September 1887, p. 3) 

The thing is, though – at that point, Parnell had no eye witnesses still alive to corroborate his story, nor documentation. George Hunter himself, the other participant, died at Willis Street back in July 1843. (NZ Colonist and Port Nicholson Advertiser, 21 July 1843, p. 2) 

Clearly, William Taylor had told others about his part to play in getting the standard practice of eight hour work days set in place in Wellington before he died, and there are at least the facts that Taylor was there at the right time and at the right place, and that a meeting happened on Petone Beach just months after his and Parnell’s arrivals. 

Just as an aside -- it is surprising that members of the country’s labour movement don’t seem to want to take up the story of an early trade collective deciding among themselves to enforce the work standard upon the early settlement’s employers, rather than stick to the unproven story of a single man who kept maintaining he had done it “by myself.” 

Journalist, historian, politician and trade unionist John Thomas Paul in the Otago Daily Times (27 March 1937, p. 5) tried to tackle the tangled thicket that is the cold case of “Who was the inaugurator of the eight hour day in NZ, really?” Apart from him understandably not being aware at the time of the CMS example from the mid 1830s, he studied what was known of the contenders for the title at that point. 

He brought up an article published in 1909 in the Hutt and Petone Chronicle, claiming the honour for Edwin Ticehurst and William Taylor. (There’s that Taylor name again.) Ticehurst was said to have been the one to direct the building of Barrett’s Hotel on Lambton Quay, formed a Carpenter’s Association, then arranged a meeting “held in a hut built of Manuka, on the beach at Pipitea, just under where St Paul’s Cathedral now stands,” and there Taylor proposed the eight hour day, seconded by Ticehurst. But – Paul was unable to locate any contemporary report backing this up. Ticehurst flourished at Wellington around 1845-1846, which would mean that story would have taken place rather late on the timeline. 

Paul also cited the Cyclopedia of New Zealand volume for Wellington from 1897 which claimed that “The first Labour Conference took place in October, 1840, in front of German Brown’s [again, Barratt’s Hotel link] to decide whether a day’s work should be eight or ten hours.” It’s from the Cyclopedia that the additional bit often cited today as part of the stories of the eight hour movement came into being: “It was resolved that eight hours was to be a working day, and that anyone offending should be ducked in the harbour.” This, though, just adds to the feeling that, over time, the story has been embellished by story-tellers (including Parnell). Each re-telling leads us further and further away from what actually happened. 

Take this example, from the NZ Times, 22 January 1910, part of a set of articles highlighting Wellington’s history over the course of 70 years: 

“By the “Duke of Roxburgh” there arrived Mr S D Parnell, an initiator. Immediately on his arrival, he was employed by Mr Hunter, senior (of Willis and Co.), to superintend the erection of a large store. Parnell, beset by industrial problems in the Old Country, had nourished dreams of betterment, and here in the new colony he took the first opportunity to catch his dreams by the throat. He established an eight-hour day for his workers. It was an omen for the coming militant democracy. Wages were low enough—five shillings a day for skilled labour—but, thanks to Parnell, there were reasonable hours of work. The reasonableness of the innovation does not seem to have impressed Mr Hunter, senior. Eight hours’ work! Why, it meant that every man would have sixteen hours daily in which to go hotfoot to the devil! “Mr Parnell, you know the proper time in London was six in the morning, when the bell was rung, and any man not to his work at that hour lost a quarter of a day.” One can imagine Parnell’s smile as he quietly adhered to his system. Perhaps he foresaw the coming time when the workers on this soil would exact their most ingenious demands and definitely set out to own and coerce the blessed earth. And perhaps he didn’t. Anyhow, Parnell’s name stands among the pioneers high on the roll of honour. He was a revolutionist for righteousness’ sake, one of a few men in that day who held that Jack might possibly be worthy of the humane consideration from his master.”

 Parnell had become a “clerk of works,” probably the only way to figure out how he had initiated things “by himself.” We are now drifting even further away from the scene on the beach in 1840, which is becoming lost in the mists of exaggeration. 

Paul, like myself, just could not find any contemporary provable evidence to fully back up either the Parnell claim, or the other counter-claims. But a “meeting” does seem to be a common thread here, and we do at least have that one advertised meeting that was planned for a May evening in 1840 on the beach at the pub, to discuss something rather important to the settlement’s carpenters and joiners. 

