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Stout fellows make history

Apr 12th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Article, Features, Front Page Layout

HILARY and JOHN Mitchell’s meticulous research into the history of the Nelson/Marlborough region has received recognition from the academic establishment. Their research backed the court cases that led to the Labour-led government’s foreshore and seabed legislation. 

ANNE CORNISH explores the couples journey in life and work.

johnhilarymain3THEIR books are impressive in size, scope and presentation. Their achievements are substantial – winning the history section of the 2008 Montana Book Awards, first married couple to receive a Stout Fellowship at Victoria University, he the first of Maori descent.

But Hilary and John Mitchell are no “ivory tower” academics. Although he has a doctorate in psychology from Canterbury University, and she a BA in English and French and a Diploma of Education from Massey, they have also grown tomatoes to make a living, managed a student hostel, and run the Outward Bound School at Anakiwa.

The 2009 Stout fellows are using the fellowship to work on the fourth volume in their series of history books, Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: a history of Maori of Nelson and Marlborough.

The books resulted from research on behalf of a number of Nelson & Marlborough Maori groups, based on whakapapa and family records, for Waitangi Tribunal claims.

This long and painstaking task began when John was “fingered” by his uncle, Moutere (Island) Love, to gather information for Treaty claims in 1979.

“While at Outward Bound, I used to spend quite a bit of my time in boat yards in Waikawa, near Picton, getting boats repaired,” he says. “Outward Bound is pretty hard on boats. Right next to Jorgensen’s boat yard was dear old Uncle Island Love.

“I would often have lunch with him and Aunty Pat, where I was introduced to some of the things as they were occurring during the 1970s. They were trying to get the Waikawa marae built.

“He asked ‘Where are you going to go after this? Have you thought it’s about time you came home? We have been thinking there’s a lot of stuff going on, Waitangi Tribunal etc, [it’s] about time some of your generation came home and took over from us elders.’

“I came to the decision that Uncle Island was right.”

The first “coming home” role John undertook was to sit on the Whakarewa School Trust Board in Motueka. “I got asked by Uncle Tom Bailey and Uncle Rangi Elkinton. These were two of the then 70 and 80-year-old kaumatua who were asked by the Bishop of Nelson to nominate someone for this infamous Whakarewa school trust.”

Infamous, because “essentially it was the theft in 1853 of 918 acres of Maori Reserve lands in Motueka by Governor Grey, who then granted it to the Anglican Church to form the Whakarewa School”.

He also became secretary of the Whakatu Marae committee, for about seven years. A runanganui (Te Runanganui o Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui, the Grand Council of Tribes of Nelson and Marlborough) was set up by the eight tribes of the region in the late 1980s, and John was elected deputy chair and convenor of Treaty claims.

In the context of the times, the Government was making a huge number of changes. Government departments were being disestablished and replaced by others. The Department of Conservation was created out of conservation estates that had been separately administered. Forestry was being commercialised. The fisheries quota management system was being introduced.

Although there was a good deal of consultation with Maori about these changes, most of the iwi in Nelson/Marlborough didn’t have their own formal structures. They needed an organisation that could represent their collective interests. So they created Te Runanganui to have a voice and to recommend panel members for the many committees and advisory groups that were being established, as well as to start formulating their Treaty of Waitangi claims.

johnhilarymain2“We put together our histories in a fairly legalistic way as required by the Tribunal,” says John. “By the early 2000s, tribal hearings were beginning to wind down. Several people, Maori and Pakeha, suggested all this material  you’ve compiled in a legalistic way for the hearings, why don’t you print it?”

Hilary and John had met in their first year at Canterbury University, in 1959. John recalls “I used to see this dashing blonde in our first year at university who was very remote and untouchable and looked just like Anita Ekberg, just a bit shorter. I had to become a stalker, until I got up enough courage to talk to her.

“Finally I was brave enough to ask you for a dance at the orientation ball, but you don’t remember.” A laugh from them both.

For Hilary, one motivation for doing the work was to let people know the truth about the history. “There is an absolute disjunction between what people think and what actually happened. I would hear ‘oh, there weren’t any Maori here’ in Nelson. I wanted to make sure people couldn’t say that.

“We hope it will make Maori very proud of their ancestors. The kindness they showed to the settlers was extraordinary after the things that happened to them.”

For example, the native reserves, lands set aside for the occupation and use of the original Maori inhabitants, were supposed to be in perpetuity.

But, as Hilary points out, many of these lands were taken back by the Crown – “whenever it suited them, in all sorts of rather nefarious and dodgy proceedings.”

“Some were sold by owners because they were so poverty stricken. That was their only asset. Some got lost in indeterminate ways and ended up in Crown and private ownerships.”


The amount of information the Mitchells had gathered was too much for one book. They have had to create four separate volumes. The first, Te Tangata Me Te Whenua (The People of the Land), concentrates on pre-colonial times and land issues.

