HELEN BROTHERTON CBE
Helen Brotherton, who died on 6th August 2009 aged 95 after a short illness, was one of the big characters of Dorset, one of the leading pioneering conservationists of her day both in the county and nationally and was instrumental in securing the future of many of Dorset's special places, including Brownsea Island.
Born in Lincolnshire in 1914, Miss Brotherton grew up in Leamington Spa, where she began to be interested in nature. Her first recollection was at the age of 3 sitting on the driveway of their home in the Midlands identifying fossils amongst the gravel. She always credited her mother for generating and encouraging her enthusiasm for all things to do with the countryside. However she was particularly shocked when the young lad who worked in their garden wanted to impress her and gave her a necklace made from the blown eggs of the hedge sparrow - her mother put the present into perspective by reminding her of all the chicks whose existence had been jeopardised by the making of this particular present.
As a child she became a past master at trespassing on the surrounding farmland so that she could pursue her interests in nature but was very aware that her father, who was a highly respected businessman and owned Hercules Bicycles, would have been horrified to find out. So she learnt not to be caught; something that was to hold her in good stead later in life when exploring Brownsea Island when it was still in private hands.
Her father wanted to send her to Wycombe Abbey School but she hated the idea of boarding and persuaded him that she could weekly board at Edgbaston High School for Girls. Even as a teenager she was proving to know her own mind and how to achieve her ambitions, the main one of which was to eventually go out to work and earn her living. Her father wished her to live at home.
At school she proved a very good sportsgirl and was a particularly fine wicket keeper under the tutelage of an English Ladies team player, who was universally feared by both staff and pupils. Thus as a vital member of the cricket team and under the personal protection of her games mistress the young Helen Brotherton found herself in a position where she could safely rebel against the system without fear of retribution. She loathed her headmistress and was not particularly keen on the academic side of life.
However on leaving school and in pursuit of being employed she went to train as a teacher at Roehampton College and in 1936 she left with good qualifications to teach. Having turned down an excellent offer by Stafford College, she hung out for a job at Norwich High School for Girls because of Norfolk's high reputation for bird watching. She claimed she only got the job by mentioning that her brother had gone up to Balliol - this seemed more important to the headmistress than her own qualifications.
At the outbreak of war she applied for a job as a seagoing WRNS but was put on a long waiting list. So she decided to fill the time by volunteering for the WRVS in which role she ended up, firstly, as the Evacuation Officer for Warwickshire (including of course Coventry) where, despite her meticulous planning, all went hilariously awry when the various groups got on to the wrong buses and thus single men found themselves being billeted in places planned for married women and vice versa. She then went on to run the Warwickshire Sick Bays which were designed to house the infectiously sick to keep them out of the hospitals that were being kept clear for those with war injuries. It was these two experiences where she learnt the important skills of organising and inspiring volunteers; a skill which never left her. For her work with the Sick Bays she received the award of the British Empire Medal (Civil) on 1st Jan 1943.
It was also during this period that she was exposed for the first time to the seriously left wing and thus she lost her enthusiasm for socialism and an earlier ambition to become a Labour MP. From that moment on, her politics was always that of the independent. As she put it 'Striving for what was good for the town, county or nation, rather than what would make the politician popular in his party'.
While still living with her parents in Leamington Spa, she was befriended by two elderly spinsters who were their neighbours. Despite their Victorian looks and demeanour, one of them rode to hounds on a regular basis and the other was a rally driver. It was the latter who taught the young Helen Brotherton her rally driving skills and she used to regularly take her Sunbeam Alpine on hill climbing circuits where the tracks were gravel and which required a regular change of tyres during the course. She drove a sporty car, both fast and competently, right up until her final months.
At the end of the Second World War she moved to Dorset in order to look after her mother who had never really recovered from the loss of Helen's brother during the war.
Living in Lilliput, Poole, with an uninterrupted view over Poole Harbour, and with its large gardens and open spaces showing signs of wartime neglect, she discovered Dorset's wildlife, including smooth snakes and sand lizards. She began voluntary work through the Dorset Field Ornithology Group, a small group of bird watchers who recognized the habitat destruction accelerated by the wartime need for more home grown food. She was joined in her work by both Bernard Gooch, a wonderful naturalist and author who was way ahead of his time, and Dr Rooke who, being a full time practicing GP, needed considerable help in organizing the various bird counts that took place on a regular basis. Miss Brotherton recalled that in those days they could only find 16 bird watchers throughout the county; a fortunate figure as that was the maximum that could fit into their meeting place - a member's drawing room.
