Isaacs, Stella (1894–1971)

views updated

Isaacs, Stella (1894–1971)

Influential aid worker in World War II England who organized and ran the women's branch of the civil-defense service. Name variations: Stella Reading; the Marchioness of Reading; Baroness Swanborough. Born in 1894 in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey; died in 1971; daughter of Charles Charn (one source says Charnaud); married Rufus Isaacs, earl of Reading (later the marquess of Reading), in 1931.

Red Cross worker during World War I; traveled to India to work in viceroy's office (1925); appointed founding chair of the Women's Volunteer Service for Civil Defense (1938); made Dame of the British Empire (1941); created baroness (1958).

Stella Isaacs, who also held the titles the Dowager Marchioness of Reading and, later, Baroness Swanborough, was born in Constantinople (now Istanbul), Turkey, in 1894. As a child, she suffered from back problems and was kept out of school and tutored at home instead. She was a young woman near the age of 20 when England entered World War I, and she served in the British Red Cross during the conflict. In 1925, she journeyed to India to serve as secretary to the wife of the viceroy of India, Lady Reading , who died in 1930. Stella Isaacs then wed the viceroy, also the earl of Reading (later the marquess of Reading) a year after he became a widower. He died in 1935, and she occupied her time by serving on a number of charitable bodies and philanthropic commissions.

Her experience in helping the poor, indigent, and infirm led to the home secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare, asking her to create an organization of women that would help people displaced from their homes as a result of war. This occurred in 1938, as England was foreseeing a possible conflict with Nazi Germany. Though it already had a Civil Defense service from the previous World War, it now was believed that it might not be all that unseemly for women to participate as well. The Women's Volunteer Service (WVS) for Civil Defense, which Isaacs founded, was created to fulfill this mission. Her efforts as chair helped the WVS, as it became known, grow into an organization of a million women by 1942. During the Blitzkrieg (the German Luftwaffe's relentless bombing of London), Isaacs played a great part in coordinating and actively participating in the evacuation of children from cities. The group also lent its energy to a number of other wartime services, such as assisting refugees and providing welfare to the armed forces. After the war, the WVS continued on as helpmates to the elderly and poor and was bestowed with the "royal" designate in 1966. Isaacs chaired it until her death in 1971.

Stella Isaacs' other major involvement was with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for a period of time after World War II. She was named a governor of the news organization in 1946, and served as vice-chair from 1947 to 1951. For her wartime service, she was named a Dame of the British Empire in 1941 and in 1958 became the first woman life peer as Baroness Swanborough.


The Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Lord Blake and C.S. Nicholls. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

The International Dictionary of Women's Biography. Edited by Jennifer S. Uglow. NY: Continuum, 1985.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

About this article

Isaacs, Stella (1894–1971)

Updated About content Print Article