Sunday, 7 July 2013

John Hoani Honi Ruki Pohepohe McGruther

The following is an account of John McGruther with information about his parents Robert McGruther and Te Anu Pohepohe.

                                             JOHN McGRUTHER
Written by David Bell                          

JOHN McGRUTHER, also known by his Maori name of Hoani Ruki Hone Pohepohe, was born 16 November, 1882 at Kawhia on the western coast of New Zealand's North Island.

His mother was Te Anu Amokawhia, the daughter of Pohepohe, a prominent Maori chieftain in the Kawhia and Waipa surrounds. His father was a Scotsman named Robert McGruther who arrived in New Zealand with the British military. He was involved in the Waikato Maori-Pakeha (British) military campaigns and later, in 1867, the land war at Waitara, Taranaki. During that campaign he had a falling out with his British superiors and left the army at the conclusion of the conflict. He went from Taranaki to the coastal town of Kawhia which in those times was an important commercial and residential community for both Maori and Pakeha. It was here he married Te Anu, the high ranking daughter of Pohepohe, a local chief. Ironically, her father (Pohepohe) and Robert McGruther had only recently been fighting on opposite sides at Waitara; they may well have even taken pot shots at each other.

John had a tough childhood. His parents separated when he was a young boy. His mother was thoroughly Maori and his father a dour, stern, traditional Scotsman with an extreme fondness for drink. He either walked out of the marriage or Te Anu kicked him out, probably the latter.

Robert departed Kawhia and taking John with him, moved inland to live at Pirongia, leaving his other children, Mutu and Sam, with Te Anu. However, doubt hovers about the identity of Sam; no-one seems to know anything about him. John’s wife, Daisy, never met him and John himself believed he was nothing more than a ‘straw-man’ (fictitious character) made up to sign land-claim papers. He held the strong impression that some in his family were helping themselves to his holdings by using the name Sam McGruther to sign the documentation. Being so young and away from Kawhia he had no knowledge of what he, as the oldest son, had rights to. Another thing that makes one suspicious of the existence of Sam McGruther is the fact that unlike Mutu who was well known to everyone, none can recall ever seeing the mysterious Sam

Sometime later, Te Anu remarried to another Pakeha surnamed French. It seemed to be a more stable union and other children were born from it - notably, Tom and Besse, John's half brother and sister.

Robert and John became a familiar sight in Pirongia, Robert being well known for his heavy drinking. Adele Aubin, the daughter of Jean Aubin, the popular and wealthy local trader and medical practitioner, often saw John waiting and minding their horse for hours on end while his father was drinking in the public house. She said she always felt sorry for 'Johnny McGru'. On hot, summer days he would sit in the shade of the old tree that grew nearby, and on cold or wet days was forced to huddle under a makeshift shelter in his old oilskin coat. Little did Adele know that 'poor Johnny McGru' would one day make something of himself and that one of her future sons would marry his future daughter.

When Robert finally came out of the pub he would haul John up behind him onto the horse and they would head home to their house. It was little wonder that with such exposure to the elements, coupled with a poor diet, John developed tuberculosis, an ailment that would dog him all his life.

About his tenth year two aunts, Te Anu's sisters Rangi and Pera, took it upon themselves to get John enrolled in St. Stephens school at Auckland. Why they singled him out over his brothers in Kawhia can only be a guess at best. It may have been out of respect for Te Anu, or pity at his plight. Perhaps they saw greater potential in him. Whatever their motivation, it was the making of John. It gave him a sound roof over his head, three square meals a day, and the opportunity to learn.

Rangi and Pera, themselves of small means, sacrificed much to give John the opportunity for a good education. He did not disappoint them. He proved to be an intelligent and keen student right from the start.
St. Stephens School
St. Stephens was a boarding school and during the holidays he would ride the stage coach from Auckland to Pirongia over nearly three hundred miles of rough, dusty roads. At Pirongia he would find a horse and supplies arranged for him. He would then ride the horse to Kawhia, a further seventy to eighty miles. One can only imagine how grueling and potentially dangerous that journey must have been for such a young boy. But one should also consider the generosity and sacrifices of those two old aunts in Kawhia who scraped together the money for his schooling, provided his coach fares to and from Auckland, arranged at no small cost a horse and supplies at Pirongia, and then, when he finally arrived at Kawhia, treated him like a prince. 

