Helen was born in Birmingham (in 1965) into the Quaker family of chocolate fame, later moving to Oldham with her older sister and brothers. As a child she loved books. Helen had three main ambitions at this time, which included being a writer or an actor. Her father advised her not to start writing until she had something to write about, so she went to the University of East Anglia to study drama and film.
During her acting career she worked with Humberside Theatre in Education; The Open Hand Theatre, Leeds; and The Hull Truck Company. Whilst pregnant with her first child, she played Cordelia at the Sheffield Crucible. She had married Josh Parker in 1992 and they had two sons. And as she found a career as an actor to be inconsistent with family life, she trained as a teacher and taught in two London comprehensives.
In 2002 the family moved to York and Helen became Joint Head of Education at York Theatre Royal. She also created education resources for the Pilot Theatre and for West End musicals. She taught creative writing and drama for five years at Ascham Grange Women’s open prison. From 2006 to 2013 she was chair of Accessible Arts and Media, a charity running creative learning projects in York.
Always driven by her Quaker values she first spoke at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally in Manchester when she was 16. She was a Trustee of the Barrow Cadbury Trust for sixteen years, chairing it from 2013. The trust was set up by her great grandfather. ‘The trusts mission is to use all of our assets, especially our money, to work with others to bring about structural change for a more just and equal society.’
Sara Llewellin, the Trust’s CE wrote ‘Helen was a lifelong Quaker. Her deeply held social justice convictions were the guiding principles of her personal, professional and philanthropic lives. The Trust’s enduring commitment in the areas of racial, gender, economic and penal justice perfectly reflected her world view; her contribution in pursuit of structural change in those areas will be felt by many for years to come. Her views about penal reform and redemption, for example, had their roots in long standing Quaker concerns and informed her work in the family’s philanthropic endeavours at the Barrow Cadbury Trust over many years.’
At the age of forty she decided it was time to start writing. She joined a creative writing class at York University’s Lifelong Learning Centre, and later at Sheffield Hallam took an MA. She also joined a poetry group in York. A book of her poems, Forever Now, was published by Valley Press November 2017.
Her first novel, To Catch a Rabbit, publish by Alison & Busby in 2013 was widely acclaimed. WH Smith readers voted it among the crime novels they would most like to see on screen. The Yorkshire Post in 2015 chose it as one of the books that best defined the modern county, and again in 2015 it was joint winner of the Northern Crime award. Mark Billingham of the Guardian wrote ‘A hugely assured and gripping debut. Let’s hope we see a lot more of Sean Denton’.
The second ‘Sean Denton’ book, Bones in the Nest, was published in 2015. Helen’s breast cancer was diagnosed in the same year. After intensive treatment, she recovered enough to deliver the keynote speech at Asia’s biggest philanthropic conference in Hong Kong in September 2016. Her last book, Race to Kill, was completed while she was having palliative care and published September 2017. To Catch a Rabbitwas The Big City Read 2017. She had become well known to crime readers after taking part in many panels discussing the art of crime writing. Helen knew of the choice for The Big City Read and was very excited and keen that this should go ahead. She died on 30 June 2017 before the event got underway.
‘She had a marvellous way of making you feel she was really interested in you, whilst talking nineteen to the dozen herself! She was a passionate person whose beliefs, steeped in Quakerism and social justice shone though’.
‘Whether engaging with social issues of the day around the Trust board table, helping people express themselves through drama, or writing about the lives of criminals, drug addicts, or unappreciated PCSO, she understood and cared about people from all walks of life and the issues facing them’.
Both quotes are from the Memories Book in the Friends Meeting House.
You might be wondering what her third, unfulfilled ambition was, besides writer and actor. Well, she also wanted to be ‘a lady who helps the ice-cream man’. As Helen said ‘two out three isn’t bad’.
Obituary by Sara Llewellin, The Guardian, 14 July 2017
Memories Book, Friends Meeting House, York
Image of Helen Cadbury ©The Press, York