A year ago the country was excitedly awaiting the arrival of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's baby girl. But wee Neve isn't the first "first baby" to capture the nation's heart.


His birth was celebrated around the country; his name gifted by a Kāpiti Coast hapū.

Later he would be taken to the marae of those who shared the name of their ancestor with this little boy born to British parents, and he would be photographed — a huia tail feather fixed to his head — with treasured taonga given to him.

Before Neve Te Aroha Ardern Gayford, there was Victor Alexander Herbert Huia Onslow.

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The arrival last week of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's first child captured the attention of the country, in 1890 it was the youngest child of then-Govenor William Hillier Onslow, the Earl of Onslow, who caught the attention of the public.

Wellington social historian Elizabeth Cox has researched the story of Huia Onslow, as he was known throughout his life.

He was the first baby born to a vice-regal in New Zealand and the public were enthralled, Cox said.

"People were completely overexcited ... just like for Jacinda. There was discussion about giving him a New Zealand name.

Neve Gayford, pictured with her parents, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and TV host Clarke Gayford, two days after her birth has been dubbed the First Baby of New Zealand. Photo / Greg Bowker
Neve Gayford, pictured with her parents, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and TV host Clarke Gayford, two days after her birth has been dubbed the First Baby of New Zealand. Photo / Greg Bowker

"It was the beginning of nationhood, the beginning of Pākehā not just defining themselves as English but as part of a Māori culture."

Queen Victoria was petitioned by the public to be baby's godmother, and agreed, choosing his first two names; a third name was chosen by his family and his fourth — and chosen — name was gifted by Ōtaki hapū Ngāti Huia.

Baby Huia's baptism at Wellington's Old St Paul's in January 1891 was reported in several newspapers, as was a later visit to Ōtaki's Raukawa Marae, the marae of Ngāti Raukawa, the iwi of Ngāti Huia.

More than 300 people met the baby, his parents and famed lawyer and naturalist Sir Walter Buller at the "magnificently decorated" meeting house, the Star reported.

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Speeches included a plea for the Governor to stop Pākehā from shooting huia birds, so that "when his boy grew up he might see the beautiful bird which bears his name".

Huia Onslow, pictured aged in his mid-teens. Photo / Supplied
Huia Onslow, pictured aged in his mid-teens. Photo / Supplied

The baby and his father would later sign — Huia's mark a scribble — a proclamation adding the birds to the protected species list.

The tribe's chief also shared a hongi with the baby and a "lullaby composed expressly for the occasion" was sung to the 10-month-old, the Star wrote.

Gifts, including greenstone, carved boxes and mats, were presented to the baby.

Huia and his family returned to England the following year, but on holiday in New Zealand in his mid-teens he was again welcomed on the marae — this time in the company of then-Premier Richard Seddon.

Ngāti Huia hapū spokesman Rupene Waaka said the hapū gifted the name after being approached by Sir Walter, whom many knew.

"A lot of our families are not into kaupapa Pākehā but our old people indulged the Crown [in 1890]."

Huia Onslow, on the right side of the pole, pictured with Premier Richard Seddon, to his right, and others at Raukawa Marae in Ōtaki during a holiday in New Zealand in about 1904. Photo / Supplied
Huia Onslow, on the right side of the pole, pictured with Premier Richard Seddon, to his right, and others at Raukawa Marae in Ōtaki during a holiday in New Zealand in about 1904. Photo / Supplied

The gifts made to Huia were on the understanding they would be for his lifetime, but hadn't been returned, Waaka said.

The current Earl of Onslow couldn't be contacted, but Waaka said attempts to get items back — such as the kapeu (hockey stick) and mats baby Huia was photographed with — had not been successful.

"That mat would've been 100 years old. We just gave away the family jewels."

Asked why, Waaka said his ancestors were following their customs.

"It's very much mana-enhancing."

Huia Onslow's visit to New Zealand in his mid-teens would be his last — at the age of 20 his life took a tragic turn when he was paralysed after diving into a lake in Italy.

He survived another decade, in that time working as a scientist and marrying noted biochemist scientist Muriel Wheldale, before he died in 1921 — the same decade the bird that shared his name is thought to have become extinct.

- This story was originally published in July 2018.