John says he told the elders: “If you want me to write the stories, you need to give some of this family stuff you’re so secretive about. Many Maori families have whakapapa books that go back 140 years or more, and some go right back to the canoes from Hawaiki.

“It was a huge honour for Hilary and me that we’ve been given access to more than 80 whakapapa books.”

He was saddened when, at launch of Volume I in 2004, of those kaumatua there were only about four of them left, some of them too sick to attend.

For seven months in 2004, Hilary and John lived on their savings while they put the book together.
Volume II, Te Ara Hou (The New Society), is a comprehensive history from the 1830s to 1900. It covers the locations of Maori when Europeans arrived, the introduction of Christianity, and the clash of new European ways with old Maori ways.

By the time it was published in 2007, only aunt Kath Hemi was left to come to the launch, John says.


The couple received a grant from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to do the second book. Hilary says: “We had to do it in a year or we’d be using our own money again. We shut up our home in Nelson and went house-sitting all over New Zealand. We did it in the year. It was great living in all the other places.”

Volume II, currently at the stage of final preparation for publication, will be like reading a telephone book, says John.

They came across dozens of birth and marriage records, ownership of blocks of Maori land, people on electoral rolls. It is list after list of names, dates and places. They frequently receive calls from people seeking this information, so they decided to put it all in a book that people can use as a permanent reference.

“It won’t be a good read outside of the Maori networks. But for people who want to track down great granddaddy…”

Volume IV, the subject of their J D Stout Fellowship, will be a book of biographies of about 40 chiefly families. They decided to write about the families rather than focus on individual chiefs because “you don’t get to be a rangatira on your own”.

Researching the first two books, Hilary and John spent weeks and months in the Alexander Turnbull Library and Archives New Zealand, at the Maori Trust Office, and the Maori Land Court in Christchurch. They found settler diaries at Nelson, Marlborough and Hokitika museums, and travelled to Dunedin, Christchurch, Taranaki, Auckland and overseas.


“At the Mitchell library in Sydney there’s almost a duplicate set of the first 10 years of New Zealand records,” says John.

“I know it sounds crazy, but it was actually cheaper for us from Nelson to go to Sydney, and the Mitchell library was open much longer hours. We found wonderful collections of New Zealand manuscripts and historical artworks in Canberra, Adelaide, and Melbourne. And quite a bit in the British Library in London.”

Some of those are artworks, not manuscripts. At the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford, senior curatorial assistant Jocelyne Dudding discovered 57 wonderful water colours in the dungeon.

The subjects were chieftains and ordinary people from Te Tau Ihu. Isaac Coates, a Quaker, had painted them. “Jocelyne rang us and said she had these paintings, would we be interested?”

The Mitchells visited Pitt Rivers a couple of years later and negotiated to reproduce most of those images in Volume II.

For Hilary, as a pakeha working in a Maori world, “there are some areas I don’t go into. I leave whakapapa to John. There are areas that are culturally sensitive to people and I wouldn’t tread there. I focus on the social history, general historic themes.

“I think one of the big issues of doing this sort of thing is gaining trust of people, that you will treat the material with respect. It takes quite a while; people need to get to know you.”

When they get to the stage of turning it into a readable narrative it is a joint effort. John interjects: “You’re the better writer than me.”

They believe that it’s one thing to treat people with respect, but it’s another to try to change history. So they have not shied away from subjects such as slavery and prostitution, even though some people say it is a taboo subject. Although they would discuss the activity itself, they wouldn’t name names.

Hilary remembers: “When we launched the second book, some Pakeha women at the Nelson museum were worried we might have written bad things about their ancestors.”

When writing the books they take turns to write each chapter. Hilary: “By the time we have finished we like to think you can’t tell which chapter was done by whom.”

They say they have written a social history, targeting a reading age of about 10, and “tried to avoid a lot of rarefied and ‘high-falutin’  language”.

“People have said to us there’s not much of you in this book and we said ‘no, we weren’t there in 1870.’ We’re just the editors who’ve compiled what other people have said.

“We try to write flowing narratives that people can read and understand, but there are certain underlying principles that I believe apply to even the writing of history. There are one or two cases where we’ve said we think this is what might have happened, but by and large it’s a story told by the voices of the day.”

John says he was sometimes very frustrated with some of the Waitangi Tribunal submissions. “We have seen so many of the other expert witnesses… [I’m] not talking about the iwi witnesses, because people tell their story as they believe it, an oral tradition within their family. I can forgive the rather rash conclusions that people will often make. But I’m talking about the trained historians and lawyers who have compiled historical accounts and legal submissions for the Tribunal process.

“Some of them, not all of them, seem to have become captured by their clients and so they have struggled hard to make a case despite missing or conflicting historical evidence. They have made interpretations of the facts which are not warranted. They have exceeded grossly what the archival record actually says in their interpretations, and we won’t have a bar of that.

