Obituary: Helen Brook

Helen Grace Mary Knewstub, family planning adviser: born London 12 October 1907; Founder, Brook Advisory Centre for Young People 1963, Chairman 1964-74, President 1974-97; Chairman, Family Planning Sales 1974- 81; CBE 1995; married 1926 George Whitaker (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1937 Robin Brook (Kt 1974; two daughters); died London 3 October 1997.

Helen Brook, the founder of the Brook Advisory Centres, defied the caricatures of those who portray advocates of family planning as purveyors of loose morals. She did not approve of promiscuity, nor did she approve of abortion. The Brook Advisory Centres, which she established in 1964, primarily aimed to red-uce the number of illegal abortions and "illegitimate" births and to inculcate a sense of sexual responsibility in the young.

Brook was motivated by fervent belief that children should be born to mothers who wanted them and could care for them. She also believed that women should enjoy equality with men and that to achieve this they needed to be able to avoid unwanted pregnancy. In an interview to mark her 79th birthday she explained: "I felt that, until women were free of the fear of unwanted pregnancy, they would not be able to take up the equal opportunity of work."

Helen Brook entered the world of family planning as a volunteer for the Family Planning Association at a time when the FPA was avoiding the obvious need to provide contraceptive advice for the unmarried because of con- cern for its organisational respectability.

Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s the FPA was wracked by controversy about its public policy of extending "pre-marital advice" only to those within four to eight weeks of their wedding day. While the discussions and the arguments raged, Brook acted.

In 1958, when Marie Stopes died, Brook was invited to run her independent clinic in Whitfield Street in London, and with the support of the clinic doctors and a nurse she began to run an evening session each week for the large numbers of unmarried women turned away from other clinics. In 1963, she began "secret" sessions aimed specifically at young people.

When, at the end of that year, a storm of publicity broke, the Marie Stopes board suggested it would be expedient if she founded a separate centre. The opportunity was duly seized and the first of the Brook Advisory Centres exclusively for young, unmarried people opened its doors in London to women and men in 1964.

A Birmingham branch was established in 1966, followed by centres in Edinburgh, Bristol, Liverpool and later Glasgow and Coventry. Today 18 branches of the Brook Advisory Centre, funded by local health authorities, provide free and confidential advice on sex and contraception to nearly 70,000 people under 25 each year.

Brook was a pragmatist. In the 1950s and 1960s she was aware that sexual attitudes and practices were evolving and that if family-planning services were to meet the needs of society then they must change too. The philosophy of her clinics was explained by one of her doctors at the outset: "Shock and moral attitudes are not what is needed, but a recognition of the struggle the girl is going through."

The work of Brook Advisory Centres has, in this spirit, continued to address the needs of young people - male and female - despite hostility and opposition from a minority of detractors. Their current chairwoman, Dilys Cossey, has said that, if Brook Advisory Centres were not constantly pushing at the "boundaries of what is `respectable' to provide what is `necessary' they would be failing their founder's legacy and her memory". Until her death, despite severe eye problems in later life, Brook retained an keen interest in, and supported, the activities of the centres that bear her name.

She was born Helen Knewstub in 1907, one of six children, into a genteel and cultured world. Her mother gave birth to her in an upstairs room at the Chenil Gallery, which her father had founded. Having been educated at the Convent of the Holy Child Jesus at Mark Cross, Sussex, she later renounced Catholicism and joined the Anglican church.

She bore a daughter to her first husband, George Whitaker, the leader of the Chenil Chamber Orchestra, a year after marrying him at the age of 18. The marriage was dissolved two years later at her request. She then spent two years as a painter in Paris with her daughter. After returning to London, in 1937 she married Robin Brook, a merchant banker who became a director of the Bank of England and was knighted in 1974; they had two daughters. She was appointed CBE in 1995.

Helen Brook was a refined and cultured woman who came from a generation which was not afraid to take courageous leaps and leave bold imprints on the world. Even before her death, the legacy of her audacity enhanced the lives of millions of young people, allowing them to explore and enjoy their sexuality without fear of pregnancy. That legacy will continue in the work of her centres.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Reimagined: Gwyneth Paltrow and Toni Collette in the film adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma
Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan
Cannes 2015Dheepan, film review
Richard Blair is concerned the trenches are falling into disrepair
newsGeorge Orwell's son wants to save war site that inspired book
Arts and Entertainment
The pair in their heyday in 1967
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine