Monday, 9 September 2013

Robert Ormsby

               Robert Ormsby
                                                         Written by David Bell                                                     
Robert Ormsby 1823 ~ 1920

Robert Ormsby was born in Ireland, 13 June, 1823. His father was the Reverend Owen Ormsby, Rector of Ballymascanlon, County Louth. His upbringing was good for the times, his family possessing considerable lands and wealth, and his father being a Rector suggests he also would have had a strong Anglican-Christian home life. He also had access to a good education and attended Trinity College in Dublin from 1841 to 1844.  It appears, though, that he wasn’t the greatest of scholars, his success in the academic world being rather limited. Nevertheless, he valued learning and all through his life encouraged education…more on his forays into the field of education will be discussed later in this article.

One year after his stint at the Dublin College, he left Ireland for New Zealand. Colonisation was in full swing at that time and I would suppose he was caught up in the spirit of adventure and the possibility of wealth and fortune on the other side of the world. Additionally, George, his older brother had earlier left the motherland and after some time in Australia doing survey work for what is today the city of Melbourne, took up residence and a government post in Auckland, New Zealand. Robert joined him and gained temporary employment as a government courier conveying messages to and from the British military settlements throughout the Auckland-Waikato regions. Along with this he conducted school lessons for the children of these outposts, an indication of his personal commitment to education. Whether or not he received remuneration for these efforts I can’t say.

Somewhere during his time as a courier he must have secured a bit of land, for a jury list states that he was a farmer of Manukau. Also during his courier days he had a life-changing experience; he got lost in thick bush somewhere near Kawhia and nearly died. He was found in a delirious state by a young Maori chief of the area and taken back to his village and given over to his sister, one Rangihurihia (also known as Pianika Te Raku-Takiari), to nurse back to health. Under her care he made a full recovery. It is said that he fell in love with his nurse and the two married. Another story says that her father, Te Raku Whakapuhara Takiari, a Maniapoto chief, insisted they marry in such a way that it was an offer Ormsby could not refuse!  Perhaps it was a bit of both because unlike so many other white settlers who married into Maori tribes to get land then dumped their native wives when they had served their purpose, Robert Ormsby remained faithful to Pianika for the rest of their lives.

Below: Meri Rangihurihia Pianika Te Raku-Takiari
                                           (1828-1905), wife of Robert Ormsby.
It was a good marriage but by no means a fairy tale one. Robert’s Maori wife was a strong and independent Maniapoto of high birth with a hot temper. Her mother was Matekorama Rangihemoana Te Ra, a woman of great note in the area. Pianika was also cousin to both Ngati Maniapoto's renowned fighting chief, Rewi Manga (more commonly known as Rewi Maniapoto) and Ngati Toa's ferocious Te Rauparaha. Little wonder she was noted for her fiery spirit. Robert gave her a name of his own which she became known by; he called her Bianca after the character in the novel, The Taming of the Shrew. Pianika is te-reo for Bianca.
Pianika was thoroughly Maori and knew little of Pakeha culture. The differences between her and her husband could have been insurmountable if not for Robert’s sincerity and fidelity; no doubt a product of his strict Christian upbringing. Nevertheless, he had to make concessions and sacrifices in his own life so that his marriage would endure. For example, his son Jeremiah once wrote to him asking why a man of his reputation and standing did not take a more prominent role in the affairs of the community. Robert wrote back to his son as follows: 

My Dear Jerry,
I got your letter of 19th by way of Te Raumoa, for the stupid girl in Pirongia sent it there. You say I am not a sociable sort of man which is quite true. Most people like to give as good as they get. I never can have things as nice as people who have European wives and therefore I keep strangers at a distance and keep myself at a distance from them.
You seem to think that fortunes are always made by what is called ‘sharp practice’ and perhaps most are, especially in these colonies, but there are some who can say that they have made their money honestly. In fact it seems as natural for some men to grow rich as for the greater number to become poor. One of the greatest blessings that a man with money can have is that he can keep his children, or some of them, about him.

I had a letter from William lately, he seems to be doing well and to like his work. I could wish he had more fancy for farming but I suppose what he is at pays better.

