Collaborating on ‘The Look of Martinborough’ book, local historian Mate Higginson and writer/publisher John MacGibbon worked in John’s office as they sourced and assembled 170 pages of words and pictures. How appropriate, as the room was Mate’s childhood bedroom. Susan McLeary finds out more.


The fourth ‘Look of ’ book published by the Wairarapa Archive and Fraser Books, it traces Martinborough’s development from 1870-2017, extensively illustrated with historical and modern photographs. Instantly popular with both locals and visitors to the town, it was reprinted very soon after its May 2017 launch. 

“It covers Martinborough’s days off the beaten track through its decline as a rural service town to its reinvention since the 1980s as a prestigious wine producer and the popular Martinborough Wine Village destination,” said John.

“It’s a great small-town revival story. I like being part of it: my wife Liz and I bought an old cottage as a weekender in 1999 and finally extended it and moved permanently from Wellington in 2013. A common Martinborough progression. 

“The section with its many fruit trees had more initial appeal than the house, and it’s a thriving garden now with vegetables, fruit trees, flowers and a little greenhouse. 

“We’ve done all the usual old house renovations and opened up the back of the house to the sun and garden. 

“The book is full of photos – about 300 of them. Many came from the Wairarapa Archive, others from the Martinborough Colonial Museum and the Hau Ariki Marae, and others from families who offered them generously, in varying conditions. I scanned and restored the photos, and took most of the modern images. It was a fascinating 10 months,” John recalled. 

“Mate and I took many exploratory drives together around the town and its hinterland. Mate has the background and personal contacts and I enjoyed finding out how things were and how they have changed. I especially liked the various photos of the Square and upper Kitchener Street as it evolved over the years into the unique focal point it is today,” he observed. 

As a writer and photographer, John’s role was to pull masses of information together into a readable, interesting book, which he also designed and produced. He was well suited to the role, as a blogger (Martinborough Musings), photographer, designer and publisher in his own right, historian and a former communications/PR specialist in rural, government, tourism and IT sector. 

“Some of my working life was with the farm sector, mainly the Dairy and Wool Boards. Later I co-wrote and published histories of the wool industry and the development of the dairy industry’s multi-billion-dollar whey concentrates industry. 

“In Cromwell during the late 1970s I was communications manager for the massive and often controversial Clyde Dam project. It was an information and liaison role, working with the locals, visitors, land owners, local businesses, media and politicians. I learned an awful lot in a short time,” he grinned. He followed up that assignment with a posting as the Government’s publicity representative in Australia, then work in Parliament as a press secretary to National and Labour cabinet ministers.

“I fell into publishing more or less by accident,” he explained in a typically Martinborough setting: coffee at The Village Café. 

“Ngaio Press mostly publishes New Zealand history– social, economic and military. Bringing stories of little towns, forgotten but significant contributors to New Zealand’s development, and families to life is an ideal occupation for a semi-retired man,” he smiled.