Story: Robin, Ihakara Te Tuku

Page 1 - Biography

Robin, Ihakara Te Tuku

1886–1968

Ngati Kahungunu and Ngati Raukawa; shearer, lay reader, wrestler

This biography was written by Matthew Bennett and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Ihakara Te Tuku Rapana, widely known as Ike Robin, was born, according to family information, on 8 November 1886 at Wairoa. His mother, Riripeti Te Aue Roberts (or McRobert), was of Scots and Ngati Kahungunu descent. His father, Ihakara Rapana, though born in Wairoa, was of Ngati Raukawa origin, the son of Ihakara Te Tuku and his wife, Mata. Ike was the second of four children. Soon after he was born his parents moved to Kohupatiki, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Ike Robin attended primary school, but was a reluctant student and at the age of 15 left school and became a chauffeur–mechanic for George Donnelly of Napier. The following year he joined his father, who was shearing at Te Mata station, run by the Chambers family. Robin moved through the various jobs associated with one of the biggest sheep stations in Hawke's Bay. The hard physical life soon toughened the young giant – he then weighed over 17 stone and was more than six feet tall – and at the age of 20 he commenced shearing. His highest daily tally in his first year was 150; the following year he had increased this to 200 and the year after that he achieved the 'gun-shearer' figure of 300.

Robin then moved from Te Mata and began working for shearing contractors, travelling as far afield as Wanganui and Turakina. He achieved his highest personal tally of 358 sheep in 8 hours 20 minutes at Mangaohane station, Taihape. A frequent competitor in the Hawke's Bay Agricultural and Pastoral Society shows, in his best year he took seven firsts, three seconds and one third in different shearing events.

It was not long before Ike Robin moved into shearing contracting. His well-led gangs were soon in great demand throughout Hawke's Bay, Wairarapa and Wellington, and they were always welcomed back at the many stations they worked on. Affable and approachable, Robin was deeply religious and his workers needed to be always on their best behaviour; but that did not prevent them from enjoying themselves with singing and music.

At the peak of his contracting days Robin was employing over 100 men. He was able to offer work and accommodation to young homeless Maori, and his services were keenly sought by the social welfare agencies of Napier and Hastings. He also maintained gangs that were available for general farm work. The rise of the freezing works at Whakatu and Tomoana eventually cut back his shearing activities as many of his workers started to seek work on the chain rather than the stand.

Robin's first wife was Mata Kato; they had two children, both of whom died in infancy. Mata died in 1917. On 27 May 1918 Robin married Mei Pere at Kohupatiki. They were to have five sons and one daughter. Robin also had a son from an earlier relationship with Mare Hape. This son was raised in Dannevirke, and there were two adopted sons. Mei had her own shearing gangs working the eastern coastal stations around Haumoana and Clifton and inland towards Taihape.

Robin was a keen competitor at Caledonian sports days. At one competition in Napier he took part in the shot-put, hammer throw, caber toss, high jump, tug of war and two types of wrestling, winning many of the events and collecting £26 in prize money. Ironically, in view of his fitness and physique, he failed the medical test for the first New Zealand Expeditionary Force because of his flat feet. This gave him the biggest disappointment of his life.

It was in wrestling that Robin was really to make his mark, with his immense strength and 'wire and whipcord' build. In August 1924 he defeated the South Island champion and was from then regarded as New Zealand's best wrestler. In 1926 he defeated Clarence Weber, the Australian heavyweight champion, in Melbourne; as usual, he 'prayed for protection from harm and danger'. His speed and fitness allowed him to defeat his opponent in the third round. On his return to Napier he was apparently awarded a gold medal in recognition of his feat. He became so well known that a patented wire-strainer for fencing was named the 'Ike Grip'.

As a wrestler Robin came a little too soon; he was the first official New Zealand champion but the sport was still in its infancy. There were few of his calibre locally, but he was always willing to step into the ring against visiting overseas opposition. He bowed to none until the arrival in 1926 of the stocky Polish-Ukrainian Stanislaus Zbyszko, recently the holder of the world title. Robin lost the first bout on points, drew the second and dropped the third by one fall. In 22 rounds of wrestling he conceded only two falls and took one. According to Zbyszko, few wrestlers equalled Robin for strength: 'with proper training for two months or so, he would be a world-beater'. Long after Robin retired from the ring and became crippled with rheumatism and arthritis, visiting international wrestlers still called at his home.

In 1911 Robin became a lay reader in the Anglican church. He served for nearly six decades, becoming a friend and adviser to the first two Maori bishops and serving under other well-known Maori clergy. Robin was often called upon to deputise for ministers who had been unexpectedly called to other activities. If the minister was late, Robin would commence the service, then require him to begin anew when he arrived. He would always have an evening service at home for up to an hour. On one occasion, he was so absorbed in his preaching that he failed to notice that the congregation comprised only his dog, Hui Toopu.

Robin's personal contributions were responsible for the success of many church hui. He readily donated meat, vegetables, transport and other services and accompanied his good friend, Bishop Frederick Bennett, throughout the country in support of his ministry. A foundation member and stalwart of the Heretaunga Maori Choir, Robin accompanied them throughout the North Island. The choir was a regular participant at the choral competitions that accompanied major hui.

Robin was a natural diplomat. He valued his contact with Te Puea Herangi; Sir Turi Carroll was a close and lifelong friend; he met royalty on behalf of the Maori people of Hawke's Bay; he corresponded with governors general and prime ministers; and he readily entertained groups such as the Trapp Family Singers at Kohupatiki. Robin was influenced by Apirana Ngata and the Young Maori Party, and Kohupatiki was a home away from home for the boys of Te Aute College and the girls of Hukarere. One of the proudest moments of his life was when his favourite granddaughter, Maisie, was chosen to be the model for the statue of Pania, which adorns Napier's Marine Parade.

Robin acted as an orator at ceremonial events, even when afflicted by rheumatism in later life. He eventually became bed-ridden and on one occasion he had to be rescued from his burning bedroom by a grandson. He died at Kohupatiki on 21 June 1968, survived by his wife, three sons and a daughter. He had been much respected by the people of Kohupatiki, who still sing his song, 'Tuku whakarererere'.