Theodore Rigg and World War One


Theodore Rigg (KBE,  1888-1972) was highly regarded as Director of the Cawthron Institute in Nelson from 1934-1956.  During World War One, as a Quaker,  he devoted himself to philanthropic work.

Theodore was born in Settle, West Yorkshire in 1888. His Quaker parents, John and Hannah Rigg, emigrated to New Zealand in 1890 where they raised their six children. In Wellington, the Riggs were a key part of the local Society of Friends (Quakers), holding meetings in their own home and supporting the purchase of the property in Moncrieff St where the Meeting House for the Society of Friends still stands.

Theodore and his eldest brother, Ernest, obtained scholarships to Wellington College and their names can be seen on the honours board in the Hall. Theodore obtained a Turnbull Scholarship to study chemistry and physics at Victoria College (now University). He was a keen sportsman in hockey and athletics.

When he graduated in 1910 with first class honours, Theodore was awarded a scholarship to study at Cambridge, where his research gained distinction.

Theodore Rigg

Theodore Rigg. Image supplied by author

World War One

When war was declared in August 1914, Theodore knew that, as a member of the Society of Friends, he could not be part of any military operation. He turned his attention to the victims of war and at first volunteered for the Friends' Ambulance Unit. A group of young Quakers trained in First Aid and nursing, hardening themselves for the conditions they would face by marching in the countryside and living in tents with canteen food. Learning that a unit was to go to France, to the area devastated by the Battle of the Marne, Theodore realised that his training as a chemist and soil scientist would be useful and he transferred to the War Victim's Relief unit, leaving for France in November 1914.

Theodore was based with others near Esternay where he began agricultural rehabilitation: establishing vegetable gardens and allotments and providing seeds and tools for farmers to sow their crops. Chickens and rabbits were made available to prepare food supplies for the coming winter. Harvesting and threshing machines were bought and repaired. Well-water was tested for contamination and houses damaged by bombs made sound.

In October 1915 the work in that area was done and Theodore and three others volunteered to do similar work in Montenegro and Albania. They set off with funds in bank drafts and gold, and encountered the Serbian army in retreat, along with many civilian refugees. The conditions were very difficult, food in the area was scarce and roads and bridges were washed away.

A building was found, fuel and straw to sleep on arranged and 300 kilos of bread delivered. Over the next months the relief workers provided shelter and food for refugees in different locations. For example, in San Giovanni, Theodore obtained four large tents and arranged for 2,000 kilos of bread to be baked, and in Durazzo over four days 1,000 kilos of bread and 44 kilos of haricot beans were given to 900 refugees. When the refugees were able to sail for Corfu, bread, blankets and clothes were quickly delivered to their ships.


Theodore's next assignment was to travel to Moscow with four other English Quakers to assist refugees in Samara. During the autumn and winter of 1916-1917 he travelled widely, often by sleigh, to obtain permits, accommodation and food for refugees pouring in from the Western Front. When six American Relief Workers arrived from Philadelphia, Theodore met Esther White, who impressed him with her capability and courage. Working with the Russian Peregovsky Society, they set up homes for children displaced and orphaned by the war.

Theodore and Esther worked together until 1919 when they left Russia via Finland. Theodore followed Esther to Pennsylvania and she returned to New Zealand with him as his wife. He took a position at the Cawthron Institute, Nelson, and in 1934 became the Director there, a post he held until his retirement in 1956. He was a highly respected scientist and received a number of awards, including a knighthood in 1938.

Theodore devoted his working life as a scientist to the Cawthron Institute. Esther, his first wife, died in 1959 and in December 1966, he married Kathleen Maisey Curtis, a woman pioneering scientist in her own right. Rigg died 22 October 1972, and he was survived by Lady Kathleen Rigg and two daughters from his first marriage.

2015 (ed 2018)

Updated May 20, 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Hughes, Helen R. (2005) A Quaker Scientist: the life of Theodore Rigg KBE Rotorua, N.Z.: Beechtree Press
  • Interviews with Helen Hughes (daughter of Esther and Theodore Rigg), 2015.

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