Page 1: Biography
Pōmare, Mildred Amelia Woodbine
Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki; community leader
This biography, written by Miria Louise Woodbine Pomare, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998. It was updated in March, 2015. It was translated into te reo Māori by the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography team.
Mildred Amelia Woodbine Johnson (also known as Mīria Tāpapa) was born on 24 December 1877 in Poverty Bay at Ahipākura, east of Gisborne. Her mother, Mere Hape, was of Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki descent, from Manutūkē, near Gisborne. Her father, James Woodbine Johnson, a Cambridge graduate, had emigrated with his brother, George Randall Johnson, to Poverty Bay and established a sheep farm and fruit orchard in the district.
Mīria was sent to Gisborne Central School and then Gisborne District High School until she was 12 years of age, from which time she was educated by an English governess, Margaret Palethorpe. At her father's behest Mīria was taught the conventional arts befitting a genteel woman of her time: French, literature, music and needlework. However, she found the outdoor life far more appealing and her favourite pastimes included riding and hunting. Her ambition was to become a nurse but her father did not consider it proper for his daughter to have a career. Although her upbringing was strictly along upper-class European lines, Mīria was initiated into Māori life early on by her mother, who took her to Māori functions and steeped her in the language and customs of her people. Moreover, Mīria's strong affection for her grandmother, Maora Pani, who lived to around 100 years of age, served to nurture her deep-rooted affinity with her Māori kin.
On 7 January 1903 at Te Ārai Native Church, Gisborne, Mīria Johnson married Māui Wiremu Piti Naera Pōmare, a physician and surgeon. He was descended from leaders of Ngāti Toa and Ngāti Mutunga and had connections with Te Āti Awa. In 1901 he had been appointed Māori health officer. The couple were to have three children. Mīria brought an independent income to the marriage, enabling them to build an elegant home, Hiwiroa, in Lower Hutt, with tennis courts and extensive gardens. They entertained with generosity and style. Mīria became actively involved in the community and in 1914, when Europe plunged into war, she entered patriotic activities. The call came from Lady Liverpool, wife of the governor, and together they launched Lady Liverpool's and Mrs Pōmare's Māori Soldiers' Fund in 1915. The primary objective of this organisation was to provide comforts for soldiers of the Māori Contingent: Māori food (such as dried pipi and preserved muttonbird), knitted garments and letters were sent overseas, receptions were held for returned servicemen, and wounded soldiers were visited in hospital.
For her steadfast service to the community Mīria Pōmare was appointed an OBE in 1918. In 1922 Māui was appointed a KBE. That year the name of the Fund was changed to the Lady Pōmare Welfare Committee. In civilian life the organisation performed notable work in continuing to assist returned servicemen, providing for those in need during the depression, visiting borstals with clothing for girls, and finding employment for others who were on probation.
As president of the Ngāti Pōneke Māori Mission Society, Mīria Pōmare was responsible for raising funds for the parochial district and organising social functions. During these occasions young people gathered to perform concerts, and from these events the Ngāti Pōneke Young Māori Club began in 1937. The society also initiated the Ngāti Pōneke Māori Association of the 1940s, an organisation for Māori residing in Wellington city. Mīria Pōmare was its patron and only life member, and she was also patron of the Young Māori Club. In recognition of her distinguished leadership and work during the Second World War, a hall in the Hotel Cecil building was given to the association by the government in 1944. This became the community centre for Māori in Wellington city.
Throughout her life Mīria Pōmare held many important posts in charitable and other organisations. She was an able administrator and gave her time and money without stint. The organisations with which she was associated included the Wellington Women's Club (of which she was elected first president in 1924), Central National Māori War Fund, Pioneer Club, Red Cross, Mothers' Helpers' Society, Girl Guides Association and YWCA. She was patron or a member of the executive of a number of other organisations and in acknowledgement of her tireless work was awarded the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935 and a Coronation Medal in 1953.
Mīria Pōmare died at Lower Hutt on 7 September 1971, aged 93, survived by her daughter, Ana. Her ashes were buried beside those of her husband, who had died in 1930, and her sons Te Rakaherea and Naera, at Manukōrihi pā in Waitara. Handsome, gracious, dignified and a much respected champion of Māori, Mīria Pōmare was held in great affection by both Māori and Pākehā. She was very proud of the accomplishments of the Māori people and the heritage of the great leaders of the race. This filled her with confidence in the younger generation, to whom she readily gave guidance, although she regretted that they had 'not had the advantages I had being a child listening to our great kaumātuas in the Meeting Houses – things are so changed'. She never lost the mien of her English forebears, nor the kindness and tolerance of her mother's people.