Esther Mary White


Esther White, 1883-1959, was a Quaker philanthropist who, as the wife of Theodore Rigg, settled in Nelson.

Esther grew up in a Quaker family in the United States of America. Her father died early and with her mother, brothers and sister she lived on the family farm in Indiana until her brothers went to Philadelphia to study law. The whole family moved there and Esther attended a Friends' school, then Bryn Mawr, the prestigious women's college, where she took an active part in the Christian Union, on the campus newspaper and in the bookshop. She excelled in sports and was in the College hockey and baseball teams.

Esther Rigg

Esther Mary White at school. Image supplied by author

Esther Rigg1

A young Esther White. Image supplied by author

She graduated in 1906, going on to teach French and coach sports at a girls' school. She developed her French to a fluent level by travelling to France where she studied at the Sorbonne. This proved to be a great help in her subsequent relief work in Russia.

In 1917 Esther volunteered to  work with refugees in Russia. With a group of Quaker women she travelled via Japan and Siberia to Buzuluk in Samara province, 1500 miles south-east of Moscow, joining the English Friends who were providing relief and medical aid for refugees from Poland and Belarusse. There she organised work for refugee women, knitting and weaving, and was the medical assistant to the doctor in charge of the hospital. Later she took charge of an orphanage in Buzuluk.

Esther Rigg2

Esther. Image supplied by author

Theodore Rigg, fellow Quaker and later leading scientist at the Cawthron Institute,  noted her adaptability, good judgement and excellent organisation. When the Russian Revolution started, it was decided to evacuate the Friends' Relief Unit. However there were homeless children in Moscow who it was thought would not survive the winter. Theodore and Esther volunteered to stay behind.

Travel from Samara to Moscow was hazardous. Due to the fighting factions, trains no longer ran to Moscow.  Theodore and Esther negotiated places on a crowded barge, then a boat, travelling up the Volga river, living off the supplies in their kitbags and getting little sleep for the eight day journey. In Moscow they were welcomed by Leo Tolstoy's son Sergei, who assisted them to begin their work there.

Esther stroganov

Stroganov orphanage near Moscow. Image supplied by author

With the help of a Russian relief society, they set up and managed three orphanages south of Moscow. These 'children's colonies' were housed in former stately homes, which had been abandoned by their wealthy owners and, in many cases badly damaged by local peasants. Food, fuel and winter clothing were hard to find and funding needed to be arranged via the American Red Cross and businesses in England. An initial journey around the colonies to establish their needs took almost two weeks, travelling by train and staying in railway stations, peasants' cottages and barns as needed. Esther and a Russian co-worker set up the Moscow Quaker Centre and worked hard to prepare the colonies to survive the coming winter, repairing buildings, reconstructing washing and toilet facilities, making bedsteads and obtaining other equipment.

Conditions at the orphanages were spartan and, after the winter, Theodore and Esther were both very frail. Early in 1919 they handed over the work to the Russian Department of Social Security and prepared to leave Russia, braving the difficult journey to Moscow and on to the Finnish border. From there they travelled to Stockholm where Theodore embarked for England and Esther for the United States.

On her return, Esther found herself the subject of great interest from the press who were keen to learn about Russia and its bloodthirsty anarchists. She did some public speaking, taking care not to be thought a communist, and raised funds for the Russian children.

In July 1919 Theodore Rigg arrived in the United States and spent three months studying in agricultural institutions. On 8 October Theodore and Esther were married in the Coulter Street Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia.

In 1934 Theodore became Director of the Cawthron Institute and the couple settled in Nelson, where Theodore received may awards. Esther died in 1959.


Updated May 20, 2020

Sources used in this story

Information supplied by Helen Hughes, daughter of Theodore and Esther Rigg.

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