James Basil Wilkie Roberton was born in Auckland on 30 January 1896, the second of four children of Eliza Ann Wilkie and her husband, Ernest Roberton, a prominent medical practitioner. Educated at King’s College, Auckland, Jim excelled not only academically, but also in rugby and athletics. After leaving school he went on to the University of Cambridge in England in 1913 to study medicine. On the outbreak of the First World War, however, Roberton joined the King Edward’s Horse and, once commissioned, the 11th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, serving as a signal officer in France from August 1915, and in Italy. In 1918, as a lieutenant, he was made a DSO for leading his men through barbed wire to secure Treviso bridge north of Venice. During his service overseas he was twice wounded by shrapnel and had a brush with death when a bullet sliced through his pack, plate and mug.
After the war Jim Roberton returned to his studies, graduating MB, ChB from Cambridge University in 1925. He later gained his FRCS and FRCP. On 27 April 1928 he married Gladys Muriel Chrismas at Worthing, Sussex. They emigrated to New Zealand, where Jim gained a position at King George V Hospital in Rotorua. In 1929 he took up private practice in Te Awamutu. Gladys died on 29 August that year. On 9 February 1932 he married Marion Valetta Allwood in Morrinsville. They had five children: three girls and two boys.
During the 1930s Roberton became well known within the Te Awamutu community. He served on the executive of the RSA, was involved in the town’s athletic and cycling clubs, was president of the Te Awamutu Golf Club and the beautifying society, and was a member of the town library committee. During the Second World War he served with the New Zealand Medical Corps at Guadalcanal and New Caledonia. In January 1941 he was appointed to the temporary rank of captain, and in October 1943 to the temporary rank of major. After his discharge the following year he returned to his practice in Te Awamutu.
In 1949 Jim Roberton shifted with his family to the coastal settlement of Kawhia. He saw this move as an essential step in furthering his study into Tainui history – an interest ignited through his involvement with the Te Awamutu Historical Society since 1936. From the mid 1940s he had researched Maori whakapapa, obtaining information from fellow society member Raureti Te Huia, and in 1949 he produced The tribes of Te Awamutu district. However, he did most of his work at Kawhia, and after years of meticulous research published a booklet in 1965 entitled Maori settlement of the Waikato district. This was revised in 1982 and was widely used by students. He wrote numerous articles on such topics as genealogies as a basis for Maori chronology, and the evaluation of Maori tradition as history, and argued that tribal traditions should be compared and analysed for their validity as historical evidence. He was the editor of the Journal of the Te Awamutu Historical Society from 1966 to 1975.
As the doctor for the Kawhia district, Roberton often visited patients in remote areas. After practising medicine there for 20 years he retired and moved back to Te Awamutu. Retirement did not slow him down, though, and he continued with his research, which he typed up himself. In 1973 he completed a family history that traced his roots back to the twelfth century.
After the death of his wife on 12 August 1974 Roberton lived alone, cooking and caring for himself and mowing his own lawns. A resourceful man, he designed and made his own hearing aid when his hearing began to fail. His final book, Kakepuku , was published in 1987. A foundation member of the Rotary Club of Te Awamutu, he was made a Paul Harris fellow in 1988 and the club’s first life member in 1993. He enjoyed the Anzac Day parades and would not miss one, even marching at the age of 99. He saw them as a way to catch up with his comrades and to be ‘just one of the boys’.
Jim Roberton died 26 days short of his 100th birthday on 4 January 1996 in Te Awamutu. A slightly built man with a no-nonsense look, he was respected by Maori and Pakeha alike for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the pre-European history of the Tainui people and his wide community involvement. Although firm in his opinions, he was modest about his accomplishments and once said of his life, ‘I enjoyed it, but who is interested, I did not do much’.