There have been many hundreds of christenings on the baptismal font at Old St Paul’s, but one of the most notable may be that of young Huia Onslow. The Earl of Onslow, his father, was the governor general of New Zealand from 1889 – 1892. There was great excitement when his second son was born while he was Governor General; the first vice-regal child to be born in New Zealand.
The people of New Zealand felt great ownership over the baby – first they petitioned Queen Victoria to ask if she would be the child’s godmother, which she agreed to do, and chose the baby’s first two names, Victor Alexander.
Then New Zealanders took up the suggestion that the child be given a Maori name, and ideas from the public poured in. (Apparently a terrible pun – Taihoa (meaning ‘wait a bit’) found most favour, as it was close to “On-Slow”.) Eventually, Huia was selected as his fourth name, and he was always known by that name. The beautiful huia was a bird of great importance to the Maori people of New Zealand, and their feathers are worn only by those of great rank. The name was suggested by the people of the Ngati Huia hapu (sub-tribe) of the Ngati Ruakawa iwi in Otaki, who have an ancestor of that name.
The process of his naming and his christening was therefore an interesting one – a mix of traditional connection to Britain, while also statement of a sense of emerging New Zealand nationhood, through the connection with Maori cultural words and symbols.
Huia was christened on 26 January 1891 at St Paul’s, with the Countess of Onslow (his mother) representing Queen Victoria, and Mr C.J.Johnston (the mayor of Wellington) representing the people of New Zealand. His outfit was described in the following way:
He was attired in a long white muslin robe, having three frills edged with most lovely real lace. Over this he had a thick white matelasse cloth coat with raised work on the surface, and trimmed with white lace of great value.
On his head was a tiny white lace bonnet ornamented with tiny ostrich tips. Underneath the white robe was a robe of heavy satin of an ivory tint – satin of a peculiar glistening sheen seldom seen nowadays . . . worn by the baby’s great-grandfather in the last century.
Huia Onslow, pictured with huia feathers in his hair, 1889
After the ceremony, the representative of New Zealand, Johnston, put a beautiful Huia feather on the baby’s headdress (shown here). Whether or not this part of the ceremony was considered appropriate by Maori at the time is not clear. However, a few months later he was taken to the marae of Ngati Huia in Otaki, where he was met with great ceremony, as the people there took it as a great compliment that he had been named for one of their ancestors. At the ceremony, the iwi urged Lord Onslow to ensure the protection of the huia bird, so that his son could one day see his namesake.
The Onslow family left New Zealand the following year, but not before his father had successfully lobbied the government to include the huia on the protected species list, and to establish off-shore island sanctuaries for the protection of birds. The official document in which huia are added to the protected list, as seen below, was signed both by Lord Onslow and by his one year old son.
The proclamation, protecting the huia, signed by Lord Onslow and his 1 year old son (at bottom left).
Huia briefly returned to New Zealand in 1904-05 with his sister, when he was a teenager. Their visit received much press coverage, as by now it was considered that Huia had been made a ‘pakeha chieftain’, and another large ceremony was held at the same marae in Otaki, as shown in the picture below. Young Huia is seen leaning on the middle pillar, with Premier Richard John Seddon to the left of the pillar.
Huia and Richard John Seddon and the people of Ngati Huia, at their marae in Otaki
Huia and his sister Lady Dorothy during their visit.
However, from such an auspicious beginning, Huia had a difficult life. At the age of twenty, while diving into a lake in Italy, he hit his head on a submerged rock, injured his spinal cord and was paralysed. He lived for only another 11 years; but in that time he made a name for himself as a scientist, carrying out research from his bed. In 1919 he married notable biochemist scientist Muriel Wheldale, who was one of the first female lecturers at Cambridge University, and he died two years later. She wrote a memoir about her husband in 1924.
Unfortunately, the huia bird suffered a sad fate as well – it was in the 1920s that the huia became extinct.
There is a further sad part to this story – the family home of the Earl of Onslow family, Clandon Park House in Surrey, which was given to the National Trust in 1956 suffered an enormous fire in 2015, leaving the house essentially just a shell. I wonder if the huia feather and other items connected to Huia Onslow were still in the house before the fire?
Something that did survive the fire is Hinemihi, the Maori meeting house covered in ash during the Tarawera Eruption and then brought by the Earl of Onslow back to the United Kingdom with him to decorate his grand garden at Clandon House.
Information for this article came from Ross Galbreath. ‘Onslow, William Hillier’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/2o6/onslow-william-hillier; and Evening Post, 14 September 1891, p2. Main image from Auckland Weekly News 5 Jan 1905. Portrait of Lady Dorothy Onslow and Huia Victor Alexander Herbert Onslow, [ca 1906], Reference Number: 1/1-001593-G, ATL. Proclamation, dated 23 February 1892, has Huia Onslow’s mark at bottom left. Archives New Zealand, Reference: IA1 1892/483. Huia as a young boy, object O.009440, Te Papa. Clandon Park House Fire: Colin Smith, CC BY 2.0.