Page 1: Biography
Doctor, horticulturist, journalist, writer
This biography, written by Valerie W. Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1998.
Thomas Lambert was born on 3 December 1854 in Oughterard, County Galway, Ireland, the eldest of nine children of William Lambert, a schoolmaster, and his wife, Mary Jane Bingham, formerly a schoolteacher. He was educated in the classics by his father, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. After passing the entrance examination for medical training at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin, he was a pupil surgeon there for 18 months. The beds, sometimes with two or three patients in each, were never empty, and Thomas rapidly became very skilled at bone-setting, obstetrics and dressing wounds. He was soon writing articles for the London Medical Press and Circular.
Before completing his training Thomas moved with his family to New Zealand. They travelled as paying passengers, and on 4 October 1875 landed at the Spit, Wairoa, where William had been appointed the first Anglican clergyman for a large district. Mary Jane found that from a big, gracious home in Ireland with four indoor servants, she now had a two-room whare with a dirt floor.
Thomas and his father established a tree nursery, and he opened the first chemist’s shop in Wairoa where he sold seeds, paints and oils. As the nearest doctor was 80 miles away in Napier, Thomas acted as the local medical practitioner, treating both Maori and Pakeha. In 1878 he began work as a reporter, becoming the local correspondent for several Hawke’s Bay newspapers. An expert horseman, he regularly rode to Napier to report on events and meetings. On 7 April 1886 he married Jessie Shears there; he rode home three days later and welcomed his bride with the local band when she arrived by sea. The couple were to have nine children, two of whom died in infancy. Deeply committed to the welfare and advancement of the people of the district of Wairoa, Lambert was soon appointed editor of the Wairoa Free Press, Wairoa Guardian and East Coast Mail and Wairoa Gazette. He served on numerous local committees, worked actively for the Presbyterian church and the temperance movement, and was keenly sought after as a visiting judge at horticultural shows.
By 1896 Thomas had determined that Wairoa’s future depended on a rail link to the rest of the East Coast because of difficulties of access by sea. It was common for small coastal vessels laden with passengers and cargo from Napier to find, after sailing across Hawke Bay, that the notorious bar had closed the river mouth leading to the wharf up-river; they would have to return to Napier without unloading. Men and shovels regularly kept the channel clear for a few hours at a time only, a task so hopeless that a committee of four was formed to urge the government to build a rail link. However, this was not to be completed until 1939. Lambert also saw the potential for a power scheme on the Waikaretaheke River draining Lake Waikaremoana, and produced a handsomely illustrated souvenir booklet when the first power house opened in 1929.
Keenly interested in Maori in and around Wairoa, and the rich, colourful history and legends of the East Coast and Waikaremoana, Thomas Lambert explored the district, often by foot, talking to its people. A fluent speaker in Maori, he was soon acting as interpreter, and was always welcome on marae where he often wrote letters for those unable to do so. Through his writing and friendship, and his counsel and teaching, he became a trusted friend of local Maori, to whom he was known as Tame Ramepata. In 1910 he began work on an epic reference book: The story of old Wairoa and the East Coast district, published in 1925, is a massive, richly illustrated, 880-page volume. It recounts tales in a lively and sometimes amusing fashion, sets down information from written records and theories from scholarly articles, and presents an optimistic vision of Wairoa 50 years on as a centre of economic prosperity and culture. Pioneering reminiscences of old Wairoa followed in 1936. Both books are now collectors’ items, and have been reprinted.
After his father died in 1907, Thomas Lambert supported both his own large family and his mother and sisters, working by day and writing into the night while others slept. In spite of a long life of hard work, he amassed little wealth, giving away much that he earned. He built a handsome house and remained in Wairoa, declining offers of employment elsewhere. In his 60 years of journalism and editing Lambert regularly attended Wairoa County Council meetings. He was widely respected for his astute and fair reporting for local and national newspapers, his enthusiastic advocacy of any projects likely to boost the town or the district, and his fairness, humour and friendliness. He retired in 1938 at the age of 84, but continued writing and gardening until his death, aged 89, on 17 April 1944 at Wairoa. He was survived by his wife, Jessie, and six daughters.