David (also known as Darby) Pretty was born at Okete, near Raglan, New Zealand, on 20 October 1878, the son of Joseph Pretty, a farmer, and his wife, Joanna Kescel. His father had been a member of the Waikato Militia and had settled on a soldier's grant at Te Uku. Much of the land had to be cleared of bush; the family lived barely above subsistence level, and relied on hunting for food. Nothing else is known of Pretty's early life, but his adult life revolved around contract bush-felling, fence-post splitting and cutting firewood. He married Isabella Smith, a dressmaker, at Hamilton on 12 August 1901; they had a son, who died days after his birth in 1907, a daughter, and fostered two other children.
David Pretty, at 6 feet 6½ inches tall and weighing 16 stone 10 pounds, was strong and agile, and had outstanding athletic co-ordination and ability. He excelled at many sports but was best known as a competitive axeman. In 1903 he established his first world record of 1 minute 45 seconds for the 18-inch underhand (horizontal) chop. In his first 24-inch standing New Zealand championship in 1904 he finished second behind the great Australian axeman Gus Blanc; a year later, Pretty won the title. His world record of 3 minutes 34.4 seconds set at Eltham in 1906 still stands almost 90 years later; no other axeman has ever broken the four minutes, but Pretty did it twice. He could cut an eight-inch block in five blows, a feat never achieved by any other axeman. He won the 24-inch standing world championship a record five times in 1908, 1909, 1910, 1913 and 1922. He established five official world records, was placed in four Australasian and 10 New Zealand championships, winning seven titles. He also won 11 classic handicap events, the most celebrated being the New Zealand Axemen's Cup at Eltham in 1903.
Perhaps David Pretty's hardest competition ever was at the Auckland Exhibition in 1914 where most of the world's top competitors were brought together. He received one of his rare defeats in a 24-inch standing event when he cut second to the brilliant Ned Shewry for the Australasian title. He was also defeated in the 20-inch world championship by the young Australian champion Bill Peck. However, Pretty won the sawing championship, defeating Peck and the world record holder, A. E. Sullivan. Pretty claimed that he won at least 76 chopping and sawing events.
Between about 1904 and 1914 Pretty lived as a professional sportsman, filling in spare time with bush-felling work. He travelled the North Island extensively, competing at the numerous country sports meetings. Good cash prizes were being offered for bushcraft events as well as for athletics, and Pretty took part in both. He was a highly rated competitor in the triple and the high jump; one of his exhibition feats was to jump over a cross-cut saw (teeth upwards) set at a height of four feet. Towards the end of his career he toured the agricultural and pastoral shows with his own sideshow, giving exhibitions of his skills and taking part in challenge chopping matches. He also engaged in various private sporting challenges which were financially successful.
Pretty excelled at other sports. As a young man he was undefeated as an amateur boxer in Taranaki and Waikato. He won a notable heavyweight bout in Hamilton when he knocked out Walter Hogg. He is believed to have had a boxing school in Hamilton, and in later life taught amateur boxing to children at Silverstream, in the Hutt Valley. In addition, he had a national reputation with shotgun and rifle.
In 1927 Pretty and his family moved to Whitemans Valley, near Silverstream, where he had a farm. He had become a household name for his sporting achievements and is believed to have won at least 100 medals. During the Second World War he gave chopping exhibitions for patriotic purposes. David Pretty died at Lower Hutt on 14 March 1947, survived by his wife and three children.