Obituary: Sir Robin Brook

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The Independent Culture
THE OFFICES of Gordon Woodroffe & Co, merchants, were just off Regent Street, behind and above Garrards the Crown jewellers. Briefly (in 1957) I was a secretary to the chairman, Robin Brook. He had the best room there: yet he spent most of his time away from the office, and what he actually did in his fine room I never discovered. I had occasionally to type a letter for him - almost always on personal affairs, never significant. To me he was a mystery: a man whom I had been told was extraordinarily brilliant, with a first-class brain.

He was born in 1908, the son of a surgeon, and was educated, via scholarships, at Eton and Cambridge. He had a mind like lightning, seeing to the nub of any problem in a flash. He was Maynard Keynes's "star pupil" and went on to gain a Double First in Economics. He was a fine bridge player, which helped him, winning money, to survive his Cambridge years.

His sport was fencing: he became British Sabre Champion (the sabre having a sharp edge, with which one may "cut" against the chest or wrist of one's opponent). Brook was an elegant fencer, unhurried, timing being the essence of his skill. He took part in the Olympic Games of 1936 and 1948; at the Berlin Olympics (where the competitors' put-up "village" accommodation would later become Saschenhausen concentration camp), he avoided the "march past", thus also the salute to Hitler.

His war service began as one of three bright young men (Hugh Gaitskell and Christopher Mayhew being the other two) in the Ministry of Economic Warfare under Hugh Dalton. Brook was assigned to what would later be the Special Operations Executive, the clandestine organisation involved in subversive activities in enemy-held territory. His responsibilities lay in Western Europe - the Low Countries, but especially France; his dealings with de Gaulle required all his tact and skill. Brook knew the Resistance leader Jean Moulin, who would have become Brook's younger daughter's godfather had he not been tortured to death. Brook gave the daughter Lorraine amongst her names, in honour of the French Resistance.

Brook recruited and controlled agents; several hundred men and women passed through his department. They knew that, if caught, they might be subjected to appalling torture, and were supplied with a "suicide pill" which they should take rather than talk. Brook himself, more than once in personal danger (not least when trying to reach Buchenwald in search of an agent incarcerated there) once carried a suicide pill and reckoned he would take it if necessary.

In 1944 Brook worked "at Eisenhower's elbow", obtaining from agents the information from behind the enemy's lines that Eisenhower sought during the Allies' advance eastwards. He was showered with high decorations, the reference books nonchalantly listing the American Legion of Merit, the French Legion d'Honneur, Croix de Guerre and Bars, the Belgian Order of Leopold and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.

At the end of the war Brook, a brigadier with the British occupying forces in western Germany, was recalled by his former boss Dalton (by now Chancellor of the Exchequer) and made a director of the Bank of England (at 37 the youngest ever). In 1949, he became Deputy Chairman of the Colonial Development Corporation, and later would head many well-known public companies, become president of many chambers of commerce, and leader of trade missions to countries around the world. At the same time he continued for several years to advise the Intelligence services.

Brook was good at making money, and made much. And much of it went on charitable causes. His wife Helen was passionately involved in "family planning", working voluntarily in that field, and in 1963 founded the Brook Advisory Centres. Robin Brook strongly supported her and her work throughout, both in the committee of the Family Planning Association and financially. The aim - in the teeth of furious and ferocious opposition in the late Fifties and early Sixties (which nowadays it may be difficult, if not impossible, certainly by younger people, to understand) - was to make readily available to teenage girls and young women advice on contraception, in order to avoid the then shameful unwanted pregnancies and the appalling back-street abortions of those days. At the Brook family mealtimes the topic was frequently discussed.

Brook spent much of his working life in the public service. He was a member and, from 1975 until 1978, an influential Chairman of the Sports Council. He was Master of the Haberdashers' Company. He was also an enthusiast for 20th-century British painting, especially the work of Ivon Hitchens.

St Bartholomew's Hospital in the City of London was his main charitable interest, indeed passion. He was Chairman of the Governors and later the Special Trustees, and was also President of Bart's medical college. The last time I visited Bart's I noted the new Robin Brook Centre for Medical Education at the medical school, opened in 1980 by the Queen: marking the event was a photograph of the Queen, Brook standing laughing beside her, a rather more charming picture than is usual on such formal occasions.

Robin Brook was a doer, appearing ever confident. He got on well with people and was much liked. He thought of himself, albeit humorously, as a "team man", he always being, however, captain of the team.

Ralph Ellis ("Robin") Brook, merchant banker: born 19 June 1908; OBE 1945; director, Bank of England 1946-49; Deputy Chairman, Colonial Development Corporation 1949-53; CMG 1954; Governor, St Bartholomew's Hospital 1962- 74, Treasurer and Chairman 1969-74, Chairman, Special Trustees 1974-88; Chairman, London Chamber of Commerce and Industry 1966-68, President 1968- 72; President, St Bartholomew's Medical College 1969-88; President, Association of British Chambers of Commerce 1972-74; Kt 1974; President, Association of Chambers of Commerce of the EEC 1974-76; married 1937 Helen Whitaker (nee Knewstub, died 1997; two daughters); died 25 October 1998.