John Lundon was a not atypical 'public man' in mid nineteenth century New Zealand, a society where political forms and commercial relationships could be worked to personal advantage by those with a sharp eye for the main chance. In a varied career as a farmer, land owner, contractor, man of affairs, politician and diplomatist, he displayed both high-minded altruism and blatant skulduggery.
The son of Patrick Lundon, a shoemaker, and his wife, Ellen Hennesy, John Lundon was born at Caherelly, County Limerick, Ireland, and baptised in the parish of Ballybricken on 1 July 1828. He came to New Zealand with his family, arriving at Auckland on the Westminster on 1 April 1843. He started work by helping his father to farm, but soon widened his sights. Lured to the Bendigo goldrush in Australia he decided, with rare perception, that more certain profit could be made by shipping potatoes across the Tasman to feed the miners than in hefting a spade himself.
Bishop J. B. F. Pompallier celebrated John Lundon's marriage to Mary Ann Oakes at St Patrick's Cathedral, Auckland, on 15 April 1854. Their son, John Raphael (Jerry), became a prominent lawyer in Auckland. Lundon is said to have also had four sons and a daughter with a Maori woman, Riria, of Motukaraka in Hokianga.
The details of Lundon's life before the 1860s are sketchy. In 1857 he built the Harp of Erin hotel at Panmure, and later another of the same name at Hokianga. He is credited with playing a role in the early development of horse-racing in Auckland. He contracted to make sections of the Great South Road, and later supplied wood for Auckland's pier and for the breakwater at Napier. During the wars of the 1860s Lundon was energetic in raising volunteers: he is said to have put half the strength of Colonel Marmaduke Nixon's Royal Cavalry Volunteers into the field in 1860, and to have helped found a volunteer unit in Manukau three years later. He received an honorary commission as major with the Onehunga Rifle Volunteers in 1886.
While living in Hokianga in 1868 Lundon learnt that gold had been discovered at Thames and that Maori were willing to sell land in the area. He could not resist the fever a second time, and by his own account played a large part in the Thames rush. He held shares in the Imperial Crown Gold Mining Company; later he claimed to have owned the Imperial Crown mine and to have had a lease on the whole of Grahamstown (part of the present township of Thames). The reality seems to have been less grand. Lundon obtained a lease for land at Kauaeranga in April 1869. When subsequently another party was granted title to the land under the Native Lands Act 1869, on the basis of a previous lease, Lundon and his partner, F. A. Whitaker, sought redress. Political influence ensured that their complaint reached the highest levels. An act of Parliament, the Lundon and Whitaker Claims Act 1871, was passed empowering a judge of the Supreme Court to investigate. Not until his unfavourable decision had been upheld by the Court of Appeal in June 1872 did the two speculators give up.
In 1863 Lundon had represented Raglan on the Auckland Provincial Council for a few months, after the death of the sitting member. In 1870 he was elected for Onehunga, and served on the council for six years. About this time he became associated with Henderson and Macfarlane, a firm with close connections to Sir George Grey which pursued dreams of empire in the south seas. Lundon thereafter aligned his political activities with the Grey faction, and in 1879 was elected to Parliament for the Mongonui and Bay of Islands electorate.
When Lundon lost his seat in 1881 his business friends sent him to the Samoan islands as agent for the Auckland South Sea Island Produce Company, to seek control of certain lands in which they were interested. The case was complex, with powerful German and British interests vying against one another to the exclusion of New Zealand. Lundon was not deterred. An article published in the New Zealand Herald of 17 September 1883, based on letters he had written, suggested that Samoans were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the meddlesome consuls of the European powers and the United States, and would readily accept annexation to New Zealand. The governor of Fiji, William Des Voeux, was impressed with Lundon's arguments, but thought, correctly, that Britain would be more concerned with the political balance of power in Europe than with any imperial pretensions of its farthest-flung colony. Undismayed, Lundon next influenced the Samoan parliament to pass an act of annexation on 9 February 1885. Malietoa Laupepa, nominally king of the islands, asked for his help: 'my people and Government have great confidence in you, and we feel sure you will leave nothing undone that can be done to annex Samoa to New Zealand and to extricate us from our German enemies'. It was all to no effect, although 30 years later New Zealand occupied the German colony as its first act in the war of 1914–18.
Returning to New Zealand Lundon continued a tenuous connection with the government. He was agent in north Auckland for a land settlement scheme in 1886, when he apparently appropriated timber for his own use. In 1892, after a similar endeavour at Kaitaia, Herewini Te Toko complained to the Native Affairs Committee that Lundon had detained purchase money due to the vendors. The committee recommended that Herewini Te Toko be assisted to bring a case before the courts. Lundon blandly asserted that as the Maori owners were getting more, through his efforts, than they ever had before, he was entitled to withhold something for himself.
Soon after the Kaitaia inquiry Lundon retired from public life. Mary Lundon died in 1894 and John died of heart disease at Auckland Hospital on 7 February 1899. They were survived by six daughters and one son. Of Lundon's Samoan manoeuvres William Churchward, the acting British consul, wrote in 1887 that 'the leaven of truth was microscopic, the smallest remark or circumstance having been so ingeniously built upon, to produce the wished-for effect, as to make the original intention or fact quite unrecognisable'. John Thurston, colonial secretary of Fiji, called him 'A well-known man in New Zealand…chiefly conspicuous as an agent in any transaction with Natives requiring peculiarly nice management'. His obituary drew a contrasting picture, describing him as 'a man of exceeding generosity and kindness of heart'. The remarks epitomise Lundon's dual character: the rapscallion and the champion of others. He was neither completely the opportunist his Samoan adventure suggests, nor altogether scrupulously devoted to the public weal in the manner depicted in the press at the time of his death.