Obituary: Helen de Freitas

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.

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi


Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015


Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups


An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment


Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original


Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'


Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching