Obituary: Helen de Freitas

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The Independent Culture
HELEN DE FREITAS was both a leading member of the American community in London and an outstanding ambassadress for Great Britain in Accra, Nairobi and Strasbourg when her late husband, Sir Geoffrey, a former Labour cabinet minister, served as High Commissioner to two newly granted independent Commonwealth countries, and as President of the Council of Europe.

She was the eldest of the four daughters of Laird Bell, a distinguished American attorney who was Chairman of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. As president of the Alumni Association of Harvard University in June 1947 Laird Bell took the chair for Secretary of State George Marshall when he launched the European Recovery Plan that bears his name. In 1956 he presided over Adlai Stevenson's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Helen Bell grew up in Winnetka, Illinois. In 1936 she graduated from Bryn Mawr, the non-sectarian women's college founded by Quakers in Pennsylvania. She then sailed in the SS Berengaria on her way to the Soviet Union to study the Moscow theatre for children. She had herself produced children's plays at the Chicago World's Fair. A friend on the New York quayside managed by gesture to introduce her to Geoffrey de Freitas, another friend, and a fellow passenger. He was returning to Britain to be called to the Bar after a two-year fellowship at Yale.

Previously Geoffrey de Freitas had been at Cambridge, where he won many of the glittering prizes. As a freshman he gained a full Blue for high jumping. He was President of the Union, and a leading member of the Hawks Club. His chance encounter with Helen Bell aboard the Berengaria was a most happy one. They were married two years later.

They were a handsome couple: he very tall and athletic; she, also tall, a slim brunette, with sparkling brown eyes and a winning smile. Their flat in Great Ormond Street soon became a hospitable meeting place for Geoffrey's Cambridge friends and for fellow barristers. One or two evenings a week Geoffrey attended meetings of the Shoreditch Borough Council. He had been elected as a Labour member soon after his return to London. Helen found this a useful preparation for the semi-widowhood of being a parliamentary wife.

During the Second World War Squadron Leader de Freitas served in the RAF Equipment Branch. In the summer of 1940 Helen, who was pregnant, returned to America, deeming it wiser, as she said, "to leave the defence of Britain in more active hands". Her daughter was born during the Battle of Britain. The following year she returned to England and worked in the Knaresborough General Hospital.

In the 1945 general election de Freitas stood against the sitting Conservative member for Nottingham Central, Sir Frederick Sykes. During the three-week hiatus between polling day and the declaration of the result Sykes was confident that he had held his seat. His Labour opponent, he declared, had a foreign-sounding name, but seemed educated. However he was not a proper patriot. He had married a foreign wife.

Sykes's electoral forecast proved wrong, and he was not to know that the foreign wife's father, Laird Bell, would shortly be appointed an honorary KBE, like Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, for his outstanding work on behalf of British War Relief.

Clement Attlee, the new Prime Minister, appointed de Freitas, a fellow Haileyburian, to be his Parliamentary Private Secretary, and the two families became close friends. The Prime Minister became the godfather of Helen's eldest son, who had been born during the three-week electoral hiatus. The christening was celebrated at 10 Downing Street.

For the next six years Helen de Freitas was largely occupied in bringing up her daughter and three sons while her husband steadily climbed the political ladder. Attlee appointed him Under-Secretary for Air, and sent him as a delegate to the United Nations Assembly at Lake Success. After Labour won the 1950 general election the Prime Minister offered de Freitas the choice between Minister of State at the Foreign Office or Under-Secretary at the Home Office. Bevin was keen to have him at the FO. Attlee advised him to choose the Home Office so that he could see more of the children. "They are only young once," the Prime Minister said. "Remember that."

De Freitas held a number of frontbench posts in the Attlee government and Helen became a close friend of her husband's secretary in the House of Commons, Betty Boothroyd, at that time a would-be parliamentarian. Much later a private pressure group met regularly in Helen's London flat to campaign for Betty Boothroyd's election as the first woman Speaker.

When Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister many former British Colonies were granted self- government. In 1961 Geoffrey de Freitas was offered the post of High Commissioner of Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast, the first black African country to achieve independence. Four Conservative ex-cabinet ministers had been appointed High Commissioners to ex-colonies liberated under the Wind of Change, but de Freitas was the first to be chosen from the Labour Party.

He welcomed the challenge of having to deal with Kwame Nkrumah, who had been imprisoned by the British and was making somewhat alarming anti-British noises, but he did not want to jeopardise his future with the Labour Party by accepting preferment from the Conservatives. He sought advice from Hugh Gaitskell, the new leader of the Labour Party, who declared it was the most sensible proposal that Macmillan had so far made, and assured de Freitas that it would never be held against him.

Sir Geoffrey - he had been awarded the customary High Commissioner's knighthood - and Lady de Freitas were a great success in Accra, both with the Ghanaians and with the expatriate British community, and after two years de Freitas was asked to move to Nairobi to become the first British Diplomatic Representative to the new Federation of East Africa: Uganda, Tanganyika and Kenya.

The proposed East African Federation failed to materialise, but Kenya was granted independence under Jomo Kenyatta. The de Freit-ases were the first diplomatic representatives accredited to the new Prime Minister. They spent two months in England being reoriented, and Helen took lessons in Swahili. She had already learnt some Twi, the Ashanti language in Ghana. Their immediate task in Nairobi was to shift the British role - and Kenya's perception of the British role - from that of colonial governing power to that of a diplomatic mission. Helen's tact and easy approachability were of great advantage here.

In 1964 Sir Geoffrey received a surprise message from the Labour Party in Kettering. Their Member of Parliament, Dick Mitchison, was going to the Lords and they were without a candidate at the forthcoming general election.

Would he allow his name to go forward for this safe Labour seat? He relinquished his Commonwealth Relations post and was duly selected from a field of 73, and returned to the House of Commons. But Gaitskell, who had warmly endorsed his leaving the House to go to Ghana, had died the previous year and Harold Wilson, the new Labour leader and now Prime Minister, had no inclination to honour his predecessor's commitment to the former cabinet member.

De Freitas was given no post on the front bench, though he was asked to lead the Labour Party delegation to the assembly of the Council of Europe in 1965 and the following year was elected its President. Helen's fluency in French was greatly appreciated at Strasbourg.

After de Freitas had retired from Parliament, in 1979, he and his wife had more time for travelling, particularly to the United States where two of their children had settled. Helen had always kept her American nationality. As Trustee of Bryn Mawr College she made many visits there, and supported its work with generous donations. She was also an energetic patron of International Social Service, the organisation which was founded to handle the problems of migrants and refugees, which raises money with support from the diplomatic community at its famous Spring Fair, held annually at Kensington Town Hall. She generously used both her time and the fortune she had inherited to support causes on both sides of the Atlantic.

Helen Graham Bell, public servant: born Chicago, Illinois 16 August 1910; married 1938 Geoffrey de Freitas (KCMG 1961, died 1982; three sons, one daughter); died London 14 December 1998.