The character actress Dame Margaret Rutherford (1892-1972), best known for her big screen portrayals of Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple, died 40 years ago this week.
She grew up in Wimbledon, was one of the most famous former pupils of the High School for Girls, acted in amateur dramatics, and rode everywhere on her bicycle.
She taught elocution before making her professional acting debut at the Old Vic age 33 in 1925.
In the 1940s she became a big stage star after appearing in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and then Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit among other productions.
Screen versions of both of these plays as well as some of the great British films of the post-war years such as Passport to Pimlico, The Happiest Days of Your Life, and later The Smallest Show on
Earth and I’m All Right Jack, all made her a national treasure.
She first played Miss Marple at the age of 70, starring in that role in four films based on Agatha Christie’s books.
But she also won awards for her eccentric role in The VIPs with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and appeared in Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight and Charlie Chaplin’s A Countess from Hong
Kong. She received an OBE age 71 and became a Dame at 75.
But her private life was far less happy than her popular public image suggested. Born in Balham, she was the only child of William Rutherford Benn and his second wife Florence.
Years earlier her father, who was mentally ill, had murdered his own father and spent years in Broadmoor.
He was eventually released, remarried and moved with his second wife and infant daughter to India.
However they returned when Margaret was three and she came to Wimbledon to live with her aunt, Bessie Nicholson, a governess, after her mother had committed suicide.
Her father was later returned to Broadmoor. Margaret and her aunt were resident at No 4 Berkeley Place, off the Ridgway, until 1920 and later moved to St John’s Road.
She attended Wimbledon High School whose ethos recognised the importance of extracurricular activities including drama. Her time there is recalled today by the school theatre which opened in 2007
entitled the Rutherford Centre for the Performing Arts.
But she also spent some time away at boarding school in Seaford and is listed there on the 1911 census. After returning to Wimbledon, she remained until her aunt’s death and then left in 1925.
She was already in her fifties when she married the actor Stringer Davis and they appeared together in many productions.
He was also her private secretary and nursed her through periods of illness which were never publicised during her lifetime.
They lived in Buckinghamshire until her death on 22 May 1972. He died the following year and they are buried together at St James's Church in Gerrard’s Cross.
Margaret Rutherford had no children but did have some notable relatives.
Her father's brother was the Progressive Party London County Councillor Sir John Benn (1850-1922), 1st Baronet, grandfather of the veteran Labour politician Tony Benn.
On her mother’s side, her first cousin was a well known engineer, Professor Graham Franklin Nicholson (1894-1981), who also lived in Wimbledon, first at Edge Hill and then in Woodside House.
Great nephew of the 19th century Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, he taught members of the Royal family at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich.
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