South Shields Local History Group

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Chapman, Lady Hélène

My grandmother Hélène Paris Macgowan was given as a middle name the city where she was born in 1886. Her parents were both Scottish, and her father James George Macgowan worked as a senior executive for the Standard Oil Company in Paris for thirty years.

In 1900 Hélène was sent to boarding school in St Leonards St Andrews, where school transport was still by horse-drawn coach. There she became friendly with Dora Elizabeth and Dorothy Chapman, who introduced her to their brother Robert in Westoe. At school Hélène was very sporty, winning swimming cups and playing hockey and cricket. After leaving St Leonards she went to a ‘finishing school’ in Heidelberg in Germany, finding time to swim eleven miles down the Rhine to Mannheim.

Robert Chapman kept closely in touch with Hélène, and in 1909 they were married in Stirling, where her father was born. They settled in Harton, where their sons Robert (always known as Robin) and Nicholas were born before the First World War. While Robert was fighting with distinction on the Western Front for three long years, Hélène’s activities included being a volunteer in an Armed Forces’ canteen and at the Voluntary Aid Hospital in Holborn House, Mill Dam.

The inter-war period was an exceptionally busy time. In 1920 Hélène became the District Commissioner of the South Shields Girl Guides Association, and in 1923 she and Robert moved into Undercliff in Cleadon, a splendid mid-nineteenth century house set in secluded grounds of ten acres. Hélène became an appointed member of the Borough Council’s Public Assistance Committee and Vice-Chairman of its Cleadon Cottage Homes Sub-Committee. She was active politically as President of the Conservative Association Ladies’ Section of the Houghton-le-Spring Parliamentary constituency, where Robert was elected as MP in 1931, as a Conservative supporter of Ramsay MacDonald’s National Government. Shortly afterwards, Hélène became Lady Mayoress of South Shields after Robert’s election as Mayor.

The Mayoress, Mrs Hélène Chapman, ‘At Home’ in the Town Hall, 1931 (TWAM)

She was much admired for her charitable activities in the town and as hostess of numerous garden parties and fêtes at Undercliff during the 1930s. Hélène founded what became known as the South Shields Women’s Mutual Service Club, providing leisure and educational facilities for unemployed women and girls, closely linked to a similar scheme for men which Robert had initiated in Zion Hall.

Lady Chapman (tallest woman) at Zion Hall 1933 (South Tyneside Libraries STH0005937)

As the wife of a Member of Parliament Hélène was also very busy in London. In 1934 she was formally presented at Court by the Duchess of Devonshire. A confident and striking woman of 48, she decided it would be a good time to have her portrait painted. She chose the talented Scottish portraitist Cowan Dobson, who was already established in fashionable society and whose clients included Lady Lauder, the Countess of Weir and the Duke of Argyll.

Cowan Dobson’s portrait of Hélène Chapman (Chapman family)

Back in the north east she became Chairman of the South Shields Nursing Association, President of the South Shields Shoeless Children’s Fund, President of the South Shields Royal British Legion Women’s Section, Vice-President of the Ingham Infirmary and a Justice of the Peace.

In 1938 Hélène was appointed to the new role of South Shields Centre Leader for Women’s Voluntary Service which formed part of Air Raid Precautions. As soon as war was declared the following year the WVS started to play a vital role, with its Hospital Supplies, Transport and Evacuation operations.

Lady Chapman (second right), 1941 (James Henry Cleet)

They were needed when bombing raids caused significant damage, especially in 1941. Fortunately they did not hit the destroyer HMS Pathfinder which Hélène launched at Hawthorn Leslie’s Hebburn shipyard under conditions of great secrecy. Hélène soon became President of the newly formed Girls Training Corps and Deputy President of the Durham County Branch of the Red Cross.

In 1946 Robert was appointed Vice-Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, and when Princess Marie Louise – a granddaughter of Queen Victoria – came up to the north east in 1949 to open two new YMCA centres, Hélène had the privilege of entertaining her at Undercliff where she stayed during her visit. In January 1950 Robert was knighted and Hélène became Lady Chapman. Her devotion to public duty continued apace, with her appointment as President of the North East Branch of the Magistrates’ Association. She also became President of the Durham County Red Cross, welcoming in 1953 the Princess Royal who formally handed over to the County branch an ambulance generously donated by Hélène herself.

Lady (Hélène) Chapman handing over an ambulance she has donated to The Princess Royal, 1953 (Shields Gazette)

After my grandfather’s death in 1963 Hélène became known as the Dowager Lady Chapman. She died in 1972, and I remember her vividly and with great affection.

Written by Peter Chapman (Grandson)


Shields Gazette
South Tyneside Libraries
Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums

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