John Davies Ormond, known as 'The Master' by his family and as 'The Hon. J. D.' by his parliamentary colleagues, was born in Wallingford, Berkshire, England, and baptised on 28 June 1831, the fourth child and third son of Francis Kirby Ormond and his wife, Frances Hedges. After the family moved to Plymouth he met his sister's future husband, E. J. Eyre, lieutenant governor designate of New Zealand's southern province of New Munster, and sailed on the Ralph Bernal in 1847 to become Eyre's confidential clerk in 1848 and also, in the following year, his private secretary and clerk of the Executive Council. After trying to make a quick fortune on the Australian goldfields he leased land at Porangahau and drove his stock north. Such leases from Maori owners were illegal, but his 'very existence itself was at stake and there is no knowing what a man will do when fighting for his all.' After the government purchased the Porangahau block in 1857, he acquired by Crown grant a property of 19,075 acres, which he named Wallingford.
To defend runholders' interests he took a leading part in the movement to separate Hawke's Bay from Wellington province in 1858. A year later he was elected member and speaker of the first provincial council. He was glad to see Donald McLean become superintendent, and served under him as deputy superintendent. He succeeded McLean in 1869. Between them they ran the province from 1863 to 1876. He held the Clive seat in the House of Representatives from 1861 to 1881 and the Napier seat from 1884 to 1890. In 1891 he was appointed to the Legislative Council. Although he held cabinet office briefly in the 1870s, he was essentially a provincial and local leader.
In the course of provincial council business Ormond met the hard-drinking and gambling provincial auditor George E. G. Richardson, general merchant, commission agent and shipper. On 4 December 1860 he married 'Geordie's' practical, prudent and downright sister, Hannah, at Te Aute church. Hannah and her mother had followed Geordie out from Scotland and set up house for him in 1858. She was devoted to music-making and reading, but spent the next nine years at Wallingford, three days' journey from Napier by bullock dray, looking after a growing family, travellers and guests, keeping house and gardening.
When Ormond was at home he was occupied with his flocks, pastures and cropping, and carting his wool to the coast to await shipment. He spent his evenings shut away reading the papers and writing letters. A township grew up at Wallingford, with a school (later converted into a church), two hotels, a post office and a blacksmith's shop.
Ormond leased and freeholded other properties. In 1863 he acquired over 16,000 acres at Otawhao and Oringi Waiaruhe, but wild pigs and dogs ravaged the stock. He sold his Oringi holding in 1875 and the next year acquired 1,214 acres near Woodville. He also acquired 14,500 acres on the Mahia peninsula, where he sent his eldest son, George, to farm in 1885.
As Ormond became more involved in politics he wanted a property nearer town. In 1864 he obtained a share in the Heretaunga block, illegally leased from the Maori by Thomas Tanner. Subsequently the block was legally leased and purchased by Tanner's syndicate from Maori 'owners' sorely pressed by their creditors. Ormond's share was a 1,200 acre property named Karamu. There in 1876 he erected a noble, spacious mansion and laid out a garden, orchard, shelter belts, plantations and an avenue of oaks. Raupo swamp was transformed into rich pasture. Karamu became his stud farm and provided him with many cup-winning racehorses. As Hannah was resolved never again to leave town, he had to build another family home, Tintagel, in Napier.
On all public matters Ormond felt at one with McLean, who became a close friend. Each had capabilities the other lacked. Ormond was regarded as one of the best administrators in the country. When McLean procrastinated, Ormond prodded him. For both men private and public interests coincided. They worked together to make permanent peace and develop their estates, the province and the colony.
Ormond saw the superintendent's job as that of an executive officer. He disliked the hurly-burly of the hustings and party politics, and absented himself whenever possible from the ceremonial and social side of public life. In the Council chamber and House he never spoke unless he was up on his subject: 'taciturn, reserved, and angular in his general relations with other public men', he courted 'solitude and self-evolution'.
