Who was Ngaio Marsh?

Hugely talented, charming and enigmatic, Ngaio Marsh is one of New Zealand’s best-known literary figures, and was for a time our most famous export across the globe.

A tall woman with a deep voice and a love of designer clothes, she carried her own inimitable style, and was a familiar sight around Christchurch driving her sleek black Jaguar wrapped in a fur coat.

She was a true pioneer – overcoming the barriers of her time to rise to the peak of society, and her career, as an internationally-successful independent female artist.  A creative powerhouse whose influences are still felt today.

Image of a young Ngaio Marsh, from the Ngaio Marsh House & Heritage Trust website.
Dame Ngaio Marsh
1895-1982
Detailed image of Ngaio Marsh's books at Ngaio Marsh House & Garden in Christchurch NZ

Crime Novelist

One of the original ‘Queens of Crime’ who dominated crime fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, alongside Agatha Christie. Wrote 32 internationally-acclaimed novels featuring the quintessential upper class English detective – the handsome and melancholic Inspector Roderick Alleyn.

Theatre director, mentor & patron

Credited with single-handedly reviving Shakespeare in New Zealand. Wrote, produced and directed many plays and was involved in New Zealand’s most important theatrical institutions.  She was a mentor to many up and coming actors, including Sam Neill (Thor, Jurassic Park).

 It was for her work in theatre that she received her Damehood. 

Detailed image of Ngaio Marsh's items at Ngaio Marsh House & Garden in Christchurch NZ
Detailed image of Ngaio Marsh's paintings at Ngaio Marsh House & Garden in Christchurch NZ

Artist

Dame Ngaio initially pursued a career as an artist. Founding member of The Group, an influential art association that involved many of New Zealand’s best-known artists including Olivia Spencer Bower and Evelyn Page.

Grand Dame
Woman of Society

Awarded many honours for her writing and contribution to theatre. Travelled extensively overseas, with long sojourns in England moving in society circles.

 

Many interesting people visited Christchurch to pay homage to New Zealand’s grandest dame. Hollywood greats Sir Laurence Oliver and Vivien Leigh were among those who visited her home, on their 1948 tour of New Zealand. 

Detailed image of Ngaio Marsh's belongings at Ngaio Marsh House & Garden in Christchurch NZ
Detailed image of Ngaio Marsh's belongings at Ngaio Marsh House & Garden in Christchurch NZ
“Dame Ngaio Marsh was a trailblazer, a pioneer, a woman who shaped her times. She was a Crime Queen alongside Agatha Christie when the genre had an extraordinary global impact. In 1949, a million copies of her crime novels were released onto the market. And she was a cherished icon of Shakespearean theatre, ground breaking in both her staging and direction. Her passion for working with young people and her love for the theatre are among her most enduring legacies.”

New Zealand author and Dame Ngaio Marsh biographer Joanne Drayton

Timeline

Born Edith Ngaio Marsh in Merivale, Christchurch. Ngaio is a name of Maori origin and the name of a native New Zealand tree. It can also mean ‘reflections on water’.

1895
1907

Moved to Marton Cottage with her parents (now Ngaio Marsh House)

Pupil at St Margaret’s College, Christchurch

1910-3
1913-9

Studied at Canterbury College School of Art

Part of exhibition by noted local art association The Group

1927
1928

First of many trips to England

First novel published - A Man Lay Dead

1934
1941

Directs first play with University of Canterbury drama society

Awarded an OBE

1948
1962

Awarded Honorary Doctorate from the University of Canterbury

Made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire

1966
1967

Ngaio Marsh Theatre opens at University of Canterbury

Encouraged founding of the Court Theatre, New Zealand’s largest theatre company, and becomes a lifelong patron

1971
1978

Awarded The Grand Master lifetime achievement award, The Edgar Awards, Mystery Crime Writers of America, alongside Agatha Christie, Graham Greene and Alfred Hitchcock

Dies at home. Buried in the Acland family churchyard at Mount Peel Station’s Church of the Holy Innocence

1982
2010

Inaugural Ngaio Marsh Crime Awards recognising excellence in crime, mystery and thriller writing by New Zealand authors

Ngaio Marsh Theatre at the University of Canterbury reopens after the 2011 Christchurch earthquakes

2019
Detailed image of Ngaio Marsh's belongings at Ngaio Marsh House & Garden in Christchurch NZ
‘A fascinating glimpse into the life of an amazing woman’
More Information about Dame Ngaio Marsh

1. Read NZ Writers File - Ngaio Marsh

2. 10 Fascinating Facts about Dame Ngaio Marsh - Radio NZ

3. University of Canterbury Alumni Legend - Ngaio Marsh

4. 'Her Life in Crime' - Autobiography of Ngaio Marsh by Joanne Drayton

Three New Zealanders: Ngaio Marsh

Three New Zealanders was a documentary series from 1977 that looked at the lives of three of NZ's most celebrated writers: Sylvia-Ashton Warner, Janet Frame and Dame Ngaio Marsh. Produced by Endeavour Films (John Barnett), the final chapter of this three-part series centres on internationally acclaimed crime-writer and Shakespearean director Dame Ngaio Marsh. From NZ On Screen. 

Image of a room in the Ngaio Marsh House & Garden, Christchurch NZ

Support the Ngaio Marsh Trust

If you would like to see this Category 1 Historic Place preserved for future generations, please consider supporting us. There are many ways you can help, from volunteering your time, donating or becoming a sponsor. We’d love to hear from you!