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Sir Edward Denis Blundell GCMG GCVO KBE QSO, 1907 – 1984

By Geoff Adlam

The first New Zealand resident to be appointed Governor-General, Sir Denis spent 32 years as a partner in a large law firm and ended his legal career as President of the New Zealand Law Society. He also served a term as High Commissioner for New Zealand in Britain.

He was born in Wellington on 29 May 1907. His parents were Penelope Lena and Henry Percy Fabian Blundell. His father was the son of Henry Blundell who founded the Wellington newspaper Evening Post in 1865 and the family was closely identified with newspaper publishing. Denis, as he was always known, was sent to Waitaki Boys’ High School in the family tradition, and then to Trinity College at Cambridge University in England. He studied law and was called to the English bar at Gray’s Inn in November 1929.

Without having practised law in England, Sir Denis returned to Wellington on 7 January 1930 and was admitted here that year. He then began a legal career with the firm which is now Bell Gully, becoming a partner of Bell Gully Mackenzie Buxton and Blundell in 1936. By December 1930 he was junioring for HF O’Leary in the Supreme Court. His practice blossomed and he appeared many times in the courts and began to develop a reputation as a strong litigator.

The sporting career

While becoming a respected member of the legal community, he was best known for his prowess as a cricketer. During his time at Cambridge and through the 1930s Sir Denis was a very successful fast bowler. His Cambridge exploits were widely reported in New Zealand, with a report in London’s Star newspaper in June 1929 describing him as a “great-hearted bowler” being eagerly reproduced around the country. Reporting his arrival in Melbourne on the way back home, Dunedin’s Evening Star of 2 January 1930 stated:

“E.D Blundell of Wellington, who was recently called to the English Bar, and who represented Cambridge at cricket for two consecutive seasons, arrived by the liner Ormonde, en route for New Zealand: He will practise in Wellington. In an interview he described himself as the world’s worst batsman, adding that last season he took four more wickets than his total number of runs. Blundell gained prominence as a medium-pace bowler. In his first match with Cambridge against Leicester he took six wickets for 25 runs.”

Over his first class career Sir Denis played 48 matches from 1928 to 1938. “A bowler rather than a batsman, he took 195 wickets at an average of 25.25, with a best performance of 6-25 and 12 five-wicket bags. He scored 400 runs at an average of 8.69, with a highest score of 27 not out. He bowled right-arm fast-medium and was a left-handed batsman,” says the Cricinfo website.

There was surprise when he missed out on selection for the New Zealand team which toured England in 1931, but in 1935 he performed with distinction for New Zealand against the touring MCC team. After his playing career ended he was involved in cricket administration and was President of the New Zealand Cricket Council from 1959 to 1962.

Sir Denis was a keen golfer. On his return to New Zealand he joined the Wellington Golf Club at Heretaunga. By 1933 he was playing to an 8 handicap and an interclub representative. He was also a good athlete, winning the 440 yard race at the Cambridge senior sports at the end of 1928.

The military career

By October 1939, Sir Denis was aged 32. His legal practice had gone from strength to strength and he was still prominent in cricketing and golfing circles. War had come, however, and on 4 October 1939 the New Zealand Herald reported: “The Wellington Cricket Club will be without the services of E.D. Blundell this season, which means that officials will have to look for someone to replace the finest bowler the club has had in years, says a Wellington writer. A New Zealand representative, with some fine figures in Plunket Shield and international matches, Blundell, who was also a Cambridge ‘Blue’, has joined the military forces. His absence will mean a serious loss to the club.”

By early 1940 he was a second lieutenant with the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Egypt. Initially he continued to play cricket in army matches and was also a prolific newspaper correspondent, his letters often being published in newspapers throughout New Zealand. The Evening Post of 9 August 1940 carried his comments on life as a soldier in Egypt: "It looks as if from now on we shall be on the move fairly continuously, even if we do not for a long time see any actual fighting. Our future in this part of the world is so uncertain that we have simply to wait what comes next. Meanwhile, we swelter, grow less fond of Egypt, and hope either for action or for peace.”

After being commissioned in December 1939, he was posted to a First Echelon Wellington infantry battalion with which he left New Zealand. His military career ended with the award of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in December 1944. The Evening Post of that date summarised his time in the army: “From January to March, 1942, he was seconded for special duty with headquarters, Royal Army Service Corps. In October 1942, he was transferred to an armoured formation and the following month was appointed staff captain to an infantry brigade. He was later appointed brigade major of the same unit and promoted to temporary major, the rank being made substantive in February [1944]. He held the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel from February to May, 1944, while commanding a battalion. He returned to New Zealand in September [1944] and has since been posted to the retired list.”

The summary did not include reference to his involvement in the fighting in Greece and Crete. His account of this to a Wellington Rotary Club luncheon was reported by the Evening Post on 21 February 1945, including the following:

“The speaker recounted how his platoon was amongst the last to leave the beach [on the east coast past Athens] in the early hours of the morning. On approaching the beach they saw the last of the landing craft disappearing towards a warship. They were then directed to a scow manned by two Greeks. Time was becoming important, because everybody realised that the ships had to be a good 40 miles away before daylight. The scow grounded and everybody had to get off and the scow pushed further out to sea. Even then it took three separate attempts to reach the waiting destroyer. From Greece they went to Crete, where they were told the Germans were planning an attack. On May 20 they saw the first great airborne attack of the war. It was an incredible sight to see the Jerries flying just above them. Each plane dropped approximately half a dozen men and the sky was full of parachutes of different colours so that equipment could be more easily recognised on the ground.”

