Dorothy Theomin lived from 1888-1961. Granddaughter of a British Rabbi, Dorothy’s parents migrated from Britain and Australia and became the largest importers of pianos in Australia and New Zealand.
At thirteen, Dorothy enrolled at the Roedean School in Britain, a maverick institution that prepared girls from different religious and cultural backgrounds for university entrance. Physical education was an important part of the curriculum and wearing corsets was forbidden. Although Dorothy left at sixteen, the school had a profound influence on her.
Dorothy returned to Dunedin to live with her parents in their newly built 35 room house, Olveston, which quickly became a centre of social activity in Dunedin. As a founding member of the Plunket Society, her mother had little time, so Dorothy took over running the household while pursuing her passion for mountain climbing and photography as a member of the New Zealand Alpine Society. Between 1914 and 1933, Dorothy climbed an impressive number of high peaks on the South Island wearing a skirt and hobnailed boots, documenting her adventures with photographs.
By 1933, her family was gone and Dorothy was left to carry on their philanthropy. She was active in the Red Cross during WW II and served on the executive board of the Plunket Society from 1941 to 1955. All the while, she quietly encouraged young artists and musicians with financial support, and was vice president and then president of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery council.
At her death, she gifted Olveston, and all the furniture, art and objects to the City of Dunedin. The city, at first reluctant to accept this treasure, has made Olveston one of the top tourist destinations in New Zealand.
Few women born in the 19th century are remembered as both a philanthropist and mountaineer. Dorothy Theomin’s legacy to the cultural and social heritage of Dunedin is immeasurable.
Image above header: Dorothy E Theomin with the NZ Alpine Club (Dorothy pictured on far right) , Box 211 c/negE 1607/28. Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hakena, University of Otago. Photographer unknown.