Helen Caroline Bentwich (née Franklin) was born on January 6, 1892 in Notting Hill, London into a family of almost aristocratic 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. Her mother Caroline (née Jacob, 1863–1935) was elected to the executive committee of the Jewish League for Woman Suffrage; her sister Alice was an active feminist, and her brother Hugh (1889–1962) was a radical activist for women’s suffrage. Herbert Samuel, first Viscount Samuel, a cousin of the family, became her uncle when he married her father’s sister Beatrice.
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. This experience was to stand her in good stead when, after her marriage to Norman de Mattos Bentwich (1883–1971) in 1915, she moved with her husband to Cairo, where he was employed as a colonial administrator, while she worked as a voluntary aid detachment nurse, before becoming private secretary in the ministry of finance. When World War I broke out Norman joined the British Army, serving in Palestine, and Helen returned to London in 1916. After a period working in a munitions factory in Woolwich—where her radical ideas on women’s working conditions may have led to her being dismissed after she attempted to form a trade union—she became the organizer of the Woman’s Land Army in the home counties.
In 1919 Helen returned to the Middle East to join her husband, who in 1920 was appointed attorney-general in the mandate government of Palestine. In Mandate Memories she describes her experiences in Palestine, during which she put her charitable and organizational skills to good use as she set up a craft center, schools for Jewish and Arab children and worked as the Honorary Secretary of the Palestine Council of Jewish Women, as well as performing her duties as a colonial wife.
At the end of Norman Bentwich’s term as Attorney General of Palestine—he was 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—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 Hamsptead, London, as well as keeping a house in Sandwich in Kent, where they remained until their deaths.
In the 1930s Helen Bentwich was a full-time organizer of the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany and together with Norman she visited several European countries to attempt to bring refugees to England to escape Nazi persecution. Later the couple became active in the cause of the Ethiopian Beta Esrael.
During the time she spent in Jerusalem, Helen worked for a time as the Manchester Guardian’s Palestine correspondent but it was local politics which 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, she served as vice-chairman of the LCC in 1950, and was elected chairman for the session 1956–1957.
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: 1965; If I Forget Thee: Some Chapters of Autobiography, 1912–1920. London: 1973; Tidings from Zion: Helen Bentwich’s Letters from Jerusalem, 1919–1931. Edited by J. Glynn. London: 1999.
How to cite this page
Lehrer, Natasha. "Helen Bentwich." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 10, 2016) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bentwich-helen>.