Esther Marion Pretoria James was remarkable for the diversity of her achievements, and in the 1930s became a national celebrity during a sponsored walk of the length of New Zealand. She was born at Pahiatua on 5 November 1900, the seventh of ten children of Thomas Joseph James and his wife, Eliza Jane Whitmore. Her great-grandfather was the soldier, politician and landowner George Whitmore. Thomas James, a carpenter at the time of Esther's birth, worked as a bridge inspector, which entailed frequent change of residence, and the family lived on farms near Eltham, Manaia, and other Taranaki towns. A regime of hard work and discipline encouraged initiative and independence. Esther won a scholarship to grammar school in Auckland; her mark of 98 per cent in art was, she claimed, the highest in the country. She was later articled to an Auckland architect for three years. She married Leslie Harrison Haysom, an architect, in the registry office at Auckland on 30 August 1924; there was a church wedding at Dargaville on 23 December. They had one daughter. Throughout her life, James continued to use her maiden name.
James's entrepreneurial spirit began to show itself in the 1920s when she patented several inventions for domestic use. In the early 1930s she earned up to 10 guineas a week as one of the country's first professional fashion models, working for the New Zealand Manufacturers' Federation. This inspired her to promote New Zealand-made goods and improve trade during the depression by a sponsored walk, using only food and clothing donated by local manufacturers. The walk began from Spirits Bay on 3 December 1931. Esther James walked alone, but was received and fêted by mayors and factory managers, giving lectures and press interviews in the larger towns, and making broadcasts from every radio station on her route. She carried a specially printed logbook, to be signed by dignitaries and others; this received municipal seals and postmarks at each town. The slightly built James – she was barely five feet tall and weighed about eight stone – gained 30 pounds in the course of the walk. On one of her rest days she climbed Mt Egmont. She reached Bluff on 18 June 1932, then walked across Stewart Island. She had covered some 1,600 miles in 197 days.
Later in 1932 Esther James went to Australia to promote New Zealand goods. At the suggestion of Gordon Coates, she then set out to walk the 1,400 miles from Melbourne to Brisbane, starting on 19 November. At Sydney she led the first hike across the new harbour bridge. She reached Brisbane on 25 September 1933, becoming the first woman known to have completed the walk. She remained in Australia for a time, diving for coral, crocodile hunting, working as a mannequin in Sydney, and opal mining.
In 1934 James compiled a central Auckland business directory. Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1935. On 16 February 1937 she married Edward Scanlon Julian, a New South Wales sheepfarmer, at Auckland; they were to have a son and a daughter. The early war years saw James harvesting shells and seaweed for profit, growing crops, and raising children while her husband was on military service. She bought a section at Mount Maunganui for £40 and built a house with 4,000 hand-made concrete blocks; she later sold this for £2,000 and built a house in Remuera. After moving to Auckland she designed and built several houses and speculated in land. She also began to collect and repair antiques.
James's 1965 autobiography, Jobbing along, was a bestseller and led to her representing New Zealand authors at the World Book Fair in Frankfurt. The book conveys her thrift, self-promoting pride and jaunty optimism. She remained active and enterprising. About 1963 she purchased a five-acre extinct volcano on the side of Mt Wellington, Auckland, for £500, and levelled it for sections.
In 1969 James was one of four electoral candidates for the Independent Women's Party in Auckland; she supported reform of the laws relating to marriage and matrimonial property. Esther James and Edward Julian were divorced in 1971. She died at Auckland on 7 January 1990, survived by her son and two daughters. James had a simple charm, a love of fun, and a zest for hard but creative work. The variety of her later activities testified to her determination and resilience.