From all accounts he loved his holidays at Kawhia as these were probably the only times he experienced any kind of stable family life. One would naturally presume he would have been very grateful to those two kindly aunts, but from various reports it seems he never expressed any such feelings. Jean, his own daughter said that he seemed to lack a feeling of family or kinship towards them, even though they did so much for him. Perhaps his harsh upbringing may have had something to do with it. He seemed to think it was their duty to treat him specially. Even later in life, knowing his great fondness for mussels and pipis, they sent large sacks of the shellfish to him at every opportunity, yet no-one ever heard him thank those kindly old ladies. One can only wonder why he didn't have a greater affection for them because if not for their love and sacrifice his life would have taken a far different turn.

When he was about fourteen Toko and Mita, two of his uncles at Kawhia, were nearing the end of their days. They owned two sizable tracts of land at Whatiwhatihoe near Pirongia and were trying to decide who should inherit it at their passing as neither of them had posterity. It was during discussions with the Maori king, Tawhiao, that the matter was settled. Tawhiao said, "Leave it to Hone Ruki!"

Thus settled, it was required that John return from St. Stephens post haste to sign the required papers in the presence of lawyers and land court officials. In those times travel was not as convenient as today so everyone had to come together at a specific time and place. Also, because Toko and Mita were illiterate they could only sign the transfer documents with a mark; usually a cross or some other familiar symbol. This required the presence of lawyers to witness and authenticate the marks.

For some reason, John's father, Robert, refused to allow his son to leave St. Stephens to attend the signing. His reasoning can only be guessed at. Was it an act of piousness designed to impress everyone? Was he bitter about the breakup of his marriage and wanted nothing to do with the Kawhia people? Or, did he have some other plan in mind we don't know about? Or, was he just being plain ornery and stupid? We will probably never know, but the end result was that John never signed the papers and the two blocks of land were somehow appropriated by the Anglican Church. Later, it moved into the hands of the Garmonsways, a local family of prominence, and the land was lost. There is some cause to believe that Robert McGruther and the Garmonsways had some kind of arrangement regarding John's land but what that arrangement might have been has been lost over time. It may well be that no such arrangement ever existed, that it was just hearsay. However, it is known that the two parties were on friendly terms and the fact that E. Garmonsway appears on Robert's death certificate as the only person present at his death indicates the possibility of a close relationship. Nevertheless, it is also known that the Garmonsways were kind to John and he always had good feelings towards them. It appears that this family had more to do with the McGruthers than we are aware of today.       

In his later years John often said that one day he would look into the possibility of getting the land back. After all, it was declared his by none other than the Maori king. And it was suspect how the church got possession of it in the first place and then able to sell it on. Who knows but that we might still have had a legitimate claim to it? But he never looked into it and the land remains lost.

Robert McGruther died on 21 February, 1897, aged sixty four when John was fifteen years old. His aunts took John out of St. Stephens and enrolled him in Te Aute, a college for Maori boys on the warmer, drier East Coast near Gisborne. This was much better for his tuberculosis. At Te Aute he rubbed shoulders with top young Maori scholars with names that later became well known in the new, emerging Maori world; names such as Ngata, Buck, Carroll, Love and Murray to mention a few. These were young men from prominent families taught from an early age that theirs was the calling to be the Maori leaders of a new age. Consequently, they were driven by a sense of importance and destiny, qualities that would certainly have had an effect on Hone Ruki.
Te Aute College

He did well at Te Aute and before he left, his old school, St. Stephens, offered him a teaching post. He gladly accepted because by this time a serious relationship with a young lady, whom he had met many years before, had ripened to maturity. With his studies completed and a secure job in the bag, he could now take the relationship to a new level.