By last account the Boers seem to be getting it, they will not have much to boast this time. England seems to be sending a proper number of men. I heard an old soldier once that she generally sends ten when she should send fifty.

Nothing new or uncommon here; we are both pretty well but of course failing. You know how glad we will be to see you if you come at Christmas.

Ever you’re affectionate father,

R.O. Sen.

The letter is dated 28 October – year unknown but probably towards the later part of his life as he states that both he and Pianika are ‘failing’, suggesting old age was upon them. I would guess the year to be around 1910 to 1912.

From this letter we can glimpse some valuable insights as to the character of Robert. I sense a man who was not afraid to speak his mind and a man with a keen sense of family as shown by his comment about the greatest blessing a rich man can have; he obviously loved his children of which there were thirteen. His offspring (all males but two) included the following from oldest to youngest: Gilbert William – Robert – Arthur Sydney (our line) – John –Mary Hinetu - Anthony – Richard (died in infancy) - Annie – Jeremiah – Charlie – George – Benjamin – William.

The letter also shows a man committed to his marriage and the institute of marriage, insomuch that he willfully gave up his own social needs for his wife. The fact that he remained true to her is a testament to his character.   

He was obviously a scrupulously honest person, choosing to earn his living by honest toil. He never did make a great fortune but he made sure all his children were well cared for. I get the sense that he put honesty and integrity before pecuniary gain.

I believe he did his best to make sure his children were well enough educated for the times and history shows that all of them were literate and active members of society. Our own Arthur, his third son, became a respected local historian and community leader, for example.

Land, I suppose, became his greatest temporal legacy to his posterity. Although he wasn't a farmer himself, he encouraged his sons to work the land until eventually the Ormsby clan owned vast amounts of it from Puketotara to Kawhia. It’s pretty much all gone now, only a couple of farms in the Puketotara-Ngutunui districts remaining in hands of Keith Ormsby (great grandson to Robert) and Raymond Ormsby (great-great grandson), the last two guardians of the old Ormsby Empire. His more lasting but less tangible legacy would be his indomitable spirit and sense of family.

From Robert Ormsby has grown what is arguably the largest and most identifiable family in New Zealand. There are thousands of unrelated Bells, Smiths, Jones’ and so-on, but there is only one Ormsby. If you have the name Ormsby there is only one family and one heritage you belong to and it leads right back to Grandfather Robert.

Robert must have earned the respect of his wife’s tribe because he was soon adopted as a member of Ngati Maniapoto. Pianika’s lineage is a strong one; she was the daughter of Te Raku, a paramount chief and a direct descendant of Hoturoa, the Tainui Captain. She was also closely connected to the famous Maniapoto chief, Rewi, as well as having strong ancestral ties to Te Rauparaha of Ngati Toa.

Their first home after they were married was at the Anglican Mission at Mangapouri where he worked as a school teacher. In 1857 he lived at a place called Turitea Valley where he travelled to many areas as an itinerant teacher organising schools in newly settled communities. During the 1860’s he taught in places like Tamahere and Hautapu (near Hamilton) and eventually Alexandra, or Pirongia as it is now known.

In Alexandra he set up a school but was later required by the authorities to agree to be a settled resident of the town and to pass an examination set by the Central Board of Education, presumably to make sure he had some bona-fide credentials to operate a school. This meant he had to reapply for the position because the Central Board of Education was now in charge. In September, 1872, he was appointed as the school’s first headmaster with fifty pounds per annum as salary. A Mrs Dillon was also hired as a part time sewing teacher for ten pounds per annum.  In September the following year, he agreed to open an evening school but had some kind of dispute over the salary. Added to this was his refusal to adhere to Board regulations and some complaints about his harsh disciplinary methods; all adding up to a bumpy start to his teaching days at Pirongia.