So. Did Samuel Duncan Parnell inaugurate the movement in colonial Wellington? Without evidence, that would have to remain undetermined. Instead, there are indicators that the movement was given local recognition and strength due not to one man, but to a collective which met together (likely mid 1840), and decided on the practice as a group, and enforced it. 

Question two: How did his story, and no one else’s, get to be so popular? 

In 1844, Parnell shifted to Karori. He still described himself as a carpenter, and when he died in 1890, he left his tools, implements and carpenters workshop at Cambridge Terrace to an apprentice named Ovid Norgrove (details in probate file). He married again, to Sarah Sophia Brougar, in December 1851. At Karori up until 1870 he farmed sheep, up to 54 in his flock in the last year. He also took part in a 20 year (1850-1870) feud with a neighbour named James Spiers. Their conflict certainly helped keep the local court system in business, as they argued over dogs and fences. In the end, Parnell lost a case Spiers had brought accusing him of malicious prosecution (Spiers asked for £200 damages, and was granted £50 instead). Parnell finally sold his farm and livestock in September 1870, and shifted back into town. 

There was no word from Parnell up to that point, at least not in newspapers, about his part in the eight hours movement. The 1850s had come and gone, with the rise of industrial action in New South Wales and Victoria, along with meetings among the mechanics at Auckland (who were keen to emulate their Wellington brethren). Then, in July 1877, on Taranaki Street, the Wellington Workingmen’s Club opened. Parnell became a member (he exhibited some of his art at their shows in 1878). He donated bound volumes of the National Reformer to the Wellington Fire Brigade for their library three months after the Club opened – and the Evening Post introduced S D Parnell as “one of the early settlers, and who is stated to have instituted the eight-hours’ labour movement in the year 1840, in Petoni.” [sic] (20 October 1870, p. 2) 

A leading light at the Workingmen’s Club was Edward Player (1819-1904). In 1880, he became the club’s president. He wanted the club to “be looked up to by the whole of the working-men of the colony.” (Evening Post, 19 November 1880) In Parnell and his story, he had a great means of achieving that aim. An opportunity presented itself late in 1889 – preparations to celebrate the year 1890, jubilee of the colony, and a perfect time to institute a special celebration of New Zealand’s working class. 

His December letter to the Evening Post was the start of his campaign. 

Evening Post, 4 December 1889, p. 2

What we now know as Labour Day is a descendant of the “Eight Hour Demonstrations,” the earliest of which in this country appears to have been held in Dunedin on 21 April 1862. It was a small affair, a procession of 30 men of various trades, followed by a dinner at the Provincial Hotel (which attracted 140 people, compared with the numbers in the parade.) (Otago Daily Times, 22 April 1862, p. 4) The next was in Auckland, on 19 April 1882, a day declared a public holiday by Auckland’s Mayor, with the event itself held on the Auckland Domain. Over time during the 1880s, the demonstrations were held in various centres, and became rather blurred and connected with temperance movements, whether or not Federation with Australia was a good idea, and St Patricks Day festivities. In Auckland, it was at times tied to our Anniversary Day. 

In 1890, the Jubilee Year, it was decided at a meeting of the Maritime Council of New Zealand that a “Demonstration Day” would be held that year and every year from that point on 28 October, the anniversary of the date the Council was formed in 1889. (Evening Post, 10 May 1890) Up to this point, Wellington really hadn’t joined in all that much with the whole Eight Hour Demonstration thing before, judging by the previous years’ newspaper coverage, but now the local newspapers headlined the “Labour Demonstration Day” prominently. What extent Player had to do with the decision made to present Parnell with an illuminated address on the day, as well as feature the ailing man prominently in the main procession is anyone’s guess, but Player was certainly one of those who signed the address. (NZ Mail, 31 October 1890) 

Of those who signed: 
Edward Player arrived in Wellington in 1859 on the Alfred the Great, so was not contemporary with the 1840 events.
Charles F Worth, born around 1833, had also been in Wellington only from around 1860. Captain of the local fire brigade, and another member of the Workingmen’s Club. 
H W Potter, born in 1847, arrived in New Zealand in 1873, and only lived in Wellington in later years, working for the Evening Press
William McGill, born in 1844, monumental mason and a close friend of Parnell’s, arrived in New Zealand in the 1860s from working in the Australian goldrushes, but lived in Wellington only from 1889. 
D P Fisher was secretary of the Federated Trades and Labour Council. 
John Plimmer, the “Father of Wellington” was also not a witness to what really happened in 1840, arriving the following year in 1841. He might have been the closest to being some sort of verifiable witness to Parnell’s tale, seeing as Plimmer also worked in the building trades, but aside from his membership of the committee organising the preparation of the address and signing it, he doesn’t appear to have intersected much with Parnell’s path during the latter’s life. 