As already mentioned, when he was on holiday from St. Stephens, he travelled to Kawhia to be with his aunts Pera and Rangi. As this was on horseback he would pass by the homestead and farm of a very well-known Family. The farm was called Puketotara, owned by Arthur Sydney Ormsby and his wife, Matire (Matilda). They had a very large family, several of which were girls. One in particular caught the eye of the young John. Her name was Mary Te Kurawhakaari, more commonly known as Daisy. Exactly how they met we now don't know, but remembering that he disembarked the stagecoach at Pirongia after a long journey from Auckland, picked up his horse to promptly begin the next leg to Kawhia, it would be a good guess that he stopped by the homestead on his way past. In those days, it was common for farmhouses along the main roads between settlements to offer hospitality and refreshment to weary travellers. John would certainly have been one of these which would have afforded him the opportunity to meet the Ormsby girls.

Kura was a bright girl so it would be no surprise she was equally attracted to Johnny McGruther, their relationship probably beginning on a casual basis before blossoming into a strong, long-term affair. However, it would be a relationship that would span the years until John had completed his studies and secured paying employment. The St. Stephens appointment was fortuitous and timely; he could finally propose marriage to his sweetheart and claim the prize he had so patiently worked for.

The announcement was greeted with gladness by the Ormsby family but was not without incident. Many years before, when Daisy was a child, a meeting was held between Arthur and his wife's Maniapoto cousins, the Nikora's, of Otorohanga. As was common in those old times, marriage arrangements for children were often made between related families. These betrothals were all about family connectedness and keeping the mana in the whanau, among other things. In that meeting it was agreed that Daisy be betrothed to Haparo, one of the Nikora boys. Now, with the news of Daisy’s pending marriage reaching their ears they became outraged. They were not about to have some bounder from Kawhia waltz in and take their mana. They set off on an expedition to Puketotara.

Daisy and one of her sisters were asleep in a small one-roomed cabin to the side of the main homestead when they were rudely awoken at sunrise by gunshots and shouting. One of her brothers burst through the door and commanded them to lie low and not come out, especially Daisy. Peeping through the window they saw an army of men in the paddock in front of the house pounding out a haka and blasting away with shotguns. They had come to challenge poor old Arthur for breaking the betrothal without their consent.

Promises were serious business to the old Maori, and the breaking of them even more so, often leading to war. There was, however, an old Maori law that covered broken promises and avoid bloodshed; it was the law of muru. Muru meant that the aggrieved party could arrive at the guilty persons dwelling and strip him of all he owned. Moreover, the guilty party was required to stand by and watch all his possessions disappear and deem it a great honour and privilege. The Maniapoto folk had come for muru.

For the next week Arthur was obliged to house and feed his angry relatives, all the while striving with his most eloquent oratory and finest hospitality, to placate them. Fortunately for him, muru had declined over the years and after a week of hui (big meetings), fine speeches from both sides, and much feasting, the Otorohanga folk felt the insult had been adequately paid and departed as friends, honour intact. Arthur didn't lose everything he owned but his farm was certainly lightened of a good number of pigs and sheep. It is not inconceivable that some money might even have changed hands. While well aware of Maori tradition and custom (Pianika, his mother, was a full-blooded Ngati-Maniapoto woman of high rank), he never thought when he betrothed little Kura all those years ago that it would come to such a to-do in this day and age. And Kura, when she found out why she was the focus of all the attention, was horrified and couldn't believe her parents could promise her to someone in marriage; and a first cousin, no less! Even if Hone Ruki hadn't come on the scene she would never have agreed to such an arrangement.

