TH2023 Ep11 01 Dame Margaret Rutherford

Season 2023 – Talk 11.01 – Dame Margaret Rutherford

In ‘Dame Margaret Rutherford’ Wendy Senior tells the story of the life of this famous British actress.

Early Life?

There is tragedy in her early life involving both of her parents. Her father is the journalist and poet William Rutherford Benn who marries Florence Nicholson on 16 December 1882 in Wandsworth, South London.

He suffers a nervous breakdown shortly after the marriage, and is admitted to Bethnal House Lunatic Asylum. They release him so that he can travel under his family’s supervision. He then murders his father, the Reverend Julius Benn, by bludgeoning him to death with a chamber pot, before slashing his own throat with a pocket knife.

Following the inquest, William Benn is certified insane and is sent to Broadmoor. He is discharged seven years later, in July 1890, and reunites with his wife.

Margaret is the only child of William and Florence and is born in 1892 in Balham.  The family plan a new life far from the scene of their recent troubles. They emigrate to Madras (now Chennai). The three year old Margaret returns to Britain to live with her aunt Bessie Nicholson in Wimbledon, after her pregnant mother hangs herself from a tree.

The family tell Margaret that her father dies of a broken heart. However, when she is 12 she learns that her father has been in Broadmoor since 1903. He stays there until he dies on 4 August 1921. She fears, for the rest of her life, that she might succumb to similar illnesses. In later years she suffers from intermittent depression and anxiety.


She first goes to Wimbledon High School (now a theatre space, the Rutherford Centre). When she is 13 she starts to board at Raven’s Croft School in Seaford.

She develops an interest in the theatre and performs in amateur dramatics, however the teachers at the school suggest that she should teach the piano.


Her aunt, in her will, leaves a legacy that allows Margaret to enter the Old Vic School to train as an actress. In her autobiography she writes that Aunt Bessie has been her “adoptive mother and one of the saints of the world”.

She establishes a name in comedy and appears in many successful British plays and films. “I never intended to play for laughs. I am always surprised that the audience thinks me funny at all”, she writes in her autobiography.

Her first appearance in London’s West End is in 1933. It takes six years for her to become well known when she plays Miss Prism in John Gielgud‘s production of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Globe Theatre in 1939. Rave reviews follow in 1941 when she plays Madame Arcati in Noël Coward‘s Blithe Spirit.

Listen to the full story in Wendy’s talk.

This is an edited recording of a talk given to the Farnham u3a World History  Group . Sadly in a few places there is slight distortion on the recording.

It is not possible to use the images presented in the original talk because of copyright reasons.

This podcast is also available through Amazon Music, Apple PodcastsCastbox, DeezerPodchaserSpotifyStitcher and Vurbl and others.

AKM Music licenses Media Magazine for use the music in this talk.

© The MrT Podcast Studio and Farnham u3a World History Group 2018 – 2024

Author: Tim D

In the early 1970s Mr Timothy & his Phonograph was a popular mobile disco around Leeds University and Tim was known as MrT. Tim also spent 9 years broadcasting a weekly programme on Hospital Radio in Wakefield. He worked for more than 40 years for large industrial organisations and spent his last 15 years in global commercial management roles. Following retirement he started making podcasts in 2017.