SOE OPERATIVE and CHARITY HERO
Born Helen Laurie-Walker in Cambridge, she was distantly related to David Livingstone. Her mother, Nelly Glegg, was the daughter of engineer Sir Alexander Glegg, who designed, and made popular, aluminium pots and pans.
Nelly died of complications after Helen’ birth. She had an older brother.
Her father, George, was a missionary in Kenya. He re-married but died when Helen was just nine.
Helen and her brother were consequently brought up by their stepmother Catherine, in Wimbledon. She described Catherine as “a wonderful mother.”
Her brother was a severe asthmatic, so the family often went to Switzerland for the cleaner air. It was there, Helen learned to speak fluent French.
She wanted to be a doctor but, “the war disrupted my education.”
In the war she joined FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry) because she liked the uniform.
Really quickly she was approached for a chat with the Home Office. She found herself taken into a back room, asked to sign the Official Secrets Act and found herself working for the SOE (Special Operative Executive). She was just 19.
There she found herself sending messages into France by radio and running various teams of resistance fighters and spies. She was in charge of organising the dropping of counterfeit money into France. She said the pressure was enormous as one mistake could cost lives. Most of the stories she took with her to the grave, still believing in the importance of maintaining the Official Secrets Act.
On VE Day she was broadcasting messages on Radio London. She was persuaded to abandon her post and found herself dancing with the crowds down the Mall.
After the war she became a business woman, taking over the running of her stepmother’s launderette business before branching out into property development. She was extremely successful.
She married Civil Servant Derek Taylor-Thompson. They had one daughter, Catherine, although much later they also adopted Bopha, a Cambodian orphan.
As a wealthy woman of independent means, charity became her big thing.
She was particularly attached to the Mildmay Mission Hospital in Tower Hamlets. This had been created by Catherine Pennefather and her husband in 1866, after a cholera outbreak, but had become part of the NHS in 1948. Nevertheless, it was allowed to keep its Christian status.
Helen joined the board, eventually becoming Chairperson, and ran the Friends of Mildmay.
But in 1982, the Government decided to shut it down. Helen led the campaign to keep Mildmay open, recruiting important names to support her. She led a protest march to Trafalgar Square. There she jumped on a lion to give her speech – followed by Peter Shore, the MP for Shoreditch (the constituency Mildmay was in).
And for the one and only time, she used her connections to help her. Her husband Derek was by now a senior civil servant. He persuaded Health Minister Kenneth Clarke to give a 7-year lease to Mildmay, allowing it to become independent and a hospital for chronically ill young patients e.g., multiple sclerosis.
Helen went into the hospital upon gaining the lease and with a small group of volunteers painted it from top to bottom and repaired damaged furnishings, giving it a new lease of life.
But 7 years is not a long time and by 1988 the Government were going to close it again.
But 1988 was the height of the AIDS crisis. Somebody asked her why there were no patients in the hospital with AIDS. She realised this was the way forward. After a lengthy meeting with then Health Minister Norman Fowler, Mildmay was granted a stay of execution – as long as it became an AIDS hospice.
There was a local outcry. Bricks were thrown through windows, she received death threats, had abuse hurled at her in the street and taxi drivers refused to take either patients or visitors to or from Mildmay.
Whenever possible, Helen challenged each critic in person – and invariably won them round. She said, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know.”
But the breakthrough moment was when Diana, the Princess of Wales visited the hospice. The press followed her every movement. When Diana held the hand of a young man who was dying, it went national – and all opposition melted away.
Diana visited 17 times, once bringing Princess Margaret with her.
And then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited and declared they were doing marvellous work. Although Helen knew the PM was getting political capitol out of this, she was pleased, as Thatcher could hardly shut it down after praising it so volubly.
And Pope John Paul 2nd also visited.
There were a few Africans in the hospice, so when President Museveni of Uganda came to Britain on a state visit, he came to Mildmay and was blown away by what he saw. He asked Helen if she would open a branch in Uganda, funded by his government. She agreed. Museveni became patron.
But she also set up a new charity, the Thare Machi Education, which later changed its name to ‘Education Saves Lives’. This was about educating people about health and safety, and the dangers of AIDS – prevention, not cure. It operated in not only Uganda but Kenya, India and many other countries. Cherie Blair became its patron.
Helen was awarded an MBE, an OBE and was awarded an Honorary MD from the University of Buckingham. She was also invited to Princess Diana’s funeral. Through all of her works, her great faith sustained her.
She also became heavily involved in another charity, the Community Action Network (CAN). As part of this, Helen created the ‘Great Banquet’ where 33,000 people sat down to share a meal together – strangers donating to charity.
Derek died in 2014 after 60 years of marriage.
That very same year the new building at Mildmay was opened – all paid for by Helen’s fundraising.
In 2018, Helen was named as one of the BBC’s 100 most influential women. She was extremely proud of this.
Her daughter Catherine became an artist and adopted daughter Bopha is a Senior Nurse.
When she died, the CAN was renamed the Helen Taylor-Thompson Foundation.
RIP – Resisting Immense Prejudice