Page 1: Biography
Labourer, carter, merchant, politician, runholder, land speculator
This biography, written by Roberta Nicholls, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
According to family sources John Martin was born on 11 November 1822 at Moneymore, County Londonderry, Ireland. He was the son of John Martin, a clergyman who was later a farmer, and his second wife, Sarah Espie. There were three children of the first marriage, and John Martin junior was the second of eight more children who survived infancy. Sarah and John Martin senior died of typhus in 1838, and in 1840 the 11 Martin children set sail for New Zealand from London on the Lady Nugent. John Martin landed at Port Nicholson, New Zealand, on 17 March 1841.
Johnny Martin, as he was known, began work as a pick-and-shovel hand and eventually purchased a horse and cart. He impressed others as 'a very steady, plodding and industrious young fellow, with a shrewd head and frugal instincts.' In 1846, when settlers were in conflict with Maori, he carted stores and ammunition to the militia in the Hutt valley. On 14 September 1847 at Wellington he married Marion Baird, a domestic servant from Scotland; the couple were to have 10 children.
In 1860 Martin obtained a letter of credit for £1,500 and went to Otago to join his brother-in-law, James Chapman Smith, in partnership on a pastoral run. However, in May 1861 Gabriel Read found gold on their land; the depasturing licence was cancelled and the run officially declared a goldfield. Smith and Martin sold their stock as meat for the miners and transported gold to Dunedin. John Martin returned to Wellington soon afterwards with about £13,000. He bought land cheaply in Taranaki Street, set up as a merchant and general commission agent in Manners Street and built a residence, Fountain Hall, in Ghuznee Street.
In 1863 Martin was elected to the town board but he 'had an Irish temper, and was plainly not the type of man for public life.' After a 'fistic episode' with the chairman, W. Allen, he was not renominated for the 1864 elections. In 1861 and again in 1865 he stood unsuccessfully for the Wellington Provincial Council, and in 1871 he failed to gain a City of Wellington seat in the House of Representatives.
Financially John Martin was more able. In April 1864 he sold three acres of Taranaki Street land at a handsome profit. In 1869 he purchased the 12,698-acre Otaraia station in Wairarapa, and in partnership with Thomas Henderson bought out the New Zealand Steam Navigation Company. In 1871 he cheekily bought at auction 24,787 acres in the centre of Daniel Riddiford's Te Awaiti station in Wairarapa. A year later Riddiford was forced to buy the land; Martin made £500 and an implacable enemy.
But not all went well. In 1869 Martin lost over £7,000 completing a contract for the construction of the new Government House in Wellington, and in 1871, after petitioning Parliament for compensation, lost his appeal. J. C. Andrew was the only Wairarapa runholder to cast a vote against the appeal and in 1872 a vengeful Martin applied for and won the right to purchase more than 3,000 acres of previously leasehold pastoral land on Andrew's station. Enraged, Andrew raised the matter in the House. Only after the Committee of Privileges advised that 'Mr Andrew should be protected from the injury with which he has been threatened' did Martin withdraw his land application.
John Martin could be a generous host. At the Otaraia station woolshed in 1873 he held a ball to celebrate the opening of the Waihenga bridge. Festivities continued until daybreak: 'it was a great shivoo.' In early 1875, when he had a drinking fountain erected on Lambton Quay, the water at the opening ceremony was liberally mixed with whisky. Before leaving for a tour of Europe and America in 1875 he held a farewell dinner at his own hotel, the Panama, and next day departed on his own steamer, the Taranaki. He was to sell this and two other steamers, the Phoebe and the Wellington, to the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand in 1876.
Martin had been made a justice of the peace by William Fitzherbert in 1876, and when in 1878 he was called to the Legislative Council by Premier George Grey, the class-conscious editor of the New Zealand Times was incensed: 'It is not easy to treat this strange Ministerial freak seriously.' In his 14 years on the Legislative Council, Martin spoke only four times. Although he attended diligently, he was known as a 'silent member'.
In January 1879 John Martin caused a sensation when he purchased G. M. Waterhouse's 33,346-acre Huangarua estate in Wairarapa. Newspapers reported that Martin paid £85,000 in gold for the land and stock. He immediately split the run into 334 small farms; the township of Waihenga was renamed Martinborough and divided into 593 sections to be sold. But Martin's speculation coincided with the onset of the agricultural depression, and the auction was a flop.
Martinborough's sluggish beginnings failed to match the grand vision of its founder: the town was designed in the shape of a Union Jack, with streets radiating from a central square and named after famous places Martin had visited during his overseas tour. He also left his mark on Wellington's urban landscape in the form of Martin Square; Marion, Jessie and Espie streets were named after his two youngest daughters and his mother.
During the 1880s John Martin travelled extensively. Marion Martin died in Wellington on 11 February 1892 and John Martin followed on 17 May. He was remembered as an exceptional self-made man who had 'raised himself by untiring energy and perseverance from the bottom of the ladder'. He left a substantial fortune to his children.