Barbara Bentley (born 8 Jun 1927: died 28 Dec 2012)

It is with the deepest regret that we announce that Barbara Bentley, Survival’s Director 1972-1984, died on 28 December 2012. Obituary by Survival’s current Director, Stephen Corry.

Between 1972 and 1973, Barbara Bentley gradually moved from being the General Secretary of the Royal Anthropological Institute to becoming Survival International’s first full-time Director. She was to become a Justice of the Peace and remained with Survival until her retirement in 1984. For much of this time she was the only employee, and the only person in our tiny office. Others (like me) were volunteers and spent a good deal of time on fieldwork with tribal peoples.

Ours was the easy part. Barbara did everything else: raising the money; arranging for publications to be written, printed and distributed; liaising with our supporters; keeping the accounts; managing the committees (who were also all volunteers, as they still are); and handling all the paperwork needed for a charity to exist.

In those days, with only a typewriter and card index files at her disposal, tasks such as sending newsletters to hundreds of supporters were extremely laborious and time consuming. Frankly, no one else involved in Survival, apart from Barbara, was prepared to take on these jobs – and everyone knew it. Without her commitment, there is no doubt whatsoever that Survival would simply not have survived its first decade.

Far from being ‘only’ an administrator, Barbara did practically everything else as well. Using her extensive knowledge of anthropologists, the UK Parliament – where she had worked for several years – and Fleet Street (when the papers really were produced there), she was constantly raising tribal peoples’ issues with politicians and pressing the media to cover them.

When a large delegation of Canadian Indians visited London to petition the sovereign (the ‘great white mother’) in the run-up to the ‘repatriation’ of the Canadian Constitution in 1981, they showered Barbara with presents and accorded her the honorific title, ‘great pink mother’.

The office was just a couple of small rooms, on different floors, at 36 Craven Street, where Benjamin Franklin had lived from 1757-1775. This was only a few hundred yards from parliament, in one direction, and Fleet Street, in the other. In that sense we were well placed, but if it sounds rather grand, it wasn’t! Barbara loved to recount how she was in the basement when she heard two passersby outside commenting on the blue plaque which announced the building’s (other) role in history. To one’s observation, “Look ‘ere, Benjamin Franklin lived ‘ere,” his companion exclaimed laconically, “Poor bugger!”

Barbara and I were there when a huge IRA car bomb blew up near Whitehall, leaving a sizeable crater. The blast swung down the walkway, Craven Passage, and slammed into our street, taking out several neighbours’ windows and shaking the building’s, rather weak, brick fabric. Barbara did not pause from her work.

Her steadfastness, innate sense of justice, hard work, and irrepressible humour will be much missed. She is survived by her daughter, Judith, to whom all at Survival send our deepest condolences.