An important figure in the early history of Tauranga, whose sketches provided an invaluable insight into the Battle of Gate Pa, lies in an unmarked grave.

Nearly 87 years after Major General Horatio Gordon Robley died a pauper in England, a fundraising effort got under way to put a headstone on his grave in London's Streatham Park Cemetery.

The final poverty-stricken resting place of this important figure in the colonial history of New Zealand was revealed to city councillors yesterday by Tauranga author, Patricia Brooks.

She succeeded in gaining council support for the funding initiative led by Tim Walker, a former senior curator at Te Papa.

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Mrs Brooks said Mr Walker was talking to a number of national agencies in order to find a funding partnership needed to put a headstone on the grave.

The soldier and artist was stationed in Tauranga with the Durham Light Infantry for 17 months. "Thanks to him, Tauranga was the front page news in the London Illustrated News in 1864."

The morning after the battle at Gate Pa (Pukehinahina), Robley sketched the desolate scenes of the battle field, rushed to the wharf and asked the captain of a ship leaving for Auckland to take his sketches and post them to London.

"Two months later, his sketches were on the front page. This was the first of many sketches that showed the British public the war in New Zealand and the people they were fighting. It was Robley's images that turned public opinion against further fighting in New Zealand and the withdrawal of British troops," she said.

Mrs Brooks said Te Papa had more than 70 paintings by Robley. They were a remarkable record of the military occupation of Tauranga and aspects of Maori life.

"Robley had a great respect for Maori people. He lived with Maori and greatly admired the warriors. He left a son at Tauranga and has descendants living in New Zealand. Mrs Te Weurangi (Googi) Tapsell at Maketu is a great grand daughter," she said.

Mrs Brooks said she had met with Mrs Tapsell who was delighted that at long last Robley's grave may get a headstone.

"We owe a debt of gratitude to Robley for his faithful recording of early Tauranga history."

She said Robley understood the spiritual and cultural significance of tattooing and became a recognised authority on Maori art and particularly tattooing. He wrote a book on the art of tattooing, Moko, followed by a second book in 1915, Pounamu: Notes on New Zealand Greenstone.

He returned with his regiment to England in 1866 but retained a keen interest in New Zealand and was actively involved with functions at New Zealand House in London. Robley rescued tattooed heads - mokomokokai - from sailors and souvenir hunters that were appearing in auction rooms and second-hand shops.

When poverty overcome Robley, he tried to sell the collection to the New Zealand Government but was refused. The heads were then bought by a museum in New York and had since been repatriated to New Zealand.

Community and Culture Committee chairman Terry Molloy said Tauranga was indebted to Robley.

Mayor Greg Brownless said he had long admired Robley's paintings and he pledged the council's support for the headstone project. Mrs Brooks did not ask for a cash contribution from the council.

Major General Horatio Gordon Robley
- Born Funchal, Portugal, June 1840
- Stationed in Tauranga January 1864 to June 1865
- Died in London October, 1930.