With the Maniapoto gone, Arthur satisfactorily robbed in compensation, and honour appeased, John and Kura were free to marry. This little incident, while humorous now, was very serious on the day and displayed how some old traditions clung on despite the country becoming totally under European influence. The old ways were being steadily weakened and dismantled and by John and Daisy's day had pretty much lost their power - in the old days Daisy would have had no choice. It would be a few more years before many of them, like muru, died out permanently.
The beautiful Kura

At age thirty-one he married Daisy (aged twenty three) in the Pirongia Anglican church, 14 April, 1914 and she went with him to Auckland. By now, she was a qualified nurse. He left St. Stephens (probably at the end of 1914) and took a teaching job at Tamahere, near Hamilton. He was the sole teacher there so he was headmaster, teacher and everything else. His first child was born there on 25 June, 1915. They named him John Robert but called him Jock, the name he would be known by for the rest of his life. In 1916 another child was born at Tamahere but she died after just two months of a heart defect, 10 September, 1916. They named her Moana Joy and she is buried at the small cemetery adjoining the St. Stephen's Anglican Church not far from the Rukuhia Airport. 

John liked his time at Tamahere and became highly respected by the community, which was mostly Maori. It is probable that they felt more comfortable with one of their own as the teacher of their children. No doubt, John would also have been more attuned to their needs than a teacher not of their culture. When he left to take up the post as schoolmaster at the Waerenga-a-Hika school for boys, he was showered with gifts and goodwill wishes. Daisy, too, had made her mark, her medical skills and services to the community being highly valued.

Because he felt the need to move up the professional ladder, he kept his eye open for better opportunities. When the post at Waerenga-a-Hika was advertised, he remembered Te Aute and how beneficial the warm, dry climate was to his tuberculosis, and applied. He got the job and the young family moved there in 1917. Two more children were born here; Colin, 22 March 1918, and Jean, 29 January 1920.

Waerenga-a-Hika lies about eight miles northwest of Gisborne on the road between Makaraka and Ormond and the school was established in June 1890 as a boarding school for native boys. It was built on a Church of England Trust Estate and was under the control of a Board of Trustees appointed by the Church with government oversight of curriculum and other educational matters. The schoolhouse was an imposing two-storied timber building with an iron roof. It had two classrooms and boarding accommodation for fifty pupils who were taught up to the standard four level. It also had quarters for the resident headmaster and his family.

His move to Waerenga-a-Hika held an interesting surprise with ancestral significance; Wae-renga-a-Hikairo means, the resting place of Hikairo. It was the very place where Hikairo, the eponymous ancestor of his Maori tribe, brokered a peace between two warring clans and the place was named in commemoration of his peacekeeping skills.  
John at Waerengahika with little daughter Jean and wife Kura.
It was a good position with a magnificent schoolhouse to live in and he might well have remained there for many more years if not for a random event that changed his life forever. He was attending a teachers’ course at Gisborne when an advertisement was announced for a teacher on Mangaia in the Cook Islands. The whole group expressed an interest until they discovered how remote the island of Mangaia was. They decided it would be a good joke if they all applied to see who would get the first response. John joined in and sent off his application - then promptly forgot all about it. Several weeks later he received a letter in the mail from the Ministry of Maori and Island Affairs inviting him to Wellington for an interview. He was greatly surprised and it took a while to realize it was in reply to the application he had sent in earlier.

Waerenga-a-Hika school in the late 1800's.
He was happy at Waerengahika but things had been happening that caused him to look more seriously at the idea of going abroad. Of late, stirrings of discontent had been swirling about the halls of education; some influential Europeans in high places saw Maori teachers, particularly those from special Maori schools like Te Aute, as inadequately qualified to teach European students and were putting pressure on the officials. No-one openly admitted this but those on the receiving end felt it; promotions, pay increases, and job opportunities suddenly began to dry up. By this time so many Maori scholars like John and the others he went to school with were out in the world and accomplishing great things. They got the feeling they were now being slowly and surreptitiously marginalized.

