I’ve just returned from a holiday in the South Island (or to give it its more poetic Maori name, Te Wai Pounamu) and while in Christchurch a friend and I had a guided tour of the Ngaio Marsh House. This is the former home of crime writer and theatre producer Dame Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982).
She initially studied art at the Canterbury School of Fine Arts and some of her paintings are in the house. She was friends with other women painters of the Post-World War One era: Rata Lovell-Smith, Olivia Spencer Bower, Evelyn Page and Rhona Haszard, for example. She exhibited with the Canterbury Society of Arts until 1926 and also some of the other New Zealand art societies, but didn’t make much money from it. She also wrote articles and toured the country acting with a theatre group in the early 1920s, but her eventual fame and income was to come from writing crime novels.
In 1928 she sailed to England (or ‘Home’ as she and many New Zealanders called it at least up to the 1960s). In 1931 her first detective novel, A Man Lay Dead, was published. This was the first of over thirty novels to be published. She returned to New Zealand in 1932 as her mother was ill – Ngaio was an only child.
She was to make a number of trips back to England, but was stranded in New Zealand for the duration of the Second World War and set four of her murder mysteries here. The one I read on holiday – Died in the Wool – is set on a high country South Island sheep station. Some of the dialogue language is a bit out-dated now and the espionage theme (a way of explaining how her New Scotland Yard detective was in New Zealand during WW2) was a bit contrived, but I enjoyed the ‘whodunit’ aspect of the story. She was dubbed one of the four ‘queens of crime’ along with Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham.
When she was in New Zealand she was very involved with student theatre productions and may be better known in Christchurch as a theatre producer – particularly of Shakespeare – and a nurturer of young talent.
Ngaio was about 10 when her parents Rose and Henry managed to save enough money to buy land and build the house which they called Marton Cottage. The architect was Rose’s cousin, Samuel Hurst Seager, a well known Christchurch architect. It was just a four-roomed cottage with verandah and an out-house at the back – dining room, kitchen, and two bedrooms. They were very eager and camped near the site for three months and moved in before it was completed – Ngaio wrote: ‘from the beginning we loved our house, it was the fourth member of our family’. The house was built on the Cashmere hills and on a clear day they could see across Christchurch to the Southern Alps.
The first room entered is the dining room – the timber panelling and built-in bookcases are characteristic of Seager’s ‘arts and crafts’ domestic architecture. Behind the dining room is the kitchen, but here the walls have been painted white – located at the back of the house, it would be a very dark room if the timber hadn’t been painted. Off the dining room is a small hall that leads to the former two bedrooms – the one at the back was Ngaio’s but after her father died in 1948 she had it extended and it became her living room – she called it the long room. She designed the colour scheme, which still exists, of deep blue-grey walls and a white ceiling. She moved into her parents’ former bedroom and also had this extended.
At the same time the building at the rear of the main house, originally the wash-house, was made into a studio. Later this structure was pulled down and replaced by the current building to provide accommodation for a housekeeper. In 1980 a new studio, with a lift and bathroom, was built below the front bedroom due to her worsening health.
The house is listed as a Category 1 Historic Place by Heritage New Zealand, which says: “Whilst the exterior of the house has been altered over the years, the interior remains intact, including the timber panelling. Dame Ngaio described the house when newly built in her autobiography Black Beech and Honeydew: ‘The new house smelt of the linseed oil with which the panelled walls had been treated and of the timber itself. It was a four-roomed bungalow with a large semi-circular verandah. The living room was biggish. There were recesses in its bronze wooden walls and there was a pleasant balance between them and the windows.’”
There are many personal objects still in the house and my friend and I enjoyed our guided tour with Jill. As the tours are run by volunteers you need to pre-book one – see the Ngaio Marsh Trust website here.
 Joanne Drayton, Ngaio Marsh: Her Life in Crime, Harper Collins, 2008, quote on p. 48.
For further information see also:
Ngaio Marsh House (Former), Heritage New Zealand website
Ngaio Marsh Trust website
Jane Stafford. ‘Marsh, Edith Ngaio’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 13-Nov-2013