Visiting Brownsea Island was a particular pleasure, in spite of the fact that public access was banned by its reclusive owner Mrs Bonham-Christie. Brotherton owned a yacht and thus could sail across the harbour and trespass to her heart's delight. Following the death of Mrs Bonham-Christie in 1961, her grandson was left the Island. He decided to apply for planning permission for 400 houses as he could see no way that he could afford to maintain the island without substantial funds of his own.
Helen Brotherton and her small team went to work to ensure that the planners were fully aware of the potential of the Island as a wildlife reserve. Already red squirrels were dying out along the south coast, major heronries were being threatened with destruction on various Dorset estates as their roosts were part of commercial woods which were harvested and Brownsea hosted many rare wading species in its lagoon that were nationally endangered.
Largely as a result of Miss Brotherton's efforts the planners turned down the application to build and with the active support of Max Nicholson (Head of the Nature Conservancy and late Secretary to the Privy Council) the Treasury agreed to take the island in lieu of death duties. But they insisted that The National Trust would have to agree to take over the ownership of Brownsea and that half of it should be run as a reserve for wildlife by the embryo Dorset Naturalists' Trust. However The National Trust was particularly short of funds at this time and they only agreed to this proposal provided that an endowment of £100,000 could be found. Not an insubstantial sum in 1961.
It was Helen Brotherton who swung into action to persuade the people of Poole to pledge money to secure the island's future. Within a week, with her usual charm and highly persuasive manner, which brooked few refusals, she had raised the first £10,000 and so the National Trust agreed to take on Brownsea. Meanwhile Sunny Miller, Chairman of The John Lewis Partnership, had persuaded his Board to take on a long lease of the castle and to carry out the necessary repairs. The Scouts, with the active involvement of Lady Baden Powell, also provided substantial funds to secure the endowment for the island on which their movement was founded.
It was also the start of the Dorset Naturalists' Trust, now the Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT), which today has over 25,000 members, and which not only manages the wildlife reserves on Brownsea Island but also over 40 sites throughout the county. Dorset was only the fourth county in England to establish a county wildlife trust. In this task Miss Brotherton was helped enormously by the support of Ted Smith of the Lincolnshire Trust and not least the great naturalist and philanthropist Christopher Cadbury. Dr Rooke and Arthur Bull, who was Head of Mathematics at Bryanston School, then invited Helen Brotherton to take on the role of Honorary Secretary for the first three years. She ended up in this role for the next 26 years. On 28 March 1961 the Dorset Naturalists' Trust had its inaugural meeting and managed to fill the Council Chamber in County Hall with Lord Ilchester as its first Chairman.
Even in those early days there was much to be done: stopping the building of the Atomic Energy Power Station beside the Fleet (the stretch of water behind Chesil Beach), although ironically this was then built at Winfrith on precious and rare heathland; developing and opening up Brownsea, which was grossly overgrown with rhododendron and other invasive species; acquiring Powerstock Common, amongst many other less high profile but important tasks. For all this, and more, on 6th June 1963 Miss Brotherton was awarded an OBE (Civil) for her role as Secretary of the Dorset Naturalists' Trust.
During all this, Miss Brotherton also became the Wessex Regional Representative of the National Trust. In those days there was only the Regional Agent and one assistant to cover the area. There were no wardens. In the early 1970's the National Trust put in place Operation Neptune, a very ambitious plan to 'save the coastline of England and Wales'. Helen Brotherton threw one of her by now famous dinner parties to get it rolling in her region. As a result Dorset collected more money than any other county.
On 16th June 1984 Miss Brotherton was awarded a CBE (Civil) for her work as Wessex Regional Chairman of the National Trust.