The job on Mangaia offered a good salary and the door to new opportunities. He duly went to Wellington and was immediately offered the post. Upon his return to Waerengahika he proudly informed Daisy of the good news and that he had also accepted a well-paid position for her; she was to be the sole nurse on the island. He often said it was his wife's nursing qualification that swung it his way. It would be easy to agree; no doubt his interviewers couldn't believe their luck, the combination of a highly qualified schoolmaster and nurse would have been impossible to turn down.
John and Kura around the time they left for Mangaia
They left for Mangaia Early 1924, traveling on a luxury liner that sailed out of San Francisco with a load of tourists doing the Pacific cruise. It took one week to go from Wellington to Rarotonga and when they arrived, John anxiously went on deck while the ship was docking. Moments later he came rushing into the cabin where Daisy and the children were busy putting all their things together and shouted excitedly, "We'll be alright, they speak Maori here! The boy on the dock said,
'Tiriamai te taura,' which means, throw down the ropes!"

Arial view of Mangaia Island.
Obviously, they had some worries about the new life they had embarked upon with one disconcerting rumour giving them cause for concern immediately upon their arrival in Rarotonga; they were told by the locals that the Mangaians were an uncivilized bunch who still practiced cannibalism. Horrified, John suggested he go to Mangaia first and see how dangerous it really was. Daisy's reply was that if they were going to eat him then they might as well eat the whole family. She and the children were going with him no matter what. They would stay together under all circumstances. As it turned out, they were assured by the Resident Commissioner, Judge Ayson that, like the Maoris, the Mangaians had long ago given up cannibalism.
A typical Mangaia scene.

Schooners to and from Mangaia and the other islands in the Cooks were the only means of transport. These were small craft about the size of a large yacht, motor driven when crossing reefs but wind powered by two masts and sails when on the open water. The Tagua and Waipahi were two schooners that plied the seas between Rarotonga and Mangaia.

A picture of a typical schooner that served the island of Mangaia.

They left Rarotonga in April, 1924, on the afternoon sailing and landed on Mangaia the next day. The voyage could be from ten to twelve hours, depending on sailing conditions. Because there was no natural harbour into Mangaia, outriggers from the shore would come out to offload passengers and cargo. This was how the family first set foot on Mangaian soil, and it must have been quite an adventure, especially for the two boys.

All the cargo and passengers had to be offloaded by smaller boats from shore.
There was no wharf on Mangaia during John and Kura's time there.

John thrived on Mangaia. He had free reign to work as he liked and soon got the schools into shape - there were three schools he was responsible for, one in each of the three villages: Onerua (the capital), Ivirua and Tamarua. At the end of his contract, which was for a three year term, he was offered the post of Resident Agent for the island, a post that made him the New Zealand Government Representative for all the island's affairs. By now he and Daisy had fallen in love with the island, its lifestyle and the people, so he readily accepted. Additionally, his already good salary became even better. In the meantime, Daisy had become greatly valued for her medical skills.

Map of Mangaia showing some of the features John and Kura wold have been familiar with.

He and the family returned to New Zealand after their three year period for a three month furlough. When they returned it was without the two boys, Jock and Colin, who remained behind to attend Kings College.
Left to right: Colin, Jean and Jock.

He and Daisy spent a further eleven years on Mangaia where they both distinguished themselves as tireless workers, and as the Resident Agent, John accomplished many useful civic and social projects. He was responsible for all commercial, educational, civil and legal matters on the island.

Leaving Mangaia
In 1938 they finally gave up life on Mangaia for a retirement to Puketotara, the family farm on the road to Kawhia, the same farm where he met Daisy when he was a youth. Daisy's mother, Mataire, had died in 1934 and bequeathed the farm to her. John could have continued in government service and gone on to great things, but he chose to semi-retire as a farmer. He was fifty six years old.

Tomati Makuru and Tiare Makuru,
the flower and tomato named after John
and Kura when they left Mangaia.


Whilst John was a great ideas man and superb organizer, a farmer he was not. He loved the country life and while he was not afraid of hard work, his real skills were in administration and organizing people as he had done for so many years in the classroom and on Mangaia. Consequently, the more physical aspect of farming got a bit neglected. He developed a farming formula that he believed the key to farming success and recited it like a mantra; he called it the 'Golden Tripod', or the three 'P's...Potash, Posts, and Pesticide. In other words, plenty of fertilizer, good fencing, and pest control; grass grub being the farmers' plague in those days.

