Reproduced here, with kind permission, from The Times, 18 November 2020:
Witty and determined community activist who served in the wartime FANY and later co-founded Europe’s first Aids hospice
Changing public attitudes to potentially deadly infectious diseases is never easy, especially when fear of them is fuelled by misinformation and prejudice. In the 1980s, patients suffering from Aids and those caring for them at the Mildmay hospital in east London, of which Helen Taylor Thompson was the chairwoman, were subjected to a barrage of abuse.
Bricks were thrown through windows of the building, Europe’s first and largest hospice dedicated to Aids. Local barbers would not cut the hair of staff and taxi drivers would hose down the inside of their vehicles after picking up a fare there. Visitors would ask if it was safe to sit in a chair used by patients, the distress of many of whom was compounded by having been abandoned by their families.
Then, in 1987, the Princess of Wales, as she was, was photographed shaking hands with an Aids patient at the Middlesex Hospital without wearing gloves. The image went round the globe, as did that of her doing the same at the Mildmay in 1989. “HIV does not make people dangerous to know,” she would say in 1991. “You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it.” Prompted by her example, the stigma surrounding Aids in time gave way to greater compassion.
This would not have happened in the same fashion but for the wit and determination of Helen Taylor Thompson. In 1952 she had joined the board of the Mildmay, which had been founded in 1866 after a cholera outbreak. Thirty years later, like many other cottage hospitals, it faced closure by the NHS.
“I got the community behind me to fight and we marched to Trafalgar Square,” she recalled, “and I clambered up among the lions and pleaded for the Mildmay not to close.”
As a teenager, she had had the responsibility of coding and broadcasting messages to SOE agents in occupied France. Now her husband, Derek, a senior civil servant, drafted a brief to be presented to Ken Clarke, the health minister, by Peter Shore, the local MP, asking for the hospital to be returned to the board. This led to an offer of a seven-year lease. Helen Taylor Thompson negotiated this up to 99 years, at a peppercorn rent, albeit with strings attached.
One was finding the money to run the Mildmay. “As a Christian, I put this down to prayer,” she said. As frequently happened throughout her life, hers were answered. Telephones rang opportunely with offers of help, and envelopes of money were posted through her door. The district health authority wanted to sell the site. Instead Taylor Thompson won additional funding for the hospital by dint of cajoling the area authority to match a grant given, unusually, by another outside the region.
By the time that the board took back the Mildmay, it had been vandalised and neglected. Then in her sixties, Taylor Thompson got down on her hands and knees to chip the dirt with a knife from the linoleum.
The plan had been for the hospital to provide care for chronically ill young people such as those with multiple sclerosis, but in 1986, a year after it had reopened, and a year before the government’s apocalypse-invoking public health campaign, it was asked to take Aids patients.
“At that time, they were treated like lepers,” said Taylor Thompson. “So I went to the matron and the medical director, and they both said, ‘The Mildmay has always looked after the people that nobody else wants to look after.’” At the time, Aids patients were receiving medical treatment but nowhere was providing palliative care. They were housed at first in the former children’s ward. Soon there were so many that all 36 of the hospital’s beds were turned over to them.
Diana, Princess of Wales, made 17 visits in all to the Mildmay, when she would sit with dying patients. Taylor Thompson recalled when one man, Martin, who was terminally ill, was filmed by the BBC giving Diana a bouquet. He had lost touch with his family for 11 years.
“Within 20 minutes, his mother rang and wanted to come to see him, and the whole family were reunited. Shortly afterwards he died.” In 1997, Taylor Thompson was one of the 2,000 people invited to attend Diana’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, and in 2015 Prince Harry opened the rebuilt Mildmay. Latterly it has been threatened again with closure though it now treats homeless Covid-19 patients.
Born Helen Margaret Laurie-Walker in Cambridge in 1924, she was a distant relation to David Livingstone. Her mother, Nelly, was the daughter of an engineer and industrialist, Sir Alexander Glegg, credited with popularising aluminium cooking pots.
She died, however, soon after giving birth to Helen. Her father, George, a businessman, died when she was nine while he was on his way to Kenya to open a mission hospital there. Helen and her older brother were largely raised by their stepmother, Catherine.
She grew up in Wimbledon, attending the High School, but her brother’s asthma meant the family went regularly to Switzerland, where she learnt to speak French. When war came, she joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY), mainly because she admired the uniform. But she found herself posted for training to a country house in Oxfordshire, having first signed the Official Secrets Act in a room above a restaurant on Baker Street.
During the war several thousand FANYs served the Special Operations Executive (SOE), some as agents, but chiefly in auxiliary roles, such as coding and sending signals. This was a considerable responsibility. “One mistake and someone’s life could have been in danger,” Taylor Thompson observed. “You just got on with it.”
With her command of French, she was among those who read out coded messages on the BBC’s Radio Londres service. These were intended for agents in the field in France and she recalled her hands shaking before her first broadcast. On VE Day, she was in Broadcasting House and went to take her place with the crowds rejoicing in the Mall.
She subsequently worked in her stepmother’s family business, a string of launderettes, and then set up on her own firm renovating property. She met her husband, a senior commissioner with the Revenue, in Scotland on a holiday and they were married in 1954. Their daughter Catherine, an artist who spent much of her life in the United States, died in 2008. They adopted another daughter, Bopha, who was born in Cambodia and is now a senior nurse. Derek Taylor Thompson died in 2014.
With Andrew (now Lord) Mawson and Adele Blakebrough, Taylor Thompson organised the Great Banquet, which in 1995 brought together 33,000 Londoners and led to the creation of the Community Action network, which helps hundreds of social enterprises. As the Helen Taylor Thompson Foundation, it has latterly merged with Education Saves Lives, a charity that spreads health information to the world’s poorer communities.
“There are masses of things you can do voluntarily,” Taylor Thompson believed. “If things don’t go according to plan, you just have to keep on working it out. And I think, as long as you’ve got your faculties, why not do something?”
Helen Taylor Thompson, OBE, community activist, was born on August 7, 1924. She died on September 6, 2020, aged 96
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