She was also a key figure in the establishment of the Portland Bird Observatory, of which she was Chairman. Dr Rooke had discovered at an early stage that the southern tip of Portland was a popular place for migratory birds' first landfall on Britain and that it was ideal for those wishing to record them. Their first HQ was the old Royal Navy signal station. When this was brought back into use the group moved into an old underground weapon store which was very damp, cold and run down. Fortunately the Lower Lighthouse and the accompanying cottage and fields came on the market and Miss Brotherton persuaded her father, who by now was in his 80's, to purchase it on their behalf. At that time, the Old Higher Light nearby was lived in by Marie Stopes, who did not take kindly to birdwatchers chasing rarities in her unkempt grounds.
It was furnished with the help of Miss Brotherton's great friend Angela Hughes who found all sorts of redundant furniture at home and got her husband to drive it all down, somewhat reluctantly, in a horsebox. She recalled with great clarity the difficulty they had getting some of the larger pieces up the staircase. The Observatory had little money but always managed to employ young full time wardens, many of whom went on to become significant players in the world of conservation.
In addition, she was the leader in pioneering a permanent presence for conservation on the Chesil Bank for the nationally important tern colonies and subsequently became a Trustee of the 'Chesil and Fleet Trust'.
Helen Brotherton served as a magistrate for about 30 years, often as bench chairman. A good listener and very sympathetic when necessary, she was very quick on the uptake and respected by her colleagues. She always had a keen sense of humour and said that her service as a magistrate added twenty minutes to her journey times about the county.
Miss Brotherton was a knowledgeable field naturalist and a keen educator and thus having relinquished her role as Secretary she went on to become Chairman and finally Honorary President of the DWT. In her role as President she continued, even in her 95th year, to play an extremely active part in all aspects of the DWT's activities and she rarely missed any Trustees' meetings. Whenever there was a requirement to bring out the heavy guns of Helen Brotherton to secure support from any person she was only too happy to play her part. She rarely failed to achieve what was required.
New members of staff were invited to lunch so that she could get to know them and more senior members of staff were summoned to lunch if she felt unhappy about any aspect of what the DWT was doing. Whether dealing with trustees or staff members she could always make her point with characteristic charm.
She took a particularly close interest in the management of Brownsea Island, which she could watch over from her sitting room windows, and she was always ready to offer wise advice to both the National Trust and the DWT staff who continued the work that she started.
In addition she was on the editorial board of the magazine Dorset Life, for a period a trustee of The Royal Society for Nature Conservation (now The Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts), a trustee of the RSPB and a keen sailor. In 1992 Helen Brotherton was the first recipient to be awarded the Christopher Cadbury Medal 'for services for the advancement of nature conservation in the British Islands' by the Royal Society of Wildlife Trusts.
In 1993 Bournemouth University awarded her an Honorary Degree. In 2007, she received the Octavia Hill medal for her outstanding contribution for over 50 years to the National Trust. In 2008, she established the annual Helen Brotherton Award for Volunteering at Dorset Wildlife Trust, reflecting her conviction that volunteering is a way of life and proof that positive action can make a real difference in the community and environment.
She continued to attend and host events and meetings for Dorset Wildlife Trust, to meet members and thank volunteers and staff personally at every opportunity. Helen Brotherton was as steadfast to her friends as she was to the cause of nature conservation. She had a warm sense of humour and a naturally generous and caring nature. She was always ready to welcome friends to her study, with its fine views of Poole Harbour, and talk about wildlife, their families and mutual friends. Her close friends knew too, that in times of difficulty, Miss Brotherton would always offer support and perceptive advice without fail.
Notes to Editor
For more information please contact Nicky Hoar at Dorset Wildlife Trust on 01305 264620.
About Dorset Wildlife Trust
Dorset Wildlife Trust was founded in 1961 to protect the wildlife and natural habitats of the county and now has over 25,000 members and manages 45 nature reserves. Most are open daily and there are visitor centres providing a wealth of wildlife information at Lorton Meadows, Kingcombe Meadows and Brownsea Island Nature Reserves, The Purbeck Marine Wildlife Reserve and the Urban Wildlife Centre at Upton Heath Nature Reserve.
The largest voluntary nature conservation organisation in Dorset, DWT plays a key role in dealing with local environmental issues. It leads the way in establishing the practices of sustainable development and engaging new audiences in conservation, particularly in the urban areas.