Daisy, on the other hand, having been abroad, had widened her horizons. Immediately on her return she purchased a vacuum cleaner and an electric stove. These were the first of these conveniences seen in the district and were regarded with disdain by her sisters in particular. Having hardly moved past their front gates they viewed the new contraptions as gross extravagances and Daisy as a spoiled spendthrift, which, to some extent, they were right. Oddly, it was their menfolk who cottoned on to the modern gadgets and enthusiastically bought some for their own wives who soon became converts themselves.
Family Portrait.

The family enjoyed a wonderful few years at Puketotara. It was a happy home where anyone was welcome and food and entertainment always available. No-one noticed the black clouds of trouble gathering over their heads as Europe plunged deeper into war. When Mother England sent out the call to her colonies to join her in battle, New Zealand readily accepted her invitation and Jock and Colin were quickly called into the service. Jock was sent to Egypt and Colin to Palestine.

On the porch at Puketotara.
Eager to do his bit for the war effort, John set up a local Home Guard and was quickly nominated as the chief commander. He and the other local men who were too old for the front lines took their role very seriously, even though when looking back their antics often appear rather futile and frequently quite hilarious.

John's squad would gather together at Puketotara several times a week for military drills and training under his captaincy. Here they would hold councils on strategies and plan for all possible contingencies in the event of an enemy invasion.

An important part of training was the art of marksmanship. Whilst these doughty old farmers were excellent at shooting rabbits with their antique shotguns, few, if any, had any experience with a high-powered rifle. Recognizing the value of the home guard, the Ministry of Defense promised them some rifles and ammunition, but nothing ever arrived. John, ever the ideas man, set to and had an armory of wooden rifles made complete with triggers and sights fashioned from nails. He also had an excellent rifle range dug out of a hill with shooting stations at one end and enemy soldiers at the other made out of stuffed hemp sacks. For safety, and to dull the sound of rifle shot, he lined the whole thing with sandbags.

Their shooting drills went thus; firstly, he would have his squad take their stations, after which he would run to the front and stick hand-drawn bull’s-eye targets on the sack soldiers. Then, withdrawing safely to the side, call out, "Take aim...are you sighted on the mark?"

"Yes Sir!"

"When you are sure squeeze the trigger and say Bang!"

When the sound of gunfire ceased echoing through the valley, they would come together to discuss how accurate their shots had been.

Little Peter (Mac) and his cousin Eric Ormsby, just young boys at the time, were keen observers at the rifle range, but later forbidden to go there during training as it was deemed unsafe for children. Mac believes the true reason for their banishment was their obvious amusement and their retelling of it to others. Also, the older Eric kept saying, "Those are just toy guns, Uncle. Why don't you get some real ones?"

One day some shocking news came to the ears of the home guard; a Japanese submarine had docked at Kawhia and the Japanese had come ashore and made contact with some of the local Maori chiefs. It was reported they had even entered into talks with them, promising benefits should they throw in their support with the Imperial Japanese Army when it returned in force. What made it worse; some of the Maoris who were fraternizing with them were Daisy's relatives. John and his squad decided that immediate action needed to be taken. They determined that in the absence of any effective weapons or heavy artillery, the best thing to do was block the advance of the invaders. Taking axes and saws they rushed to the Kawhia Road - no more than a rough gravel track back then - and cut scarves in all the biggest trees that grew along the sides. The idea being that since the only road inland was the Kawhia road, and as soon as word was received the Japanese invasion was on, the home guard would rush out and quickly push all the trees over on to the road, thus blocking the Japanese advance so they could be picked off by troops hidden in the bush.

Two nights later a storm blew all the trees down and they spent the next month cutting them up and clearing the road.

To boost morale and give the troops a positive military experience, Captain McGruther organized a long march. This great long march was to go from Pirongia to the top of the Kaimai ranges. Other nearby home guard units were also invited to join. He also arranged for the home guards east of the Kaimais to meet them at the top of the Kaimais. It was a long journey meant to last several days. On it the troops would learn mapping, war strategies, survival skills, marching drills and much more. There wasn't a thing John and his committee hadn't thought of. All the young boys twelve and over were also encouraged to participate as it would help them appreciate the rigors of warfare and give them some ‘backbone’.

