Joey Mātenga Ashton (Āhitana), sometimes called Joseph, was born in Greytown, Wairarapa, on 3 June 1907, the only child of Kiti Karaka RĪwai (Rēwai) and her husband, Te Ao Āhitana Mātenga (Joseph Ashton), a labourer. Kiti, born on Ruapuke Island in Foveaux Strait, was of Moriori, Pākehā and Māori descent; her Māori connections were to Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāti Hinetewai. Her first marriage, to Rīwai (Rēwai) Te Rōpiha of the Chatham Islands, had been arranged to secure the survival of the Moriori people, and had produced nine children. She married Te Ao in 1906. The son of Āhitana (Manaia) Mātenga of Ngāti Kahungunu, he was connected to many hapū, including Ngāti Kahukura-awhitia and Ngāi Tuawhai. Te Ao had also been married previously, and Joey had two half-siblings on his father’s side. Although aware of his half-brothers and -sisters, and that he was part Moriori, Joey did not meet many of his siblings, and was encouraged to consider himself Māori.
Joey Ashton went to Kahutara School, walking five miles each way, and milked cows before and after school. He then attended school in Greytown, followed by a year at Te Aute College in Hawke’s Bay. He was raised as an Anglican, and was confirmed at Papawai on 4 May 1924. Although a marriage had been arranged for him he made his own choice, and on 25 May 1929 married Inez Sarah Blunden in Greytown. They were to have four sons and two daughters.
In the early years of his marriage Ashton spent much time away from home as a shearer in Wairarapa and Manawatū, but after the birth of his last child he decided to follow a career with New Zealand Railways. He attended Tokorangi School in the Kākāriki area in 1936–37 to gain the necessary proficiency certificate. He also passed St John Ambulance Association exams in 1937 and 1938, serving as a volunteer ambulance attendant in the Marton area for several years.
Employed by New Zealand Railways from 1937, Ashton was a line serviceman until 1944, when he joined the traffic section as a porter. He became a shunter in 1951, a signalman in 1954 and finally, in 1961, a guard. He was transferred several times – to Feilding, Raurimu, Stratford, Wellington, Putāruru, and then back to Wellington in 1954. By 1958 the family was living in Taita. In the late 1960s he served as a guard on the first Blue Streak railcar. After retiring from the railways in 1972, Ashton worked in Wellington for Armoured Freightways as a security guard. From 1975, when the Avalon television studios opened, he was employed as a part-time tour guide.
Sport was the greatest interest in Ashton’s life for many years. He was a keen rugby player, known for his speed and ability to grasp the ball securely in his large hands, and was a selector for the New Zealand Railways team for several years. Bowls was another passion: he was a member of the victorious Stratford fours team at the national tournament in Dunedin in 1952, and travelled to Adelaide in 1960 as a member of the New Zealand Railways team. Ashton was responsible for the establishment of Māori competitive bowling clubs in several areas, including Hamilton, where he initiated an annual Māori tournament.
Ashton was an accomplished pianist, and found time to run his own dance band. In its early years he travelled by horse, sometimes with his wife, Inez, mounted behind him, to play at halls in the Wairarapa, Marton and Feilding areas. He continued playing the piano until his hearing failed when he was about 80. In old age he loved to travel: he spent time with a daughter in London and travelled through Scotland and Wales. Inez Ashton died in January 1985.
In his last years Joey Ashton sought to rediscover his Moriori and Māori roots. He had never taken much interest in his heritage, but after his wife’s death he encouraged his children to attend Māori land meetings and to research his whakapapa. They discovered that he was referred to in historical records by several versions of his name, including Te Kairāhui Mātenga, Te Kairāhui Ashton, Mātenga Kairāhui Te Ao and Mātenga Te Ao Āhitana.
With his family Ashton travelled over much of New Zealand making contact with whānau members. The Moriori resurgence in the Chatham Islands in the 1990s aroused his interest, and the publication of Michael King’s book Moriori (1989), which included a photo of his mother, caused great excitement. His family continued their research until the names of over 600 Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Māmoe and Moriori kin were recorded. In 1992 he met Wellington-based Moriori leader Māui Solomon, who visited regularly thereafter and provided information about members of Ashton’s whānau on the Chathams.
The onset of cancer in 1991 prevented Ashton from visiting the Chathams, but other family members visited and renewed ties. He died in his son’s home in Porirua on 8 November 1993; he was survived by three sons and two daughters. His ashes were buried in Taita cemetery.