But this didn’t matter. The public had a name and a face to which they could associate a story from Early Wellington. There was no longer talk of any sort of collective meeting setting a standard which those in that trade followed from that point as a custom – it was Parnell, heading out to ships as they came in to tell the tradesmen what they should agree to. It was Parnell as a “clerk of works” with employees instructing building owners. (Actually, William Taylor had been the one who was in a partnership of three as a firm, during 1840 and up until January 1841, when he struck out on his own). George Hunter was now painted as stubborn and rather selfish Capital, facing off the “plucky” Parnell representing good Kiwi Labour. 

Parnell didn’t really have to be convincing – he came along with his version of events, of which he had probably quite convinced himself were correct, and those who listened didn’t really know any different. By the time 1890 came, his story was good enough to go with, and it had progressed, with and without embellishments, from then on. 

I still, after this examination of the story, find the Parnell version undetermined as far as veracity, and lacking proof. It is a personal and hearsay claim as to a part of history, nothing more. Perhaps one day, if more early Wellington newspapers join the collection at Papers Past, particularly anything as early as 1840 and 1841 (and at the moment, that period is sparsely covered), I can then re-examine the Parnell tale, and search for other pieces to the puzzle. What happened at that meeting in the Commercial Inn? Did it even take place, after it had been advertised? What was that important topic, for everyone in the trade to discuss? 

Until then, whenever I shall hear folks say that we somehow owe Labour Day to Samuel Duncan Parnell and his exploits on that beach, so distant now in time, I’ll just shrug. And wait for more information to come to light.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

John Bonfield O'Mealy -- losing a family in the gap

Researching a life, the further back you go, means there will always be gaps. Gaps in which something happened that changed that life, often for the worse, but exactly what is lost or when or why isn't known, or at least not readily available to discover. 

I first came across John Bonfield O’Mealy when I was researching and pulling together stuff on Te Wai Horotiu back in 2017. I found the colour version of his 1842 plan of Auckland town (image detail here, from National Library) and thought how well it showed the true early course of the stream, before the Ligar Canal was added to divert part of the water from below Wyndham Street. O’Mealy showed clearly that the stream didn’t flow down Queen Street really, it was more or less parallel to it. 

Then, while researching Maungawhau this year, I looked again at a scan of a very battered, ripped and incomplete map from December 1843 of the area of the maunga and its surrounds – and saw O’Mealy’s signature again. Sort of like an old friend popping back into view. 

John Bonfield O’Mealy was born somewhere in Ireland, around 1810. He was appointed as an assistant surveyor in April 1841 and arrived in Wellington with Charles Ligar and the rest of Ligar’s survey department, along with his wife Elizabeth, aboard the Antilla on 8 December 1841. This after the ship they had been on originally, the Prince Rupert, wrecked off the Cape of Good Hope. 

He and his wife had three children, all born in New Zealand, and they lived at “Glen Ligar”, somewhere near Official Bay, beside Charles Ligar and his family. The name of the O’Mealy family home, “Acacia Cottage,” may be just a coincidence with the Acacia Cottage later connected with Dr John L Campbell. O’Mealy’s cottage was on two acres, had five rooms, and a “three-roomed kitchen”. In 1850, the O’Mealys left Auckland, bound for San Francisco. 

They show up on an 1850 census at Trinity, California, a place of gold panning and wild dreams, where many Chinese worked hard as well to win riches from the ground. O’Mealy described himself then as a miner, so was apparently taking advantage of the gold rush fever of the time. There are traces of O’Mealy in America through to 1859, where in 1958 and 1859 he won prizes at state fairs for penmanship and topographical drawings. 

Then, he reappears in the Southern Hemisphere in 1863, his signature on a survey plan once again, this time for Dromana in Victoria, Australia. From this point, though, there is no mention of his family. He became a district surveyor by 1868 for the district of Inglewood, but by 1870 was heavily in debt. O’Mealy apparently did drink more than a fair bit, but in 1875 suddenly decided to quit and go absolutely tee-total. Later, some cast the opinion that he was “mad as a March Hatter” at times, and going stone dry suddenly didn’t help. 

