Page 1: Biography
Blake, John Thomas
Taranaki; surveyor, interpreter, land agent, historian, racehorse owner and trainer
This biography, written by Patrick Parsons, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
John Thomas Blake was born at Ōrākei, Auckland, on 4 April 1853. He was the youngest son of William Farley Blake, an Irish-born land and mining surveyor who had migrated to New Zealand in 1841. His mother was Maata Takahi Tourāwiri of the Tītahi and Ngā Māhanga subtribes of the Taranaki people. They married in 1845. John spent his early years at Riverhead, where his father owned land, from which he milled and sold timber until the mid 1860s. Through the influence of his mother he grew up with a good command of the Māori language. He received his formal education from Franciscan monks in Auckland.
John and his brothers, Richard and Edward, all served surveyors' apprenticeships under their father, who worked in Auckland and Taranaki, and on the Thames goldfields in the late 1860s. In Taranaki John was involved in the pursuit of Wiremu Hiroki in 1878 and later gave evidence at his trial. He married Eliza Hastings Vickery at St Benedict's Church, Newton, Auckland, on 17 August 1885. They removed to Taupō, where John was employed as a surveyor, and late in 1887 took up residence in Hastings, Hawke's Bay. Richard Blake was also working there as a native interpreter and agent. They purchased a home in Avenue Road, where their first child, Lylie Mōrehu, was born in March the following year.
On 19 June 1889 John Blake qualified as a licensed interpreter. This coincided with the beginning of the celebrated Ōmahu case in the Native Land Court at Hastings to determine the succession to the lands of the chief Rēnata Kawepō. Blake was promptly engaged to record the evidence of the principal witnesses. His fee was £1 per day. His diary gives a valuable insight into the duties of an interpreter. He was required to extract briefs from previous cases for cross-examination, and was frequently up till midnight preparing English translations of the day's evidence. It was often a high-pressure job. On 18 September 1889 he wrote, 'Pushed very hard to day going too fast altogether.'
Blake's surveying skills were put to good use too. He prepared survey maps of the blocks under investigation, which were required by the court to determine boundaries. Maps were altered or added to as the evidence progressed. Surveying Māori land claims required Blake to walk the whole block and record any prominent feature. In November 1889 he spent four days camped out with his guides while surveying the Waikōpiro block near Ormondville. His diary records, 'Camped at Mangapuaka. Up very late yarning. Great fun. No tent – had rain.'
While this was an era prolific in Māori land claims, work could be spasmodic. Blake diversified his activities and by the turn of the century was acting for both Māori and Europeans in mortgage agreements, leases and land sales. He negotiated the construction of houses for clients and interpreted in court.
Blake was a prolific recorder of Hawke's Bay tribal history, and much of his work survives, both privately and in public institutions. His verbatim records of Land Court evidence, some of it in Māori, are often richer in detail than the official minutes. The account kept by John and Richard Blake is the only parallel record of the Native Land Court known to exist in Hawke's Bay, and provides a vital check on the accuracy of the official version.
Blake took an active part in the development of Hastings and the surrounding district. He was a member of the Hastings Borough Council from 1913 to 1915, and was one of the first to see the possibilities of Haumoana as a seaside resort. He was also a talented sportsman who took an active part in rugby, boxing and outdoor pastimes. One of the first members of the Hawke's Bay Mounted Rifle Volunteers, he was an excellent shot and a fine horseman. He was a fearless buckjump rider and a successful amateur, well known in the racing world, where his livery colours were familiar to race-goers. With his father he raced in the Auckland district and later set up as an owner-trainer in Hawke's Bay.
John and Eliza Blake's nine children (six survived them) inherited a legacy of diverse talents. Four of their sons represented Hawke's Bay at rugby; two of them were Māori All Blacks and one, Jack Blake, was an All Black in 1925 and 1926. A strong artistic streak also runs through the family. Descendants are represented in the arts, education, landscape gardening and architecture.
John Blake was known to Māori as Honi Pereki. He lived, worked and socialised as a Pākehā, and is not known to have taken part in the life of the marae, but he was comfortable in both worlds and enjoyed the respect of both races. He died on 26 November 1940 at Hastings, 10 days after his wife.