OBITUARY: In an era when women generally stayed at home, Margery Rudkin’s extraordinary life included the secret gift of the first house used as a refuge for families fleeing domestic violence in Christchurch.
Born in 1914 to industrial rubber tycoons George and Elizabeth Skellerup in New Brighton, the 107-year-old witnessed the city’s tumultuous history, including the Great Depression and the Canterbury earthquakes, before she died on 23 October 2021.
But it is for her dedication to her family that she probably would like her dedication to be best remembered, rather than her standing among her peers.
Without a doubt, Rudkin acquired much of his work ethic from his hardworking father who founded the Para Rubber brand when he opened the first store in Christchurch in 1910 with the slogan “We have it in stock, we’ll get it or it’s not made of rubber. ‘
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As a child, Rudkin traveled with his father throughout the South Island during the school holidays as he developed his business. The Rudkin family believed the car was the first in Christchurch.
Margery Rudkin described the car as a “nice spacious thing” that could comfortably seat 17 people, but it wasn’t the most reliable.
Up to six punctures had to be repaired in one trip due to rough gravel roads.
Rudkin attended East Christchurch School and feared the principal because she was not perfect at spelling.
Back in those days, when corporal punishment was an acceptable behavioral tool, the daily 20-word spelling test proved somewhat of a nemesis and resulted in her being repeatedly tied up for misspellings.
In 1928, the family moved into their iconic three-story stone property, Danmark, on the banks of the River Avon. A stone brought from Antarctica by Shackleton’s team has been placed on an entrance wall.
A nod to the Danish roots of the Skellerup, a large Viking ship has been encrusted in the floor of the room. It has since been transformed into a dining table after the house was damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes.
Family life was busy, with an endless stream of guests at the house. This is where Rudkin’s adult philanthropy may have been founded, as she watched her mother feed many hungry people during the Great Depression.
Rudkin started Christchurch Girls’ High School in 1928 and has done well academically.
She started showing her independence when she got her driver’s license at the age of 15, which girls usually don’t. Sometimes when she drove her sister to school she earned the principal’s wrath who was adamant girls and teachers should not drive.
Rudkin has always been an outdoor lover, and her adventurous nature led her to climb the Franz Joseph Glacier when she was just 12 years old. It was the first of many exciting trips to New Zealand and abroad.
She ultimately decided to be one of the few women of her time to go to college and became the first member of her family to do so.
She studied pure and applied mathematics and French at the University of Canterbury, but quit before the end of her freshman year because she didn’t like the subjects she was studying.
She then attended Digby’s Commercial College, where she learned shorthand and typing before landing her first job at an advertising agency.
In 1933 Rudkin traveled to Europe with his father and sister on a ship also carrying the Australian rugby team. Travel was rare at this time and Rudkin was delighted to drive his sister through the UK while his father worked.
The sisters also traveled to Denmark to see relatives and Rudkin experienced her first plane flight when she flew from Paris to London on the Silver Cloud.
On the way home, they stayed in luxurious tourist-class cabins on the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship and traveled by train across America.
Travel taught Rudkin that although she was privileged, she was still at the bottom of the rankings in England due to being “from the colonies.” It anchored her and allowed her to build relationships and empathize with people from all walks of life.
Back in New Zealand, she worked as a lawyer secretary before devoting herself to advertising for her father’s company, Para Rubber.
She met and married Noel Rudkin in 1940. Their marriage was described as “one of the finest” that year by the New Zealand women Weekly.
The couple built a house next to Margery Rudkin’s parents and had their first baby, Peter, in 1943.
In another rare move, Rudkin continued to work after the birth of his son and daughters Pam and Diana.
But it is the birth of twins Keith and Kate that she remembers very well.
For three days, Rudkin was starved except for wine cookies and tea, and tight bandages were wrapped around her stomach in an attempt to move the troublesome twins, who were in the siege position.
Ten days and much frustration later, two healthy babies arrived.
Rudkin’s compassionate nature manifested itself during WWII when she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and set up a rationing system within Para Rubber.
At 23, she wrote a book on the history of rubber that is still used today. Every school and every MP received a copy.
Noel Rudkin eventually became the managing director and chairman of Lane Walker Rudkin, and hosted Queen Elizabeth II in 1954, on her first visit to New Zealand.
Margery Rudkin and the Queen chatted for nearly an hour about parenting, and Rudkin described her as very down to earth.
But Rudkin’s greatest contribution to Christchurch was perhaps the house she bought and offered as a refuge for victims of domestic violence. The secret gift was inspired by a friend and her children who regularly spent the night at Rudkin’s house because of an abusive husband.
It is believed that the house was the first to be used as a shelter in Christchurch and was the forerunner of the women’s shelter.
Rudkin loved the city she called home and always believed in the future, telling her granddaughter Lucy Hine that “every day was a new day”.
An optimistic, compassionate and intelligent woman, Rudkin left her mark in her own unique way and will be remembered as a strong and independent woman who was often ahead of her time.