“Worse, sometimes such work is believed by those sitting in judgement, so that distortions of history become set in concrete.”

They are pleased that they are able to publish to a high quality, and grateful to Wakatu Incorporation and Huia Publications for making that standard possible.


“Wakatu underwrote the enormous printing costs, and without that we wouldn’t have been able to publish to that quality.”

The books feature many contemporary photographs, historic photos and paintings, and illustrations using stylised Maori motifs by Nelson artist Brian Flintoff.
When he held the first book in his hands, John says he felt “quite chuffed, really pleased with the way it came out. What impressed me, the day we took it to Wakatu it coincided with the meeting of the board.

“We asked our kaumatua, Rore Stafford, to bless it and he did it with tears in his eyes. Our books are, in large part, about the events, trials and tribulations in the lives of ancestors of Wakatu’s present-day shareholders”.

During his time as deputy chair of Te Runanganui, John became involved in the foreshore and seabed issue. He says water space had been allocated for marine farming over 15 to 20 years.

Maori in Marlborough had obtained only a few acres, although they had a measure of success in the Tasman District. “But in Marlborough, the subcommittee of council that had the power to issue consents seemed to be dominated by people with racist attitudes, vehemently against Maori. In circumstances where resource consents were being allocated over water spaces which were sensitive to Maori, we had never ever been able to convince people to take these concerns into account. 

“We weren’t against marine farming, we wanted to get into the industry. We applied for some ourselves. We never ever once succeeded in getting any allocations.”

On one occasion, the environmental impact report by NIWA cost Te Runanganui $40,000 but again the application failed.

A few months later NIWA asked if they could buy back that report for use by another applicant. That applicant’s consent was granted, using the same report as Te Runanganui had submitted for their failed application.

“So we were getting increasingly alarmed. We decided we’re not going anywhere with this council. We took a case to the Maori Land Court. We won. What we established was that the land purchases of the 1850s did not include those waters. The Crown and council allocations were therefore being made illegally.

“We won repeatedly in the courts, right up to the Court of Appeal, but the so-called highest court in the land – Parliament – stifled us when they brought down their legislation – the Foreshore and Seabed act 2004.”

John says: “We, Te Runanganui and the iwi of Te Tau Ihu, started it. I was appointed, coerced, railroaded into becoming the spokesperson for this issue. I was only there at the wish of the people. I stayed in that position from about 1992 until late 2003 when Matiu Rei and a new national organisation took up the battle on behalf of all iwi of New Zealand.”

John and Hilary have two sons and a daughter, aged 41, 39, and 37.

Eldest son Adam lives in Blenheim and works for a construction company. John “noticed a transition. Because we were coming to Wellington we had a spare car. We said to Adam, do you want a car? He said ‘not particularly, but I would like your trailer’. Life has reached an interesting turn when your children turn down a car but want a trailer.”

Son Luke is a hedge fund analyst in London. His job involves keeping track of investments, and making sure he knows what the hedge funds are worth on any given day. They say the news from him has been all bad for the last two years.

“When we were over there nearly two years ago, he was telling us there’s going to be a big collapse. He said ‘our bank is already half a billion Euros down the drain. It’s going to get worse and there’ll be ripples all over.'”

Daughter Susan lives in Featherston and works in Lower Hutt, teaching singing to individual Chilton Saint James and Upper Hutt College students. She was a member of the National Youth Choir.

Music is a part of their family heritage. Hilary shares a maternal great grandmother – who was an opera singer – with Malvina Major. John has whanau connections to Frankie and John Stevens.  “Music, ‘canned’ and ‘home-made’ filled our homes when we were growing up in Golden Bay. Mum was a great party pianist, Dad was a good singer as were all the aunts and uncles, and most could play ukes, guitars and tea-chest basses.”

John Mitchell of Ngāti Tama, Te Atiawa, Taranaki Tuturu, Ngāti Toarangatira and Ngāti Kinohaku descent is tangata whenua of Mohua (Golden Bay).

Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka: The prow of the canoe

Iwi belonging to Te Runanganui o Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka a Maui: Ngati Apa, Ngati Kuia, Rangitane, Ngati Koata, Ngati Rarua, Ngati Toa, Ngati Tama, Te Atiawa

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  1. JOHN ODONNELL. was my great-great grandfather. her was also known as Tiemi TePuku or Teone TePuku

    and we have some information on his father “George”

    if you read this please contact kapitiboy at gmail dot com


  2. Dear Mrs Cornish, I´m an portuguese/mozambican researcher at Centre for Social Studies (CES) of Coimbra University ( and I´m currently doing an PhD about Lourenço Marques suburb before independence (1950-1975). After an interview with Antonio Rita Ferreira (, he told me about the work that Dr. Hillary Fleg Mitchell made about the “caniço” in the 50´s. Than I reed your article ( about her and her husband, and I wonder: Do you know her contact? I´d like to email her about this issue. Thanks for your time. Kind regards, NSG

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