The day of the great long march duly arrived amid much excitement and enthusiasm. Captain McGruther came mounted on his horse while the others marched. A horse-drawn wagon carried their supplies. It was winter and on the first night on the march it rained heavily and the air turned bitterly cold. At Ohaupo the next day Captain McGruther came down with a severe chill and this coupled with his tuberculosis rendered him too ill to carry on. Hypothermia set in and he was taken home by car to recover. The others bravely carried on, determined to do their sick commander proud. The weather went from bad to worse and a couple of days later one of the young boys got pneumonia and had to be rushed to hospital. Eventually, the leaderless, bedraggled troops arrived at the foot of the Kaimais, and looking at the torrents of muddy water rushing down the rutted gravel road that wound steeply upwards, promptly mutinied and turned for home.

The long march was a personal embarrassment but nevertheless hailed as a limited success; while it failed to reach its final objective, lots of good lessons were learned from it.

The hardest thing was explaining to the East Coasters why their Waikato brothers didn't meet them at the top of the Kaimais.           

In July, 1944, when John was sixty two, tragedy struck; Jock was killed by shellfire in Italy. This had a devastating effect on John and the rest of the family; Jock was a young man of exceptional qualities and promise. Thankfully, their other son Colin survived the war and returned safely.

After the war John and Daisy continued to run the farm, but without Jock it began to deteriorate, especially as their money diminished. The farm was eating away at their savings and Daisy's great talent for spending didn't help matters. After a while only John's government pension kept them afloat.
Throughout his life back at Puketotara, John was heavily involved in the life of the district. He opened the Puketotara farm up to horse shows and gala days, the river running through it was long the favourite summer swimming place for everyone in the community, he was the chairman of the Rabbit Board, the district dairy factory representative, the local rugby club president and a bunch of other things that came up as needed - like committees for organizing various annual events such as the local Christmas and New Year functions and so on. He excelled in these affairs and so was naturally one of the leading lights in the community.

Left: The headstone of son John Robert McGruther, killed 14 July, 1944, Italy during W.W.II. His grave is in Assisi, Italy.

Eventually, the good times at Puketotara ended. In 1945 at sixty three years old, John suffered a debilitating stroke that made running a farm impossible. It took a long and hard-fought battle to recover from the stroke, and even though he regained his speech and his intellect, he was left partially crippled for the remainder of his days. One leg was so disabled he had to use a cane to walk, and the hand on the same side of his body was permanently clasped shut. But he fought a good fight and beat the odds by living to a good old age.

Around the late 1940's or early 1950's, his daughter Jean, and her husband Peter, purchased an hundred acre farm in the Ngutunui district, not too distant from Puketotara. About the same time their son Colin and his wife, Dede, by arrangement with John and Daisy, had taken over Puketotara. Both families had purchased these farms under the War Veterans' Scheme, a government program to help returned soldiers onto the land. John and Daisy bought the small cottage in Pirongia from Peter and Jean and moved into it, accepting that this would be where they would finish out their days feeling secure that Puketotara would remain in family hands. To their consternation, Colin sold it not long after and moved to Auckland and Puketotara was suddenly gone and with it an epic era going back to the pioneer days when Daisy's parents, Arthur and Mataire, carved it from the bush with axe and plough.

It was a big change for them; the Pirongia house was small and pokey, a far cry from the Puketotara homestead. Misfortune once again beset them when their house in Pirongia burned to the ground. Mac Bell, John's grandson, was in school at the time and it is to him we turn for an eyewitness account.

