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Don Stafford

Historian Don Stafford CBE MBE spent most of his long career championing the history and heritage of his beloved city, Rotorua. He authored numerous books, including the award-winning Te Arawa: a history of the Arawa people, and, as the city’s official historian, two major books on the history of the Rotorua area.

As a boy in his father’s menswear shop in Tutanekai Street, Don was brought into close contact with kuia and kaumatua of Te Arawa. Drawn by the warmth of the store’s stove, the old people told stories to the youngster, who imbibed the language and began to record their history.

His definitive work, Te Arawa: a history of the Arawa people, published by Reed in 1967, earned an Elsdon Best Memorial Medal, awarded in 1970 by the Polynesian Society. This authoritative book, which has sold more than 40,000 copies, was followed by 22 books on the Rotorua area, an accomplishment that was recognised with an MBE in 1982, and in 1993, a CBE and an honorary doctorate from the University of Waikato. His last book, Wild wind from the north, published by Reed in 2007, addressed the controversial story of Hongi Hika.

Don Stafford was the city’s official historian and his two major books, The founding years in Rotorua (1986) and The new century in Rotorua (1988), have been referred to, read and enjoyed by countless people. Rotorua District Library has named its research room, which holds his research and archival material, the Don Stafford Room.

Historic Rotorua buildings stand restored and protected for future generations aided by Don Stafford’s determined efforts. They include St Faith’s Church, Ōhinemutu, St Peter’s Church, Ōwhata, and Te Runanga Tea House in the Government Gardens, reopened in 1993.

Don Stafford’s fluency in te reo Māori gave him mana in the Māori world, where he was accorded the status of rangatira. After he passed away on 5 April 2010, Ngāti Whakaue welcomed his body onto Te Papaiouru Marae, where it lay in state prior to a service in his beloved St Faith’s Church and burial at Kauae Cemetery.

His flair with the English language earned Don an authority that was recognised locally, nationally and internationally. A regular broadcaster, speaker, artist, and in later years documentary film-maker, this charismatic man never tired of sharing his rich lode of stories with generations of Rotorua people. 

Rotorua Museum owes Don Stafford a huge debt of gratitude. From 1968 to 1970 he was the first curator of the Rotorua City Museum. His legacy is seen, among other things, in the nationally important photographic collection he initiated. The Centennial Development at Rotorua Museum reflects this museum’s respect for Don Stafford. The major development of the Bath House building’s south wing, due for completion in August 2011, will be called the Don Stafford Wing.

Adapted from an obituary written by Ann Somerville which appeared in Phanzine, vol.16, no.1, May 2010

How to cite this page

Don Stafford, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated