Helen Bentwich, born in 1892 in London to an almost aristocratic Jewish family, became a social worker after finishing university. After marrying her husband, Norman, she became involved in volunteer work as a nurse. In Palestine during the interwar period, she set up a craft center and schools for Jewish and Arab children and worked as the Honorary Secretary of the Palestine Council of Jewish Women. After moving back to England, Bentwich focused on community organizing, and during World War II she attempted to bring refugees to England to escape Nazi persecution. She served on various local committees and is remembered for her drive to help the community and inspire change around her.
Family and Early Career
Helen Caroline Bentwich (née Franklin) was born on January 6, 1892, in Notting Hill, London into a family of distinguished Jewish lineage. She was the fifth of six children of Arthur Ellis Franklin (1857–1938), scion of an Anglo-Jewish banking family, who was himself also a successful banker. Herbert Samuel, first Viscount Samuel, a cousin of the family, became her uncle when he married her father’s sister Beatrice. Helen’s mother Caroline (née Jacob, 1863–1935), who was a school manager in London’s East End and was co-opted onto the education committee of Buckinghamshire County Council, inducted Helen from an early age into the principles and practice of voluntary social work. Her aunt, Henrietta (née Montagu) Franklin was in 1912 a founding member of the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage, having been a vice-president of the (non-militant) National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1909. Helen’s sister Alice was on the Committee of the Whitechapel branch of the (non-militant) London Society for Woman Suffrage, while her brother Hugh (1889–1962) was a militant suffragist, suffering imprisonment and forced feeding on many occasions. Helen herself was not an active suffragist, but her staunch feminism was strongly influenced by indignation at the double standards of sexual morality.
After studying at St Paul’s School for Girls and Bedford College, University of London, Helen became a social worker, following the example of her parents, who were involved in a wide variety of charitable and voluntary organizations, both Jewish and non-Jewish. She married Norman de Mattos Bentwich (1883-1971) in 1915. On the outbreak of World War I, he had transferred from the Egyptian colonial service to the British army’s Camel Transport Corps; after their marriage, Helen, who in August 1914 had begun hospital work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in Chesham, moved to Cairo for further hospital service. She later worked as a secretary in the ministry of finance in Cairo.
As active service was consuming all of Norman’s time (he was later awarded the Military Cross), Helen returned to London in 1916. She began work in a munitions factory at the Woolwich Arsenal, where she became branch secretary of the National Federation of Women Workers. Her demands for better working conditions almost certainly precipitated her dismissal. After retraining, she became the organizer of the Woman’s Land Army in the home counties. She was later much in demand as a speaker at rallies held all over the country to recruit more women agricultural workers.
Experience in the Middle East
In 1919 Helen returned to the Middle East to join her husband, who had become legal secretary to the military administration of Palestine in 1918; in 1922, he was appointed the first attorney-general of mandate Palestine. In Mandate Memories Helen describes her experiences in Palestine, during which she put her charitable and organizational skills to good use, as well as performing her duties as a colonial wife. She started a troupe of Girl Guides, set up a craft center and schools for Jewish and Arab children and worked as the Honorary Secretary of the Palestine National Council of Women. In that capacity she organized relief work after the earthquake of 1927 and the massacre of Jews in Hebron and elsewhere in 1929.
At the end of Norman Bentwich’s term as Attorney General of Palestine (he may have been forced to resign when it became clear that it was an embarrassment to the British government that the Attorney General of Palestine was a Jew, and Helen urged the move after a failed assassination attempt), he was offered the Chair of International Law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He accepted the post on condition that he could spend six months of every year in London, a situation from which the couple profited until Norman reached statutory university retirement age in 1951. The Bentwichs set up home in the Vale of Health in Hampstead, London, as well as keeping a house in Sandwich in Kent, where they remained until their deaths.
Community and Political Work
From 1933 to 1935, Norman served as Director of the League of Nations High Commission for Refugees from Germany. He and Helen visited several European countries to attempt to bring refugees to England to escape Nazi persecution. Helen became a full-time organizer of the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany and was a key figure in persuading Bishop Bell of Chichester to take on the rescue of “non-Aryan” Christian children, while insisting that her name and role in the project not be mentioned. Later the couple became active in the cause of the Ethiopian Beta Israel.
During the time she spent in Jerusalem, Helen worked for a time as the Manchester Guardian’s Palestine correspondent, but it was local politics that proved to be the milieu in which she most enjoyed deploying her talents. Already a member of the Labour party, she canvassed for her brother Hugh when he unsuccessfully stood for Parliament in Hornsey in 1931. She herself stood unsuccessfully in the 1932 Dulwich by-election. She stood, again unsuccessfully, in 1935 in Harrow. In 1937 she was elected onto the London County Council for North Kensington, which she represented until 1946. She rose through the ranks in the LCC, becoming chair of the education committee from1947 to 1950, representing Bethnal Green from 1946 to 1955, and Stoke Newington and Hackney North from 1955 to 1965. In 1949 she was made an alderman, and she served as vice-chairman of the LCC in 1950. Helen was a strong proponent of the innovation of non-selective “comprehensive” secondary schools in London and nationally. She was elected chairman for the session 1956–1957, and the highlight of this period of office is illustrate in an LCC photograph album, kept with much of her manuscript correspondence at The Women’s Library, which shows Helen splendidly presiding over a banquet for Bulganin and Krushchev on the first-ever official visit of Soviet leaders to the United Kingdom.
In 1965 she was appointed CBE for public and political services. Norman died in 1971 and she survived him by barely a year, dying on April 26, 1972, at home in Hampstead.
Mandate Memories (with Norman Bentwich). New York: Schocken Books, 1965.
If I Forget Thee: Some Chapters of Autobiography, 1912–1920. London: Elek, 1973.
Tidings from Zion: Helen Bentwich’s Letters from Jerusalem, 1919–1931. Edited by J. Glynn. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1999.
Correspondence and papers of Helen Bentwich, Hugh Franklin, the London Society for Woman Suffrage and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, at The Women’s Library, London School of Economics.
Jewish League for Woman Suffrage pamphlets at the British Library.
Abrams, Ruth. Jewish Women in the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, 1899-1926. PhD Dissertation, Brandeis University, 1997.
Fast, Vera K. The Children’s Exodus: A History of the Kindertransport. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011.
Martin, Jane. “Beyond Suffrage: Feminism, Education and the Politics of Class in the Inter-War Years.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 29, no. 4 (2008): 411-23.
Rubinstein, Hilary L. “Bentwich, Helen Caroline (1892-1972),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2004.
Summers, Anne. Christian and Jewish Women in Britain, 1880-1940: Living with Difference> London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.