New Zealand Law Society - Ancient tomes, business class cats and the curious lure of Zeppelinalia

Ancient tomes, business class cats and the curious lure of Zeppelinalia

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John Turner
John Turner

Cat-loving fast car driving international barrister Dr John Turner was told to sign up for law “because there are a lot of people in the queue behind you.”

That was more than 40 years ago when John, armed with a university junior scholarship, couldn’t decide whether to be a maths teacher or a lawyer.

“I went to the law faculty entry interview at Auckland with the late Professor Jack Northey, a formidable and rather authoritarian character, and rather naively confessed my dilemma,” John says.

John William (John) Turner
63 (but getting younger every day)
Entry to law
Graduated LLB(Hons) University of Auckland in 1977, MJur University of Auckland in 1981; LLM Dalhousie University in 1987, PhD University College London in 1998. Admitted in New Zealand in 1978. Also admitted in Papua New Guinea, Victoria Australia, High Court of Australia, England and Wales (solicitor and Higher Courts rights of audience), Fiji, Dubai International Financial Centre Courts.
John Turner Barrister, Auckland
Speciality area
Civil and commercial litigation, conflict of laws problems, construction disputes, laws of Fiji and the Middle East.

“He looked at my grades and said, ‘my dear chap, you would be wasted as a maths teacher. There are a lot of people in the queue behind you. Now sign here, would you.’And that is, literally, how I became a lawyer.”

The first lawyer in his family – his father was an engineer, his mother a housewife – John went on to accumulate numerous degrees while carving out a career across several countries and jurisdictions.

He began as a 22-year-old law clerk at Russell McVeagh in January 1977 with other “more distinguished colleagues” such as Paul Rishworth QC and Justice Mark Woolford, and has practised litigation ever since in New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, England, Fiji and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

After spending a good deal of the 1980s overseas he joined Buddle Findlay in Auckland in 1987 and was subsequently a litigation partner there for 17 years.

John then spent five years practising litigation and arbitration in the UAE, initially with a local firm in Abu Dhabi and then as a partner in a firm which was a joint venture between a local firm and a large Australian firm.

A barrister sole in Auckland since 2012 after the family returned to New Zealand, his practice is in general civil and commercial litigation practice in the equity, trusts and commercial law areas. “I also handle construction disputes and adjudications and have a fairly extensive civil and commercial law practice before the courts of Fiji at the High Court and appellate level.  I got into that some 15 years ago and it has developed from there.”

Business class cats

“When we returned from Abu Dhabi we imported two family cats – Arabian Mau’s named Basil and Sam, aged 10 and nine - from the Middle East at vast expense and these rank much higher than me in the family social hierarchy.

“They are the most important parts of family, family pets in Abu Dhabi, and we were not allowed to leave without them. We got them from a cat refuge in Abu Dhabi where they were rescued from the streets and now they are business class cats.”

Married to Jennifer Caldwell, a senior partner at Buddle Findlay, the couple have teenage sons, William, a first-year law and commerce student at Auckland University, and James, about to start his final year at King’s College, who is interested in criminology and psychology.

“James has done a bit of acting at school and wants to be a Hollywood actor but needs to get a day job first.

“I am a keen DIY and home handyman type, which are always useful skills to have when you live in a large, Edwardian kauri villa which always needs something doing to it.”

An interest in genealogy led John to the discovery of distant ancestors going back to the 17th century in England, and also in Denmark and Latvia. “After years of research I tracked down some distant relatives in Denmark in the 1990s and was fascinated to discover that they had been searching for the New Zealand branch of the family for some time as well.

“I discovered my great great grandfather by the name of Christensen ran away from home in Denmark at 16, got on a sailing ship and ended up in Auckland. My mother’s relatives came from Subate in Latvia, about 1760, when it was part of the Polish empire.”

He says the advent of internet-based research databases has made his hobby easier to pursue.  “A task which used to involve writing numerous airmail letters to various obscure overseas registries, often enclosing stamped self-addressed envelopes, and waiting weeks for a reply can now be accomplished in minutes using computerised online research.”

Describing himself as “a modest petrolhead”, he currently drives a 560bhp BMW M6, “which is the closest I am likely to come to qualifying as a jet pilot. It’s like driving a space rocket”.

“I’ve had Porsches and Jaguars in the past and a BMW 850 in the 90s, which was quite a fast beast. I have, in more recent times, resisted the temptation to burn off various hopeful boy racers when the traffic lights change to green as this is likely to incur the wrath of the gendarmerie.”

A former long distance runner which he says he has inadvisedly given up, John is a member of a French speakers club and several antique collecting organisations.

