Story: Wilkinson, Ruth
Pharmacist, community leader, local historian
This biography was written by Cynthia J. Piper and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000
Ruth Webb, born on 8 February 1901 in Rotorua, was the youngest of five children of Mary Wilson and her husband, Seth Webb, a blacksmith. In 1908 the family moved to Cambridge, where Ruth was educated at the local primary school, before attending Hamilton High School.
In 1917 she began a pharmaceutical apprenticeship with Frank Brooks, studying by correspondence. Long hours worked during the 1918 influenza epidemic meant that her studies were put on hold until the emergency was over. In 1921 Ruth Webb passed her final examinations, reputedly achieving the top marks in New Zealand. Unable to register as a pharmacist until aged 21, she had to wait until March 1922 before she could officially use the letters MPS after her name. On 24 October 1923, in Cambridge, she married Kenneth Louis Wilkinson, a salesman; they were to have two sons. Although she followed convention and gave up her career in favour of domestic duties, Ruth always maintained her interest, and was to return to pharmaceutical work after her husband’s death in 1962.
During the Second World War Ruth Wilkinson was actively involved with the local patriotic committee. At night she listened to Vatican Radio short-wave broadcasts, noted the names of men who had been made prisoners of war and wrote to their families throughout New Zealand. For many of the families it was the first they had heard of the whereabouts of their sons.
In 1947 Kenneth Wilkinson was elected mayor of Cambridge, holding the position until 1953 and again from 1956 to 1962. As with everything she did, Ruth committed herself to the role of mayoress, actively supporting her husband in his election campaigns and civic duties. She became a justice of the peace in 1960. Her knowledge of local body procedures, her astuteness and experience in dealing with local politicians, and her commitment to worthy causes led to her being appointed in 1963 as organiser of the Halls of Residence Campaign for the new University of Waikato. The plan was to encourage each town in the university’s catchment area to fund a specific number of beds. During a difficult campaign, Wilkinson emphasised the importance of gaining the support of local communities. The strategy worked, and her enterprise and courage made an invaluable contribution to the campaign’s eventual success.
A keen golf and bridge player, Ruth Wilkinson was a straightforward, practical but unconventional person with a ready wit. She delighted in shocking her listeners with risqué stories and jokes. Her return to work as a pharmacist in 1962 required many hours of study to catch up with contemporary theories and methods. However, she was not entirely happy with the new artificial medicines of the 1960s, regretting the loss of the pharmacist’s old skills and natural ingredients. Always happy to share her pharmaceutical knowledge, Ruth’s family and friends were often the grateful – but sometimes reluctant – recipients of home-made lipsticks (which she maintained could be made for two cents), make-up, fly sprays, cough mixtures, deodorants and suntan lotions.
In later life Ruth Wilkinson became well known as a writer and local historian. She had begun writing as a young mother in the 1920s and 1930s, penning short stories about family life for the New Zealand Herald and the Auckland Weekly News. She was a keen local historian and wrote a number of works on the history of Cambridge. Like most local histories written at the time, her publications focused on Pakeha settlers. Her first book, First families of Cambridge (1972), recorded the activities of the town’s élite and its early European residents. As with Life was like that (1974) and Just roaming (1978), the proceeds from her publications were donated to charitable and community groups, the main beneficiaries being the Cambridge Historical Society (of which she was a foundation member) and the Deafness Research Foundation. A 1980 publication recorded the history of the town’s streets. Her last book, Our Cambridge, 1886–1986 , written to commemorate the Cambridge Borough Council centenary, was published posthumously in 1986. Ruth Wilkinson was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for community service in 1985. She died in Cambridge on 14 December that year, survived by her sons.