Martha Hill

Flamboyant purveyor of skincare products
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Gertrude Hill (Martha Hill), businesswoman: born Cannock, Staffordshire 29 January 1911; married 1936 Jimmy Pincus (marriage dissolved 1943), 1944 Edwin Brookes (died 1947; one son, one daughter), 1956 Monty Falkhary (marriage dissolved); died Corby, Northamptonshire 25 August 2004.

Martha Hill was an innovator - a fashion designer, a farmer, a businesswoman, an environmentalist, a beauty skincare expert, a mother and three times a wife.

She was born Gertrude Hill in 1911 in Cannock, Staffordshire, to an ordinary middle-class family. Her father died when she was five, and she was brought up in Leicester, leaving Leicester School of Art at 16 to begin designing for a hosiery firm that supplied Marks and Spencer. By the time she was 23 Trudie Hill wanted her own company and factory, and by the following year she had it - Hill and Pincus Ltd (she married Jimmy Pincus in 1936).

She sold her clothes all over Britain, employing a staff of two at first, rising to 250 women by 1937. Her designs were unusual because she worked almost exclusively in knitted jersey fabric, used more usually in undergarments then than dresses, long before it became associated with Jean Muir's famous designs.

Years later she said she had started her first factory to provide work and give independence to the women of the area. She felt strongly that women had a right to make their own money and not to be beholden to their husbands. After her own marriage ended in divorce, she used her mother's name, Martha Hill, for her dress company. Eventually she came to be known as Martha herself, as people assumed the company's name was her own.

Despite this full-time career, working 10 hours a day, during the Second World War years she also drove an ambulance for the Red Cross and was the only woman on the Industry for the War Effort Committee in Leicester. In 1944 she fell in love and married Edwin Brookes, an RAF pilot, and bought a farm in Laxton, Northamptonshire.

By 1946 Hill was employing a thousand women in her Leicester factory and was the first employer to put a children's nursery, a hairdressing salon and a grocery-ordering service on site to make her employees' lives easier. By 1947 she had a son, David, and was pregnant with her daughter, Sally, when her husband died in a flying accident. She put her spare energy into the farm - she introduced modern machinery but kept to organic methods and built up a prize herd of Guernsey cattle.

When she found that the outdoor life was beginning to ruin her skin, she started investigating the old country ways of looking after the skin using only natural products. It wasn't until she reached her sixties, however, that she started Martha Hill, her range of 100 per cent natural beauty care products, untested on animals - well before the Body Shop or Neal's Yard.

Whilst the Suez Crisis of 1956 was absorbing Britain, Martha met her third husband, an Egyptian diplomat, Monty Fakhary, who, instead of returning to Egypt at the end of his appointment, quit the embassy and stayed in England with Martha. Sadly the marriage only lasted five years.

By then the Sixties were beginning and Martha Hill could see the fashion explosion ahead. She opened London boutiques in the King's Road, Chelsea, and Marylebone High Street (where I was her Saturday girl, aged 13) and was back to knitted fabrics, see-through and crocheted miniskirts and maxis. She had a devoted clientele of models, actresses and jetsetters for her original designs, and was also the first name in fashion to start doing larger sizes (her own frame having crept up), operating a thriving mail-order business.

All the products for her Martha Hill beauty products range were, and still are, made completely from natural ingredients made up by her chemist in Switzerland. She would collect seaweed to put in her own baths and was always experimenting by plastering fruit, flowers and vegetables over herself, then walking around her shop in Marylebone High Street - she called it feeding her skin. A main concern was keeping the products cheap - all the costs are in the ingredients and not in the marketing (which is all word-of-mouth) or packaging. She was still promoting her wares on a coast-to-coast American tour aged 72.

Martha Hill never inherited money or married it. Everything she had, from her first Rolls-Royce in 1949 to horses, planes and houses, was acquired as a result of her own intuitive sense of business, at a time when a woman's place was in the home. She always said that she was never thinking about fewer than three things at once. She was often so ahead of herself that it wasn't unusual for her to be lighting matches and throwing them through the letterbox, instead of opening the door, because she was already thinking about putting the kettle on, before she got upstairs to her apartment in Wigmore Street.

She loved life and she loved people of all ages and nationalities. She was passionate, liberated, flamboyant and outrageously generous to everyone she met. Vividly interested, with huge amounts of warmth and humour, she connected instantly. Martha Hill was not somebody you ever saw cross or angry, upset or depressed. In her seventies she was still the centre of many London parties and her unlined face was the best advertisement for her skincare range.

In her later years, she loved to have lunch with her close friend Molly Parkin (my mother), at her favourite meeting spot, Claridge's. Once Molly, remarking on her radiant complexion, was told it was nothing to do with make-up but that she'd just come from a room upstairs and "a roll in the sheets". "Is it a new boyfriend?" asked Molly. No, it was an old friend. "Darling, I don't want to tie myself down.

"Anyway it's a wonderful thing to be with a man whose wife doesn't like sex, knowing you're keeping a friend's marriage together."

Sophie Parkin