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Imagining Ngaio Marsh

28 January 2022
Sign to Ngaio Marsh House and Garden

Discover one of Christchurch’s most historic and treasured heritage properties, the former home and garden of Dame Ngaio Marsh. Words & Photos Rachel Vogan

The late Dame Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895–1982) was a woman of many talents, and I am picking that she thrived on adrenaline. As an author of 32 detective novels, her forte was murder, mystery and crime. Her cleverly written prose took the reader deep into the scenes she set, with readers perched on the edge of their seats and always left wanting more. Intriguingly, she sold more crime novels than Agatha Christie. Her creative works live on, as do the merits of her established garden in Christchurch.

When invited to visit by local Christchurch horticulturalist and gardener Wendy Marshall, a volunteer and a Friend of Ngaio Marsh Heritage House, I was chuffed. I had never been to the property, nor known Ngaio Marsh.

Ahead of time, Wendy advised, “Mind the road – it’s tight and winding, but you will make it up the hill.”

Typically, I didn’t heed the warning. Hauling my ute up the winding drive took a number of three-point turns and more effort and attention than I had expected. When I arrived, my heart rate was elevated and I was thrilled to find the car park tucked just under the house. I was pleased, too, that I hadn’t parked at the bottom of the hill, as I would then have been hyperventilating by the time I got to the top. Besides, what I thought would be a quick visit turned into quite an extensive one.

The property is nestled on the Port Hills, in the leafy suburb of Cashmere. Originally called Marton Cottage, the house was built in 1906 and designed by Christchurch architect Samuel Hurst Seager (1855–1933), cousin of Ngaio’s mother, Rose Elizabeth Marsh (1864–1932). A four-room bungalow in the Arts and Crafts style on a large section, the property was developed and cared for by Ngaio’s father, Henry Edmund Marsh (1863–1948), and then a succession of gardeners, including many volunteers.

Today, Marton Cottage is known as the Ngaio Marsh Heritage House and owned by the Ngaio Marsh House and Heritage Trust, which opened the property to the public in 1996. The Friends of Ngaio Marsh Heritage House care for the property in a practical way and help to raise the profile of Ngaio’s home and garden with tours and special events.

Life of a dame

An an only child, Ngaio lived between Marton Cottage and England for most of her life and, from 1948 onwards, she tastefully adapted the property to suit her lifestyle.

Ngaio attended St Margaret’s College between 1910–1913, where she was encouraged to develop her love of and talent for painting, writing, acting and public speaking. Ngaio received a scholarship to attend Canterbury College School of Art and won prizes for her oil and watercolour paintings.

In 1928, Ngaio travelled to England and so began her love for London, where she felt very much at home. It was there that she started writing crime fiction after reading an Agatha Christie novel. She bought pencils and exercise books and wrote her first novel, A Man Lay Dead, which was published in 1934.

Ngaio returned to Christchurch in 1932, caring for her father (until his death in 1948) while writing, painting, acting and directing.

Marton Cottage and its established and beautiful garden became central to Ngaio’s creative passions. She entertained and nurtured her young protégés here, including Jonathan Elsom and Elric Hooper.

Ngaio Marsh was rewarded with an OBE (1948) and an Honorary Doctorate in Literature from the University of Canterbury (1962), and she received her damehood in 1966.

Ngaio Marsh garden, with a wonderful view over the cantebury plains and southern alps

The garden

Ngaio loved her garden and had definite ideas as to what was to be planted where. It is like a pocket of an English countryside, changing with the seasons, with different plants standing at attention depending on the time of year. Numerous seating and private areas indicate she liked to take time to be at one in the garden.

Ngaio had a particular love for primulas. I saw them blooming in small pockets under the large mulberry tree, alongside the most wonderful collection of granny’s bonnets (Aquilegia) in whites and pinks through to vivid blues and purples.

Roses feature extensively, too, with old-fashioned fragrant hybrids rambling through to modern hybrid tea varieties.

Elements of formality punctuate the plantings. The criss-cross Buxus hedge pattern at the bottom of the garden had me curious – does this X mark the spot in some mystery book she was writing?

A large ngaio tree (Myoporum laetum) shades the garden, its limbs hugging the perimeter as though it is protecting the property from intruders.

After Ngaio’s passing, some brave person planted rose ‘Agatha Christie’ on the wall outside what was her writing room. One wonders if Ngaio would be raising more than an eyebrow at the pretty pink climbing rose trying to take a sneak peek at her work.

Gerty’s place

Jenny Barrer, a total gem of a lady, dressed up in period costume for my visit. As a young actress, Jenny was Gertrude when Ngaio directed Hamlet in the late 1950s. From this first introduction, the two formed an amazing bond.

The cultural advisor of the Ngaio Marsh House and Heritage Trust, Jenny is passionate about the house and garden, and can wax lyrically about Ngaio and her life.

Nestled under the mulberry tree, ‘Gerty’s Garden’ was developed to acknowledge Jenny and her role in Ngaio’s stage play. Imagine if that tree could talk.

In her shoes

Walking around someone’s else’s garden is like stepping into a person’s soul, especially when that person is no longer with us. The personality of that person comes to life in plants, elements and vistas. Paths tell a story and take you on a journey to nooks, crannies and seating areas that were special to that person.

The team of volunteers managing the property all talk about Ngaio as if she were a long-lost friend still alive, yet few of them knew her personally. Every Tuesday, a cluster of once-were strangers, now bound together like a flaxen rope, tend to the garden that was a place of solitude and inspiration for this distinguished New Zealand writer.

Time to visit

The home and garden are open to the public at various times, for a small fee, which helps cover the costs of maintaining the property. Well worth a visit, take a friend and a picnic – the garden is much more than you would expect from one of the world’s best crime-writing heroines.

The volunteers garden every Tuesday morning, weather permitting, and would welcome any gardening enthusiasts, especially those who would be happy to help on a casual or regular basis.

Dame Ngaio Marsh in her Christchurch garden
Dame Ngaio Marsh in her Christchurch garden.
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