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Margaret Thomson


Margaret Thomson is something of a forgotten name in New Zealand film, despite her important place in its history. Though Hilda Moran (first wife of filmmaker Rudall Hayward) is the earliest known New Zealand woman to have worked behind the scenes on films, Thomson is generally acknowledged as our first female director. 

Born in 1910 in Australia to Kiwi parents, Thomson had a testing upbringing. Her mother Gertrude, a teacher, died when she was five. Father James Allan Thomson was a geologist, head of Wellington's Dominion Museum, and the country's first Rhodes Scholar. Originally set to have accompanied Robert Scott's ill-fated 1910 expedition to the South Pole, James bowed out, suffering from tuberculosis.

Margaret Thomson studied zoology at Canterbury University, graduating with first class honours. It was 1934, she was a woman, and the country was still caught up in the effects of the 'Great Depression'. After a menial job at the university (she had hoped for a lecturing position), Thomson sailed for England. 

There she applied for a job with Gaumont British Instructional Films. As she later told filmmaker Julie Benjamin: "They asked me what sort of zoology I had been doing. I replied in a small voice, 'the ecology of a little insect that lives in the streams of New Zealand', thinking: They won't think much of that!" 

It was perfect timing. GBI were seeking someone to edit a series of ecology films. Despite her lack of experience in filmmaking, Thomson spent the next two years working on the series of six films, each named after a certain type of environment. 

After leaving the GBI, Thomson edited some travelogues for Marion Grierson, through which she met Marion's brother, British documentary pioneer John Grierson, who would later write her a reference, and play a part in launching New Zealand's National Film Unit. 

While working as a trainee electrician at Harrods department store, Thomson impressed the staff of The Realist Film Unit, and they gave her a job on the spot. Instead of Britain's traditionally highly stratified system, the film company was run on socialist lines, with all crew members earning the same pay and respect.

Thanks partly to the war, there were two other women directing at Realist. During her six years at the company, Thomson worked on a host of shorts, many of them honest, "straightforward" instructional pieces shown in halls, schools and factories, aimed at helping people deal with war shortages (Making a Compost Heap, Your Children's Teeth). Her own favourites included her Ministry of Education films Children Learning by Experience and Children Growing Up with Other People.

British Film Institute head Denis Forman would later argue that Realist's work was an early example of cinema verite - "12 years before the French invented the term".

By 1947 Thomson was feeling homesick. She sailed for New Zealand, after National Film Unit boss Stanhope Andrews invited her to take up a position as a director. Thomson was one of the Unit's most experienced directors. NFU sound man Bob Allen, who features in documentary Direction ... Margaret Thomson, has recalled her as a respected mentor, "always constructive, never destructive". 

Andrews would cite Thomson's doco Railway Worker as what the Film Unit was all about. He is said to have turned to her after first watching it, and told her "it's the most wonderful thing we've turned out in this place".

In her book Reframing Women, author Deborah Shepard pinpoints why the film stood out from many others of the time. "What is strikingly different about Railway Worker is that we don't merely see the men at work but meet them and their families in their homes and communal settings."

Thomson's own personal favourite from her New Zealand work was the 22-minute The First Two Years at School (1949). Having filmed at a mainly Pākehā school in Wellington, Thomson made a conscious effort to find Māori children. Her filmmaking experience in England proved valuable in capturing naturalistic scenes of children interacting.

"You needed a lot of film stock and you just mooched around with the children until they forgot about you."

Though impressed by the enthusiasm and hard work of the NFU staff, Thomson began to worry at the lack of buffers between politicians and filmmakers. Some of her workmates were unhappy when Thomson spoke at a 1948 Parliamentary Film Inquiry. There she argued that because the NFU was under the direct control of the Government, it was unlikely that objective and controversial films could be made about subjects such as Māori health and living conditions. 

At this point Thomson was already considering moving back to England. Accustomed to the camaraderie of British documentary filmmakers at a pub in Soho, Thomson had discovered that in New Zealand, women were still excluded from public bars. 

Thomson left for England in May 1949, for a directing job at the esteemed GPO Film Unit, now named the Crown Film Unit (and soon to close its doors for good). She would continue to make films for another 20 years, working on everything from medical training films to studies of child psychological development.

In 1954 Thomson directed her only feature film, but apparently did not enjoy the experience. The little-known Child's Play was a comedy about a group of children who split the atom, and create a new kind of popcorn.

Thomson also cast and coached child actors on a number of feature films, including 1953 British drama The Kidnappers. The film's child stars Jon Whiteley and Vincent Winter were both awarded honorary Academy Awards for their work.

In the 90s filmmaker and writer Julie Benjamin, inspired partly by Railway Worker, travelled to London and met the 80-year-old Thomson, now retired. Benjamin and Thomson uncovered a load of archival material that was included in the documentary Direction...Margaret Thomson.

Thomson's WWII work was also featured in 1989 documentary War, Peace and Pictures, directed by Brit Janey Walklin.

Margaret Thomson died on the second to last day of 2005, at the age of 95.


Sources include
Clive Sowry
Julie Benjamin, 'Film Pioneers' (Biography) - Onfilm, June 1990 (Volume 7, No 4, page 26/27)
Deborah Shepard, Reframing Women - A history of New Zealand film (Auckland:HarperCollinsPublishers (New Zealand) Ltd, 2000) 
Margaret Thomson, 'Grierson and New Zealand - Journal of the Society of Film and Television Arts (John Grierson Special Issue, Volume 2, Nos 4/5, Pages 15/16)
'Independent Board - Control of Film-Making' - Evening Post, 24 May 1948