George Eric Oakes Ramsden was born in Martinborough, Wairarapa, on 1 August 1898, the eldest of three children of Henry Oakes Ramsden, an Englishman, and his New Zealand-born wife, Sophia Jane Harris. Henry Ramsden was a storekeeper who subsequently bought a farm near Martinborough. Eric was enrolled at primary school in Martinborough, but his attendance was irregular because of childhood asthma and tuberculosis. He would say later that the most important part of his education, especially in literature and history, came from his father, who was a voracious reader.
In his mid teens Ramsden joined the Bank of New South Wales in Wanganui. When clerical work palled, he worked for some years as a shepherd on a station near Castlepoint. In 1919, aged 20, he discovered his vocation when he was taken on as a journalist for the Wairarapa Age in Masterton. Here his curiosity about people and his fluency with language were regarded as assets. Soon he was in Auckland working for the Auckland Star, and then in Wellington for the New Zealand Times. In the mid 1920s he joined the Sydney Morning Herald as a reporter. On 1 June 1926 in Sydney he married a colleague, Evelyn Frances Graham: they were to have one son, Michael.
The following year Ramsden was back in Auckland working for the Sun newspaper. In August 1927 the editor dispatched him to Turangawaewae marae in Ngaruawahia to interview the Tainui leader Te Puea Herangi. This opportunity provided the second major turning-point in Ramsden’s life: he formed a close rapport with Te Puea and her husband, Tumokai Katipa, and became deeply interested in Maori affairs and Maori–Pakeha relations. The full-page feature on the ‘Princess of Waikato’ and her ‘Model Village’ represented the first publicity Te Puea had received for her work to re-establish the mana of Waikato people and the Maori King movement. It was followed by a visit to Turangawaewae by Governor General Sir Charles Fergusson in April 1928, and by subsequent regular contact between the King movement, politicians and public servants.
Ramsden returned to Sydney in 1929 to be illustrations editor and special writer for the Sydney Morning Herald. He remained in correspondence with Te Puea and stayed with her on her land development block at Tahuna in January 1932. On this same visit he conducted a long interview in Wellington with the native minister Sir Apirana Ngata, with whom he would also maintain a lengthy relationship by correspondence.
In 1934 Ramsden joined his employer’s major rival, Associated Newspapers Limited. Over the following years he attended lectures in anthropology at the University of Sydney and founded the Pacific Islands Club (later Society), becoming its first secretary. He travelled with the expatriate American adventure writer Charles Nordhoff in the course of a research trip to Tahiti and French Polynesia in 1935, and became president of the Anthropological Society of New South Wales in 1936–37. He was now reading – and writing extensively in the press – about Pacific and Australasian history and became a major user of Sydney’s Mitchell Library. His first publications, Marsden and the missions (1936) and James Busby: the prophet of Australian viticulture (1940), were researched and written in this period.
In 1942 Ramsden left Sydney because of ill health and moved to Christchurch to work for the Press. He became an active member of PEN (to which he had also belonged in Sydney), and of the Polynesian Society. His journalism increasingly focused on history and Maori affairs. He wrote four more books over the next decade: Busby of Waitangi (1942), Strange stories from the south seas (1944), Sir Apirana Ngata and Maori culture (1948), and Rangiatea (1951). Two further books begun in the 1940s, biographies of Te Puea and Sir Peter Buck, were not completed.
Ramsden joined the Evening Post in Wellington about 1945 and became its diplomatic correspondent, art critic and special writer on his favourite subjects. In 1948 he and Evelyn Ramsden were divorced, and on 18 May that year in Wellington he married Henrietta Merenia Meteherangi Collins (née Manawatu) of Ngai Tahu and Rangitane. The couple had two daughters and a son. Their elder daughter, Tiahuia, was ‘adopted’ by Te Puea and brought up in Waikato until Te Puea died in 1952. Ramsden and Merenia divorced in June 1953, and after her death in October Ramsden brought up Tiahuia and his daughter Irihapeti and son Peter, ensuring that they remained in close touch with their Maori relations. Their home became a base for a large number of tribal and national Maori leaders, available as a place to eat and sleep, and a forum for discussion when government business brought them to the capital.
In the last decade of his life Ramsden published only one more book, a memorial to Sir Peter Buck in 1954, which he hoped would be a harbinger of the full biography of Buck he hoped to complete. He travelled again: to the United States, France and Japan. His reputation grew as the country’s leading commentator on Maori affairs in newspapers and on radio. After 1949 he became an influential confidant to the National Party prime minister, Sidney Holland, and the minister of Maori affairs, Ernest Corbett. He was also known and respected by Maori on marae throughout the country and attended the annual round of major hui. His collection of papers, which included the Buck–-Ngata correspondence, would become one of the most important repositories of the history of Maori in the twentieth century.
Ramsden’s role as an art critic was more contentious. For nearly two decades he reviewed every major exhibition held in the capital. He favoured naturalism in painting and drawing and disliked what he regarded as impressionism or experimental art; hence his promotion of Russell Clark, Cedric Savage and Leonard Mitchell, and his dislike of the work of such ‘avant-garde’ artists as Toss Woollaston and Colin McCahon. His opinions frequently provoked correspondence in the Evening Post and, on several occasions, threats of violence.
Eric Ramsden died in Wellington on 21 May 1962, survived by his four children. His departure was widely mourned: by fellow journalists, who spoke of his panache and his ‘old-world air of culture’; by the diplomatic corps; and by Maori, who held a service for him in addition to that associated with his funeral. While his methods and style were criticised by academics, he was a pioneer in biculturalism in New Zealand, both in his personal life and in the genuine effort he made to research information and viewpoints from Maori sources for his journalism and his later histories.