It got worse. In 1874, an inspector’s report gave a negative account of the standard of work achieved by the school and in 1877 he ran into big trouble regarding his disciplinary measures.  In the book by L. H. Barber titled, A View From Pirongia, we read:

Robert Ormsby was not a typical late nineteenth century colonial headmaster. He was an unfortunate choice, although a Hobson’s choice as far as the Board was concerned, for there were no other applicants. Ormsby had come to New Zealand from Ireland, having failed to complete a Classics degree at Trinity College, Dublin. With some help from his father, a Church of England Rector, Ormsby immigrated to New Zealand and first tried his luck as a farmer at Manukau, married a Maori chief’s daughter and began work as an itinerant teacher.
Ormsby was a harsh disciplinarian who soon after his appointment to Alexandra School clashed with the school board over the treatment of pupils. The Board, chaired by Major Mair, received a complaint from the parents of children kept in during the dinner hour and refused all food and water during the school day. The school board decreed that henceforth the headmaster could only detain pupils after three o’clock in the afternoon.

On 9 March, 1877, the board was faced with another case and conducted a serious inquiry regarding allegations that a student was left ‘beaten and bleeding’ by Ormsby. After hearing evidence the board decided that Ormsby would be suspended if any further charges were proved against him.
In mitigation of Ormsby’s strictness it must be recorded that he played a useful role as a supporter of the Alexandra musical Society, a group that met in the schoolhouse from 1874. He also keenly supported the Alexandra Literary Society and the chess club, and allowed these groups to use the school. The Alexandra Institute Library, founded in 1871, had Ormsby to thank for the balance of novels by Charles Dickens and Lord Litton (and other notable authors) and scientific and farming works purchased largely with Auckland Provincial council funds. Ormsby also acted as a spokesman for local Maori in the Te Awamutu courthouse.

It should also be remembered that beatings, sarcasm, rote learning and patriotic indoctrination were normal aspects of late Victorian education. Ormsby was not exceptionally vicious.
When the Maori wars broke out in the mid 1860’s he was being drawn into a situation where he would have to pick a side; he didn't want to have divided loyalties so he moved to Auckland with his family. Only his third eldest son, John, remained at Pirongia because Pianika’s parents grieved at their grandchildren being taken to a distant place, and John was greatly loved by them. Robert reluctantly left the boy in their care and he was raised by them for several years in true Maori fashion. When the wars ended John returned to be with his parents and siblings and became a prominent player in civic affairs in his mother’s Maniapoto territory by helping set up local bodies in Otorohanga and Te Kuiti. He also became a valuable advocate for Maori in the land courts, his fluency in both the Maori and English languages and a life-knowledge of both cultures being advantageous. Robert’s other son, Jerry, also became prominent in local body affairs.  Robert and his family have made a significant contribution to the early history of the Waikato and King Country.                 
Robert and some family members - Robert is seated in the back.
(Double click to enlarge the picture)
Robert Ormsby died at Otorohanga on Thursday 23 December 1920 aged ninety seven. His death certificate states the cause as 'senile debility over several years'. He was buried 26 December in the Ormsby cemetery (Te Akarauti) a few miles from Pirongia on the Kawhia Road. His wife, Meri Pianika, died eight years earlier on Thursday 5 January 1905, aged seventy seven.

                                            Above: Death Certificate For Robert Ormsby

Headstone for Meri Pianika, Robert Ormsby's Maori wife,
Te Akarauti cemetery.

Written by David Bell
Sources used:

1.      L. H. Barber, A View From Pirongia, p. 78
2.      Korero of our family kaumatua, Mac Bell
3.      Notes from the Paki Ormsby Family History book.
4.      Copy of letter from Robert to his son, Jeremiah dated 28 October (year uncertain-         probably between 1910 and 1913).
5.      Newspaper clipping titled: Pioneer of Land – King Country owes much to the Ormsby family.



  1. This is an amazing account of my great-great grandparents. I have never read so much detail about them before thank you David.

    1. Glad you liked it Pauline. There's another article on his son Arthur in same blog..just enter Arthur Ormsby in the search box...also gives a bit of history on origin of Ormsby clan.

  2. Kia ora David. I descend from the son John, who was my great grand father. I like the conclusions that are drawn. It highlights the obvious character and nature of a man that has been shaped from his upbringing, his work and life but more importantly from his whānau Māori. The sentiments within the letter tell of a man that valued whānau above a lot of things. ngā mihi... Mark Ormsby