Page 1: Biography
Hurley, Rona Marjory
Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Porou; tobacco grower and buyer
This biography, written by Carol Markwell, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Rona Marjory Hamilton was born in Gisborne on 2 October 1897, one of six children of Frederick Orton Hamilton, a commission agent for a hardware merchant, and his wife, Isabelle Porter. Her maternal grandparents were Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Porter and the high-ranking Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Porou leader Herewaka Porourangi Pōtae (also known as Te Rangi-i-paea); her mother's eldest sister was the concert singer and composer Fanny Rose Howie (best known by her stage name, Princess Te Rangi Pai). Rona was to admire and hold a deep affection for both of these strong and talented women throughout her life and always kept their photographs near her. As the senior woman of her generation she sometimes used the name Te Rangi-i-paea, passed down from her grandmother.
In 1901 Frederick Hamilton was appointed a director of his father's mercantile firm, E. Buxton and Company, and the family moved to Nelson, where they prospered. The firm became deeply involved in the new tobacco industry in Nelson, offering growers finance and supervision, and Frederick encouraged local farmers to grow the crop and arranged for the distribution of seed to them. Thus Rona became familiar from a young age with tobacco growing.
She attended Nelson College for Girls from 1910 until 1913 and helped her parents entertain opera companies, concert parties, noted scientists and other visiting celebrities in their home. At holiday time, when staying at the family house in Maitai Valley, Rona and the other Hamilton children enjoyed horse riding, pig hunting, possum trapping and deer stalking. She grew to become a tall, imposing woman, and was regarded as friendly and outgoing but also strong willed.
On leaving school Rona worked for a short period as a physical education teacher at a girls' school in Hawke's Bay before returning to her family in Nelson. There she married Daniel Hurley, a farmer, on 15 December 1921. They were to have two children.
The young couple went possum trapping, grew hops and later planted tobacco on a property at Neudorf in the Moutere area of Nelson. In 1931 the family transferred to a farm at Pangatōtara near Motueka, where they continued to work with tobacco. Rona supervised the grading and buying for the first export leaf from Nelson province between 1935 and 1937, and from 1939 to 1945 was engaged as field officer and tobacco buyer for Godfrey Phillips (New Zealand) in Motueka.
In October 1944 Daniel Hurley died suddenly. Rona, with her younger son still at primary school and the elder working in Australia, continued to buy tobacco and, except for occasional outside labour, to run the farm at Pangatōtara on her own. By now she was widely experienced in all aspects of tobacco growing. When the St James's Tobacco Company of New Zealand began operating in the region in 1947, Rona became their field officer and chief buyer of leaf, positions she held until her retirement in 1964. At the time she was thought to be the only woman tobacco buyer in New Zealand.
Well able to hold her own in an industry dominated by men, and to move easily among differing sections of society, Rona was respected for her straight talking, for her abilities as a grower and buyer, and for her extensive knowledge of the tobacco industry as a whole. Rona Hurley saw the industry develop from its scattered pioneer days to the mechanised and fully marketed rural enterprise which, with its distinctive kiln buildings and fields of leafy tobacco plants, gave the Motueka region something of its unique character. She loved gardening, which she devoted much time to in her retirement. Still strong minded and outspoken in her later years, Rona Hurley remained at the Pangatōtara farm property until her death in Motueka on 11 June 1985.