These days there are sophisticated and scientific solutions to the dismal problem of unwanted childlessness — there are IVF, Viagra and well-established egg and sperm donor services. We think of these as recent advantages and give thanks for the modern age.

But what only very few people are aware of is that long before sperm donation was practically or ethically possible, in the early 20th century, a secret sperm donation service existed for those women most in need.

Helena Wright was a renowned doctor, bestselling author, campaigner and educator who overcame the establishment to pioneer contraceptive medicine in England and throughout the world. Kind, intelligent, funny and attractive, Helena had a way with words and a devoted set of friends. She adored men and spent her life helping women.

Helena had a great hit in America and Europe with a book called The Sex Factor in Marriage, which financed her innovative medical practice. She opened two clinics: one for very privileged women in Knightsbridge, one for the poor in Notting Hill. And it was from these offices that she undertook perhaps her greatest work: to assist hundreds of women whose husbands had returned from the first world war unable to father children.

Between 1914 and 1918 one million Englishmen were killed in France and Belgium. Thousands more were wounded, gassed or shellshocked in the trenches. The appalling losses of the war left many women widowed and led to a shortage of potential husbands, a gender imbalance compounded by the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. They were known as ‘the mateless multitude’.

Among the men lucky enough to return home to wives after the war, many were un-able to perform sexually, whether because of direct injury or shellshock — what we’d call post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a tremendously delicate subject — witness D.H. Lawrence’s decision to make Clifford Chatterley ‘only half a man’, deprived of his virility by war; this aspect of the novel was considered to be the cruel breaking of a taboo.

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No wonder, then, that by 1918 Helena Wright had many hundreds of women on her books who had confided to her that they needed help. These women loved their husbands and would never have left them, but they also craved children. What they needed was a sperm donor, before such a thing existed.

So Helena began to look for a very particular person — someone who could father children for these women without any ties. She needed a man of certain stock: tall, handsome (with decent teeth), intelligent, well bred, healthy — and reliably virile.

The answer turned out to be Derek. Derek was born in 1889 in Colorado and raised between England and what was then Ceylon, where his father had a partnership in a rubber and tea plantation. By the age of 19 Derek had grown to be a handsome and amusing young man. He was sent to Malaya to run another rubber plantation in 1909, when there was an insatiable demand for rubber to make tyres for motorcars.

When the first world war broke out, Derek had been ordered — to his frustration — to remain at his post developing rubber for the war effort and in 1918, at the conclusion of an armistice between Germany, France and England, he had returned to England where he met and courted the young nurse, Suzanne, who would become his wife. In 1919 Suzanne introduced him to Dr Helena Wright.

It was a momentous meeting. As their friendship developed, Helena confided in Derek, explaining she had a list of 1,000 women on her books whose husbands could not father children as a result of the war. Derek was touched and excited to think he could help. So the secret service was born. Each would-be mother signed a pledge to stay schtum, and paid £10 to a trust fund which allowed Helena to administer the service and covered prenatal care in Helena’s clinics.

It was determined there would be no prior meetings between Derek and the women — minimising the risk of nerves or second thoughts. Each woman would send Helena a telegram with their optimal dates for conceiving. The husbands would have the option of meeting Derek or going away (most went away) — and a date for the visit would be set.

Ahead of the chosen date, Helena would send a telegram to Derek. On the night, he would dress in a dark suit, white shirt and polka-dot bow tie, take his Homburg hat and a black leather Gladstone bag containing a nightshirt and bottle of brandy. His good manners, smile and enthusiasm did the trick.

Derek visited close to 500 women in the years that followed. Many conceived and he never went back a second time. Derek and Helena’s secret collaboration was a success for which neither could ever take credit, but they were doing good: providing longed-for children where there would have been none.

In the course of her long career, Helena attracted considerable controversy and legal charges. She made no secret of the fact that in the 1940s she had arranged abortions and in the 1950s ‘third-party adoptions’ (bringing together women who had unwanted pregnancies with childless couples). At her trial in 1968, she faced criminal prosecution for this and pleaded guilty, but was given an absolute discharge.

She was working and travelling, surrounded by friends and loving family, until the age of 93. Derek fathered 496 children between 1917 and 1950. He had three sons by his only marriage, and two further sons by his father’s mistress. Then there were four more sons left behind in Malaya. The rest of his progeny were conceived to patients of Helena Wright’s Knightsbridge and Notting Hill clinics.

After falling ill he resisted, with characteristic savvy and wit, all attempts to admit him to hospital. He died, in 1974, on a mattress that had been moved next to his Aga cooker for warmth.

Within a year of his death an ad had appeared in Private Eye: ‘£50 for temporary relationship resulting in pregnancy.’ One more taboo had been lifted.

Paul Spicer is the author of The Temptress, The Scandalous Life of Alice, Countess de Janze (Simon & Schuster)

Tags: Bow ties, Brandy, Fertility, First World War, Helena Wright, History, Sex, Sexuality