In Maori affairs and defence Ormond was McLean's adjutant. When war broke out he represented the unprotected state of the province to the government, but to his mind, half the battle was to keep the district quiet. He realised that local Maori were alienated, but did not think they wanted to fight. He kept up useful contacts with them, presuming they could make out his Maori which was 'not first rate'. He opposed calling out the militia which would rouse Maori suspicions, and advised McLean to send a small volunteer force. When Te Kooti and other escaped prisoners returned to the East Coast, he favoured letting them settle down there. In the wars that followed he obtained early intelligence from Maori for McLean on Hauhau movements. 'I am positively getting ill with work and worry', he wrote to McLean in 1870. He was sending supplies to the Taupo district and supervising expeditions to capture Te Kooti before he could take refuge in the Urewera and once again threaten East Coast settlers. To facilitate military operations and peacemaking he pushed along the telegraph link between Napier and Auckland, and the strategic Napier–Taupo road.
Ormond was minister of public works in 1871–72 and again in 1877. As superintendent he was the first to take advantage of Julius Vogel's policies. Land was reserved for the Napier–Manawatu railway, the Seventy-Mile Bush purchased, blocks set aside for special settlements, and survey and road work commenced. Immigrants arrived at regular intervals – gardeners, shepherds, ploughmen and domestics. Ormond took personal responsibility for locating them. By 1877 assisted passages had been provided for 4,051 immigrants from the British Isles and 1,670 from the Continent, mainly Scandinavia and Germany. Between 1871 and 1878 the provincial population more than doubled.
Two Scandinavian settlements, Norsewood and Dannevirke, were established to provide road labourers. After two summers the 'Great South Road', linking with the government road through the Manawatu Gorge, was almost completed. Ormond fostered small-farm associations; Woodville and Ormondville were founded in this way in 1876. In four years his goal of a continuous line of settlement from Makaretu to Woodville was achieved.
Parallel to the road Ormond planned the Napier–Manawatu railway. Although, as a landowner, he was not disinterested in the battle over routes, his decisions were based on engineers' reports. He negotiated with John Brogden and Sons to construct the line south from Napier to Takapau. In 1877, when the railhead extended four miles into the bush, he urged the government to extend it to tap the timber trade and provide a livelihood for nearly 1,000 destitute settlers.
Although Ormond won adulation in the province for these achievements, he had many bitter enemies. In the early 1860s they were town settlers, like William Colenso, who wanted agricultural settlement; in the 1870s they were fellow runholders and rival land purchasers led by H. R. and T. P. Russell. With leading Heretaunga Maori, the Russells encouraged the repudiation of earlier agreements to lease and sell land. Ormond was accused of using his official position to assist his private affairs, but McLean was their main target. Ormond defended himself and McLean. Attacks from such 'sweeps' and 'scoundrels' as the Russells wearied and disgusted him. They, to his mind, were using Maori for personal gain, and encouraging them to obstruct public works and settlement in the Seventy-Mile Bush. In 1872 he resigned as minister, but retained the superintendency. 'We cannot both of us leave the place', he wrote to McLean.
Ormond accepted the abolition of the provincial governments and believed that most in the province favoured it. In their place he advocated real, local self-government. After 1877 he took a leading part in local bodies and saw their empowering and loan legislation through Parliament. He was associated with a great number of local government bodies and other local organisations, and especially interested in the Hawke's Bay Education Board and the Napier Harbour Board.
'The Master' and Hannah had six children. George Canning, the eldest, married Maraea Kiwiwharekete and founded the Mahia branch of the family, the Omanas. John Davies, the youngest, took over Wallingford. Ada Mary married Hamish Wilson of Bulls, Carrie died in infancy, Fanny remained at Tintagel, and Frank shared his father's racing interests at Karamu.
A strongly local man at a time when local interests prevailed in politics, Ormond attained high standing and wide influence in the province he populated and developed. He died on 6 October 1917 in Napier, leaving an estate of about 35,000 acres valued at just under £450,000. Oak Avenue in Hastings is now designated 'a historic area' and is a fitting memorial to 'the squire of Karamu'.