One day in 1876, in a barn, he rigged up a razor on a piece of wood so it wouldn’t slip, had a large knife handy in case he needed that as a plan B, and slit his own throat. He died intestate, and his estate, what there was of it, went to his creditors after advertisements placed in the newspapers for a widow or other family led to no results. 

He wasn’t without friends, though. Four members of the community, two of them his fellow surveyors, carried his coffin to a Roman Catholic cemetery, and set to in digging his grave before a service there by the local Church of England minister. No one could say, at the inquest, if O’Mealy had been thinking of suicide before he did the deed or not. 

 But somewhere in the gap, both in time and across an ocean, he had parted ways for some reason with his family, and so died alone. He has, though, left behind something of a legacy for his time on the planet.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

The "dilapidated baronet": Sir Charles Wentworth Burdett (1835-1892)


Fourteen days hard labour in Mt Eden Gaol in Auckland for the theft of some roses. Such was the sentence in 1888 for Sir Charles Burdett, Baronet. 

Sir Charles Wentworth Burdett, 7th Baronet of Burthwaite, was born 4 November 1835 in India. His father, also Sir Charles Wentworth Burdett, was an officer in the service of the East India Company, and died in 1848 when his son and heir was only 13. 

 The younger Sir Charles went in for a military career, rising to the rank of lieutenant in the 54th Foot, and arrived in New Zealand in the early 1860s. Here, he served as a captain in the Waikato Militia, and later in the armed constabulary for nearly 11 years, discharged in 1874. In 1864 he married Betsey Higginson in Onehunga, then Grace Grant in 1871. He and Grace had three children. His son Charles Grant Burdett succeeded him as 8th Baronet. His father-in-law Matthew Grant was described as a well-to-do Pakeha-Maori frontiersman. 

According to Australian sources at the time of his death, Sir Charles had a heated argument with the Minister of Defence, Thomas Russell in the 1860s, insulting the other man, and that this led to Sir Charles being cashiered, then rejoining the militia just as a private, followed by the armed constabulary. It might also have been linked with rumours that he was to be an aide to Governor Sir George Grey. According to the same sources, Sir Charles’ downward spiral was assisted by his “strong affection for the bottle … He soon sank [after his stint with the AC] to the level of cook in surveyors camps, and to even more menial employment.” (Queensland Times, 2 June 1892) 

According to the Otago Witness, “In the Australian colonies he had been known for many years as a veritable "Jack-of-all-trades." He picked up a precarious living by stripping bark from trees, cooking for bushmen, and doing odd jobs about squatters' stations.” (Otago Witness, 7 November 1889) 

Sir Charles ended up as an inmate at the Auxiliary Old Men’s Refuge in Auckland in 1886, aged just 51. In April that year, he wrote to the Hospital Committee applying for the job of manager of the refuge. The Committee members responded that if Sir Charles was capable of managing that institution, he was capable of making his own living, and therefore had no need to be in a refuge, living on charity. 

Then in November 1888, the “dilapidated Baronet” was charged with stealing two roses and other flowers from Albert Park. 

“For some time past the flowers and plants in the Albert Park have been systematically purloined, and the police having been on the watch for weeks to discover the perpetrators of such mean and contemptible thefts, yesterday Constable McCoy was coming down Victoria-street, when he encountered Sir Charles Burdett, who was carrying a handkerchief full of roses and other flowers. As the worthy baronet was known to the constable he accosted him, and asked him where he obtained them. He first of all replied at a place in Hobson-street, and afterwards changed the locality to the cemetery. The constable, as the outcome of their conversation, invited Sir Charles to accompany him to the police station. The custodian of the Park was communicated with, and it being seen that some of the roses in the Baronet's bundle were Duke of Wellington roses, the custodian looked over the bed where these had been planted. It was discovered that several of the roses had been plucked. Owing to the drizzling rain making the volcanic soil plastic, a footmark was noticed in the bed, and on taking one of the boots of Sir Charles to the spot, it was found to correspond with the footprint in the bed. He was accordingly locked up on a charge of larceny of the flowers.” (NZ Herald 8 November 1888) 

He was found guilty, and sentenced to 14 days hard labour at Mt Eden Gaol. 

He was admitted into the Costley Home at Epsom on a trial basis in 1890, but ended up staying there until his death two years later. He was buried at Purewa Cemetery, his burial registration giving his occupation as “gentleman”. His son, Sir Charles Grant Burdett, died in 1918, and was buried at Eltham.