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Esme Irene Tombleson CBE QSO (née Lawson, 1 August 1917 – 30 July 2010) was a New Zealand politician of the National Party. An Australian child prodigy who recited Shakespeare, she had a career in theatre and ballet. During the war, her sharp mind and strong memory was recognised, and she became a civil servant. She came to New Zealand through marriage, and lived on rural land near Gisborne. She represented the Gisborne electorate in Parliament for 12 years, and was prominent as a campaigner for multiple sclerosis.

Esme Tombleson

Member of the New Zealand Parliament
for Gisborne
In office
Preceded byReginald Keeling
Succeeded byTrevor Davey
Personal details
Esme Irene Lawson

1 August 1917
Sydney, Australia
Died30 July 2010(2010-07-30) (aged 92)
Gisborne, New Zealand
Political partyNational
ResidenceBurnage Station, Gisborne
Occupationcivil service, Member of Parliament
Professionballet, theatre

Early lifeEdit

She was born in Sydney in 1917 and educated there. She received her education at the Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School in Darlinghurst, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and the Imperial School of Ballet in London.[1] She was taken around Australia as a child prodigy by her mother, reciting Shakespeare.[2] She was involved in various ballet, opera and theatre companies. During World War II she served in the Women's Auxiliary Signalling Corps in Sydney, where her sharp memory was recognised. She became secretary of the Manpower Advisory Committee.[1][2]

Rural lifeEdit

She came to New Zealand in 1951 when she married Tom Tombleson, a Gisborne farmer. They had met at Franz Josef while on holiday. She was a headstrong person and as a public servant, she had been in a position of power. As she knew nothing about farming, this was an area where her husband was a clear superior to her, and she found the experience interesting.[2] They lived on Burnage Station, some 75 kilometres (47 mi) from Gisborne.[3]

She had to teach herself how to cook, created a massive flower garden without ever having been a gardener before, and taught rural children ballet. This was not fulfilling her, so she started to take an interest in politics.[2]

Political careerEdit

New Zealand Parliament
Years Term Electorate Party
1960–1963 33rd Gisborne National
1963–1966 34th Gisborne National
1966–1969 35th Gisborne National
1969–1972 36th Gisborne National

Tombleson was selected as a National Party candidate shortly before the 1960 election in the Gisborne electorate, when the previous candidate suffered a heart attack.[4] She defeated the incumbent, Labour's Reginald Keeling, in the marginal seat.[5] At the time, she was the only woman on the National caucus.[6] After Mary Grigg and Hilda Ross, she was the third female National MP.[7] She was joined by another female in the National caucus at the next general election in 1963, Rona Stevenson.[7] Tombleson had a passion for fishing and when she was offered the role of Associate Minister of Social Welfare, she turned down the offer, as she wanted to be Minister of Fisheries.[2]

She led the 1965 delegation to the 54th conference of the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada; she was the first woman to lead a New Zealand delegation to the IPU.[3]

She was defeated by Trevor Davey in the 1972 election.[8][9]

Later lifeEdit

Tombleson was a co-founder of the National Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society in 1961. She was president of the organisation (1975–1982) and founded the Gisborne–East Coast branch in 1988.[2] For many years, she was on the executive of the International Federation of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.[3] She was able to control meetings, as she had learned during her theatre training how to project her voice. When her hearing got worse later in life, her voice grew even louder.[2]

She was appointed a Companion of the Queen's Service Order for public services in the 1977 Silver Jubilee and Queen's Birthday Honours,[10] and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1993 New Year Honours for services to multiple sclerosis and the community.[11][12] Also in 1993, she was awarded the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal.[13] She received the "rarely awarded" gold medal for distinguished services to multiple sclerosis in 1987.[3] She died on 30 July 2010 in Gisborne.[2]

The MS Society of New Zealand offers Esme Tombleson Awards at its annual general meetings.[3]


  1. ^ a b Gustafson 1986, p. 348.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Young, Sarah (22 August 2010). "Charismatic and razor-sharp". The Dominion Post. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e "Esme Tombleson Awards". MS Society of NZ. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
  4. ^ Gustafson 1986, p. 285.
  5. ^ Wilson 1985, pp. 209, 241.
  6. ^ Gustafson 1986, p. 85.
  7. ^ a b Gustafson 1986, p. 284.
  8. ^ Wilson 1985, pp. 192, 241.
  9. ^ Falconer, Phoebe (7 August 2010). "From stage to politics on her own terms". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 28 August 2015.
  10. ^ "No. 47237". The London Gazette (Supplement). 11 June 1977. p. 7129.
  11. ^ "No. 53154". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1992. p. 29.
  12. ^ "Obituaries — Esme Irene Tombleson QSO, CBE". New Zealand Parliament. Retrieved 26 October 2012.
  13. ^ "The New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal 1993 – register of recipients". Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. 26 July 2018. Retrieved 18 September 2018.


  • Gustafson, Barry (1986). The First 50 Years : A History of the New Zealand National Party. Auckland: Reed Methuen. ISBN 0-474-00177-6.
  • Wilson, James Oakley (1985) [First ed. published 1913]. New Zealand Parliamentary Record, 1840–1984 (4th ed.). Wellington: V.R. Ward, Govt. Printer. OCLC 154283103.
  • Women in Parliamentary Life 1970-1990: Hocken Lecture 1993 by Marilyn Waring, page 32 (Hocken Library, University of Otago, 1994) ISBN 0-902041-61-4
New Zealand Parliament
Preceded by
Reginald Keeling
Member of Parliament for Gisborne
Succeeded by
Trevor Davey