Mac was in class at the Pirongia Primary school when another student, Raewyn Marks, came rushing into the classroom having returned from a school errand to the Pirongia store (as a senior pupil and the headmaster's favourite, she had the assignment to go to the store every morning to pick up the school mail and any other school needs for the day) and told the teacher that the McGruther house was on fire. He did nothing but send her to her seat. Raewyn promptly whispered the news to the other kids and in an instant it went through the whole class. Mac and Colin were both in the room. Mac, who was at the back, was one of the last to know. He first noticed everyone in the class looking at him and he wondered why. Finally word got to him that his grandparents’ house was ablaze with smoke and fire billowing out the roof and windows. Alarmed, he quickly asked the teacher, who was also the headmaster, if he could leave to go and see if his grandparents were alright. The headmaster promptly told him he wasn't going anywhere and to sit down and get on with his work. Mac reluctantly returned to his seat but was desperate to go because he feared his grandparents might still be in the house. After a while his friend Manell Tamaki said, 'Mac, I'll open the window and you jump out!' Manell pushed the window up and Mac leaped out and was gone before the headmaster knew what had happened.

He rushed to the scene to find people flinging buckets of water on the flames, but it was an exercise in futility as the house had become an inferno. He was relieved to learn that John and Daisy had gone to Hamilton with the Kanutes, old farming acquaintances from Puketotara days.

Unable to do anything more he sprinted back to the school and walking boldly into the room told his younger brother, "Come on, Gunny's house is on fire, we have to go!" Colin quickly obeyed and they disappeared before the teacher could stop them. When they arrived at the scene of the fire there was nothing left but a smoldering ruin. He would have been about eleven or twelve at the time and already he possessed that decisiveness that was always one of his hallmark characteristics. The next day he was hauled over the coals by the headmaster for going AWOL and Manell for aiding and abetting. Each received the standard punishment for their actions; six lashes across the palm of the hand with a thick leather strap. One can't help but wonder at the insensitivity of that headmaster. There was some anger from the family when they found out about it, but apart from a bit of grumbling no complaints were laid and nothing was done.
John and Daisy were in Hamilton when the
house caught fire.

A new house was later built on the same site but the fire took with it a small shed filled from floor to roof with all their precious memorabilia from Mangaia. Very little survived; artifacts  handmade crafts, picture albums, valuable books, precious documents, all turned to ash.

John and Daisy received some insurance money but the new house was mainly financed by the people of Ngutunui and Pirongia who put their hands in their pockets as soon as they heard of their plight, something that deeply touched them. The new house was not much bigger than the former one but it was a house for which they were grateful.

Enjoying a tipple in his later years
This was the house John and Daisy occupied until his passing on 14 April, 1969, aged eighty six. He suffered a severe stroke and he was too old to recover. He died in the Waikato hospital several days after being admitted. His death certificate states that he died of cardiac failure after three days with bronchopneumonia following a cerebrovascular accident (stroke) suffered eight days earlier. His funeral was held at Purekireki - the Hikairo Marae about three miles south of Pirongia - and then he was buried 16 April at the Pirongia cemetery.

Headstone for John McGruther, Pirongia cemetery

Written by David Bell
Sources used:
1. Interview with Jean Bell and Mac Bell, Pirongia, July 2003.
2. Family letters and documents.
3. Birth, death and marriage certificates.
4. Personal memories.






  1. Hi with regards to grand dad Colin, I was wondering if you would be writing a part on his life because he too had a very interesting life after Gunny and Ma sold the farm that he (Colin Ormsby McGruther) and mum mum (Dede nee Beet ) had worked very hard on. If you were requiring any information on him I'm sure his daughters would be only too happy to share, as he too unlike Jock had a very interesting army career/life

    Regards Jayne

  2. Sorry typo error, should read..LIKE and not UNLIKE.

    1. Hi glad you posted your notice about an article on Uncle Colin...coincidentally, I am currently gathering all the info I have on him from my files...I will be glad to share copies of anything I have with you. Perhaps we can work on this together...I'll get with Heather and Allie as soon as I can for stories from them...he was one of my favourite uncles, really fun to be memories are really important because they keep him alive in our minds and hearts for generations. I would love to have more contact with you...please email me at and we can discuss how to best do a write up on your granddad....your cousin David Bell

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