A keen traveller since his mid-20s, at last count he has been to 45 countries.

“Some of them I like to return to and others I am not keen to revisit for a variety of reasons, including being subjected to random bursts of gunfire or the dubious local cuisine.

“Thanks to spending a lot of their formative years in the Middle East in an international school environment, my two sons had been to more than 35 countries before they were teenagers so they had quite an unorthodox upbringing.

“Nowadays when the subject of overseas holidays is raised their first question is always whether the people speak English there. I fear that they have had enough of being terribly embarrassed by witnessing their father endeavouring to communicate using 20 sentences of various exotic local dialects obtained from that most useful of modern inventions known as Google Translate.

“I’m a French speaker, I did it at school and have travelled a lot in France and Europe and I like to embarrass my two boys whenever we go over there by subjecting them to pidgin French renditions of asking policemen for directions.”

Yorkshire pudding for Churchill

“Dinner guests be Winston Churchill – he was a great chap – and Napoleon Bonaparte, who was not only a great general but also quite a learned man, introducing the Napoleonic Code of French law, and a lot of social innovations in France.

“Snails, sautéd in garlic butter with Cognac for Napoleon, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for Churchill, washed down with a bottle of aging claret.

“We like the Coromandel and the South Island. My wife was born in Blenheim and I suspect she might like to move back there one day, but I’m afraid I’m a Jafa boy through and through. I get the shakes if I get too far from the glass towers.

“I like biographies of historical figures and books on historical events. I have just finished Philip Short’s Mao, A Life and am currently working on (Lord Justice of the UK Supreme Court) Jonathan Sumption’s The Hundred Years War.

“I have a select group of novelists I save for aeroplane trips, including Paul Theroux Dr Slaughter, Herman Woulk War and Remembrance, Leon Uris Mitla Pass and Stieg Larsson The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I have a bad habit of starting on books and then never getting around to finishing them.

“In terms of music – I sing in the shower - I like Enya, Tarja Turunen [Finnish singer-songwriter] and Andre Rieu.

“I like TV series and occasionally binge on Netflix and Lightbox. I am a fan of The Outlander and Designated Survivor. I’m also into science fiction but thought Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to the original 1982 Blade Runner, was a bit ponderous for my taste.

“My favourite actors are Keifer Sutherland and Michelle Dockery.”


John is a keen collector of various antiques and historical items, including ancient coins, Māori artifacts, Chinese porcelain, Japanese swords, suits of armour, and various military items.

But it is his vast collection of antiquarian law books and something called Zeppelinalia which make the ears prick up.

“I saw some old law books in a second-hand shop in London, came home with them, much to my wife’s disgust, and kept on accumulating them.

“I developed an interest in collecting antiquarian law books when I was living in London in the early 1990s. I would wander into dusty old second-hand bookshops around Charing Cross Road and emerge with ancient leather-bound volumes.

“The collection includes a first edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries from 1765 – which is up there with the rarities - a first edition of Coke’s Institutes of the Law of England and numerous volumes of the early original and rare Nominate Reports - early law reports written by private reporters before the official series of law reports – the earliest of which is from 1580 and the reign of Elizabeth 1. And a 33-volume set of Howell’s State Trials.

Notice board covered in artifacts
Notice board covered in artifacts

“My collection has expanded now to more than 1,000 volumes, many of which are on display in my chambers and some at home. I believe I have the largest privately-held collection of antiquarian law books in Australasia, and occasionally university law libraries contact me for copies of obscure cases or textbook references.

“Bound books, of course, are unfortunately to some extent an endangered species in the age of kindle and Wikipedia. I was disappointed to find on my last visit to London that the locations of many of the old second-hand bookshops which I used to visit have been taken over by computer and mobile phone shops and fast food outlets.

“Collecting is in the genes. My father collected firearms, he was into hunting, shooting and fishing. Regrettably I’m not but I suppose I got interested in my 20s after I became a lawyer and started collecting things and never really stopped.

“I keep a lot in my chambers, which is air-conditioned, and every two or three years apply leather preservative to the leather bindings which stops them drying out.

“I’m not sure what will happen to them in future but my older son William may be interested in them.”

And what about Zeppelinalia?

“It’s a collection of remnants of five German Zeppelin airships that came down over England in World War 1. The burnt-out framework was collected, fashioned into souvenirs and sold for charity.

“There are a quite a few pieces of them around and are not that rare. I collect online and at auctions.

“I have bits from all of them, on a little notice board I call Zeppelinalia.

“For someone who delves a lot into the past I am getting younger every day.”

* The photo above is of some of John's collection souvenirs from the wreckage of the five German airships that came down on land over England during the First World War.

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