A legal career resumed

Back from the war Sir Denis resumed legal practice and rose to prominence in the law. He began to be involved in administration of the legal profession and was elected to the Council of the Wellington District Law Society at its AGM in March 1945. His practice blossomed and he appeared in courts around the country in many different areas of the law. He often appeared in disputes involving New Zealand Railways, and for the New Zealand Racing Conference. In 1951 he was elected President of the Wellington District Law Society. He appeared in at least one case at the Privy Council, representing the appellant (unsuccessfully) in In re Whareroa 2E Block, Māori Trustee v Ministry of Works [1959] NZLR 7.

He married June Halligan on 12 October 1945 at St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington. The couple had two children.

In 1962 his involvement with the organised legal profession reached its peak when he was elected President of the New Zealand Law Society. He held that role until 1968. During his presidency the Law Society’s now-sold building at 26 Waring Taylor Street was completed and opened in 1964. Writing in Portrait of a Profession, the then Chief Justice Sir Richard Wild described Sir Denis as “a strong personality, a leading barrister, a New Zealand cricket representative, national president of the social organisation ‘Birthright’, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Parliamentary salaries, a man of robust energy and diverse interests”, and continued to note “the continuing growth under his guidance of the scope of the Society’s service and activities. From the successful opening of the Building in 1964 has followed an enlarged secretarial service, a regular newsletter and, more importantly, a keener awareness on the part of individual practitioners of the unity of the profession and a more lively participation in the affairs and responsibilities to the community both at home and overseas.” (“Seven New Zealand Presidents”, Portrait of a Profession, 1969, page 180).

Sir Denis also had an important influence on celebration of the Law Society’s centenary in 1969. In 1966 he got the Law Society’s Council to arrange for publication of a centennial history. Sir Denis wrote the preface to the resulting Portrait of a Profession in October 1968, by then having left the law.

While Law Society President he was elected Vice-President of LAWASIA in 1966. His contribution to the profession was recognised in the 1967 Queen’s Birthday Honours when he was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of his “services to the legal profession”.

The diplomatic career

From Law Society President Sir Denis moved into the field of diplomacy. He was appointed High Commissioner for New Zealand in Britain and Ambassador to Ireland in 1968. On his appointment he retired from partnership with Bell Gully, ending 38 years with the firm and a direct association with the practice of law.

Based in London, Sir Denis enjoyed friendships with British Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and Sir Alec Douglas Home. The United Kingdom joined the European Community on 1 January 1973, ending New Zealand’s special trading relationship. In the years leading up to this there were important trade negotiations involving Sir Denis and his close friend, Sir John Marshall who was the cabinet minister responsible.

Governor-General

In 1972 Sir Denis was appointed Governor-General of New Zealand, taking up the role on 27 September 1972. Sir Arthur Porritt was the first New Zealander to be appointed Governor-General, but Sir Arthur had emigrated to Britain and Sir Denis was the first resident vice-regal New Zealander. Alongside his nationality he made another significant step in helping New Zealand bury its colonial past by being the first Governor-General to get rid of the plumed helmets which the (all male) Governors-General had worn in the past. Sir Denis preferred a ordinary suit or a less ornate uniform. Future Prime Minister David Lange observed “it sort of made us somehow mortal. A man who was a lawyer and the son of a newspaper publisher could become The Queen in drag.” (Gavin McLean, The Governors: New Zealand’s Governors and Governors-General, Otago University Press, 2006). McLean notes that Sir Denis’ own comment was “I’d feel an awful Joe underneath one of those hats”.

New Zealand had four prime ministers while he was Governor-General – Sir John Marshall (briefly in 1972), Norman Kirk (1972-1974), Sir Wallace Rowling (1974-1975) and Sir Robert Muldoon (1975-1977). Again bringing a more “New Zealand” approach to the role, Sir Denis and Lady June had a tradition of asking the Prime Minister of the day to supper on Sunday nights.

He was a close personal friend of Sir John Marshall, who was responsible for recommending to New Zealand’s Queen that he be appointed. However, the next Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, was opposed to the appointment because of this friendship. His tenure as Governor-General ended on 5 October 1977.

Sir Denis and Lady June were actively involved in charitable activities throughout their lives. Sir Denis was very active in the Birthright organisation which began in 1955, and the exclusive Carbine Club of New Zealand has a Sir Denis Blundell Charitable Trust. Lady June was founding patron of the Child Cancer Foundation, and also closely involved in establishing CanTeen. Both were closely involved with St John. Lady June was one of the first New Zealanders appointed to the Order of New Zealand, in February 1988.

Sir Denis died unexpectedly at the age of 77 on 24 September 1984 while he was on holiday in Townsville, Australia. Lady June ONZ, QSO, died on 31 October 2012, aged 91.

Last updated on the 26th June 2020