Harry Stopes-Roe: Philosopher and pioneering humanist who rose above a cruel childhood at the hands of his mother, Marie Stopes


Harry Stopes-Roe was a philosopher who, despite enduring a childhood at the hands of his despotic mother, the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes, played a significant role in the British and international Humanist movements, developing and popularising the term “life stance” as he tried to establish a clear identity for Humanism.

His mother, a heroine for many women of her own and subsequent generations, was later condemned as an anti-Semite and eugenicist (although the latter philosophy was uncontroversial in its time), but Stopes-Roe remained steadfast in his loyalty to her, defending her reputation even when the more sinister side of her character became better known. She believed, for example, in compulsory sterilisation for the diseased, drunkards and those of “bad character”, and campaigned to prevent the poor and disabled having children. He also insisted that his unorthodox upbringing had done him no harm. “What happened in my childhood was a long time ago and I am prepared to laugh at it now,” he said.

Born in 1924, Harry Verdon Stopes-Roe was the only child of Marie Stopes and the businessman and philanthropist Humphrey Verdon Roe. Stopes had already established herself as a heroine for women, a crusader for birth control and a sex educationist with her book Married Love (1918), which was translated into 13 languages, and Radiant Motherhood (1920), which encouraged women to assert their rights in society.

But his mother’s domineering spirit emasculated the men in her life; she had reduced her first husband to impotence, while Harry witnessed the humiliation of his father, a strapping First World War flying ace and supporter of his wife’s reforming projects. He was forced to live in the attic and carry out household chores in order to be, as he wrote to Marie, “allowed to see Harry sometimes”. This marriage, too, ended in impotence and separation.

Stopes was 44 when Harry was born, and was told she could have no further children. Believing he needed a brother, she advertised to adopt one through her solicitors, specifying that the child should be “healthy, intelligent and not circumcised”. Four or five boys passed through and were returned for a variety of reasons. One went back to the National Children’s Adoption Society because, she wrote, “he would never bloom so as to be a credit to us”; another, who wet himself, was “unfit to live in a decent household” and deserved a thrashing.

Harry’s childhood was managed down to the finest detail. Reading was forbidden for fear that it encouraged second-hand opinions, and he wore skirts until he was 11 because his mother did not believe in the “ugly and heating-in-the-wrong-places garments which most men are condemned to wear”; cycling was forbidden for the same reason. His friendships tended to be overseen by his mother, with Ernest Shepherd, AA Milne’s illustrator, becoming a good friend and regular visitor along with Pooh Bear.

Yet Harry developed the grit to stand up to his mother. He fell in love with Mary Wallis, the daughter of Sir Barnes “Dambuster” Wallis, but his mother was horrified because she was short-sighted; by marrying her he would, she said, “make a mock of our lives’ work for Eugenic breeding. She has an inherited disease of the eyes which not only makes her wear hideous glasses so that it is horrid to look at her, but the awful curse will carry on and I have the horror of our line being so contaminated.”

Despite his mother’s protestations they married, Stopes boycotting the wedding and writing Stopes-Roe out of her will for his “betrayal” (she died in 1958, the bulk of her estate going to the Eugenics Society and the Royal Society of Literature, while Harry received the 13-volume Greater Oxford English Dictionary).

He went to Imperial College, London, gaining a Master’s in physics, which exempted him from military service in the Second World War, before completing his doctorate in philosophy at Cambridge. He joined Birmingham University as a lecturer and senior lecturer in Science Studies, his work combining science and philosophy, and ultimately leading to his rejection of God and his search for an alternative basis for morality, which brought him to embrace Humanism. He recognised over-population as the most important practical moral problem.

In the 1970s he played a key role in developing the British Humanist Association’s policy for “objective, fair and balanced” education covering both religious and non-religious “life stances” – a term he popularised and which communicated and established a clear identity for Humanism. He played an active role representing the BHA in the Values Education Council UK and Religious Education Council of England and Wales.

He later became chair of the BHA and was appointed vice-president in 2005. His pioneering international work included chairing the International Humanist and Ethical Union working group that developed the “Minimum Statement” on global Humanism, attempting to unite the humanist associations of more than 40 countries. Stopes-Roe is survived by his wife, Mary, a former research fellow in the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham, and by their children.

Harry Verdon Stopes-Roe, philosopher and humanist: born 27 March 1924; married 1948 Mary Eyre Wallis (two sons, two daughters); died 10 May 2014.