Isabel Brown was born in Tyneside on 6th December 1894. An intelligent girl she was awarded a scholarship at the local High School. She became deeply involved with the local church in her adolescence till reading about politics undermined her faith.
Brown joined the Labour Party and trained as a teacher in Sunderland. An active trade unionist she became the National Union of Teachers representative on the county committee. In 1921 she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. Three years later she spent time in Moscow.
In 1926 she was imprisoned for making speeches at public meetings attacking the government for the way it was dealing with the General Strike. In the early 1930s she became active in the Committee for the Relief of Victims of Fascism.
On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War Brown went to Spain as a member of a delegation from the British Anti-Fascist Committee. According to the author of British Women and the Spanish Civil War (2002): "Passing through the countryside between Barcelona and Madrid, she almost wept at the sight of the poverty stricken villages, where the defences consisted at times of a few sandbags and a boy of about twelve with a shotgun."
Isabel Brown joined forces with Leah Manning to establish the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. Manning later recalled: "We had three doctors on the committee, one representing the TUC and I became its honorary secretary. The initial work of arranging meetings and raising funds was easy. It was quite common to raise £1,000 at a meeting, besides plates full of rings, bracelets, brooches, watches and jewellery of all kinds... Isabel and I had a technique for taking collections which was most effective, and, although I was never so effective as Isabel (I was too emotional and likely to burst into tears at a moment's notice), I improved. In the end, either of us could calculate at a glance how much a meeting was worth in hard cash."
Beryl Barker was one of those who attended one of Isabel Brown's meetings: "Isabel Brown came, because she was the champion money collector for Spanish Relief and she did a City Hall meeting, and she also went round the working-men's clubs, speaking and collecting."
Whilst I had been absent from London, the Committee, with which I was to be most closely associated during the Spanish war, had been formed. Isabel Brown, a dedicated communist, had been receiving sums of money from all over the country to be used for Spanish relief. Medical aid was urgently needed doctors, nurses, trucks and their drivers, and supplies of all kinds. Isabel set about finding people willing to sit on an all-party committee who would undertake the task of raising funds, interviewing personnel, and sending all these things and people to Spain. She brought together the Spanish Medical Aid Committee. We had three doctors on the committee, one representing the T.U.C., and I became its honorary secretary. The initial work of arranging meetings and raising funds was easy. It was quite common to raise £1,000 at a meeting, besides plates full of rings, bracelets, brooches, watches and jewellery of all kinds. Isabel and I had a technique for taking collections which was most effective, and, although I was never so effective as Isabel (I was too emotional and likely to burst into tears at a moment's notice), I improved. In the end, either of us could calculate at a glance how much a meeting was worth in hard cash.
I had really come to like and to respect Isobel Brown (an open Communist who was the Secretary of the Committee for the Relief of the Victims of Fascism), so I told this approachable lady that before we left for Spain I wanted to meet Harry Pollit, the Secretary General of the CPGB. Isobel Brown replied that Pollit did not see anybody any day just like that, and I retorted in a rather flip way that neither did I go off to Spain any day, anyhow, just like that.
That evening Isobel Brown took me to the CPGB's King Street Headquarters. Harry Pollit, about whom I knew but little and whom I had never seen before, turned out to be a warm friendly man with a manner that made personal contact easy. He had with him someone called Campbell who, in contrast to Pollit, seemed curmudgeonly; I felt he disapproved of me and my accent. Since Pollit's manner encouraged the direct approach, I led off by saying that, as he probably must have heard, I was going to Spain with a medical unit supported by all shades of decent opinion in Britain. I felt that I had a very heavy reponsibility towards its members and towards those who were sending us. We were a small unit and I was not going to do anything behind the backs of its members. They would always know what was happening, and I needed to know that nothing would be going on behind my own back. Pollit commented that this seemed to him an entirely right attitude, but why did I feel the need to express it to him? An old hand, like Pollit, would not have returned the ball to an apprentice player like me unless he had wanted the rally to continue. Thus encouraged I went on to say that a party fraction was being established in the Unit and since I was sure that its members had the work as much to heart as the rest of us it was hard to see why it had seemed necessary to create it. I had nothing to hide and nor conceivably could they. I was ready to demonstrate this by making my administration entirely open. With one exception, everyone in the unit had either been pre-selected or approved, by me. Pollit asked who the exception was, and when I said O'Donnel, he let out a laugh in which Cambell did not join. As I did not seem to be getting very far I then played my only other card saying, "If you won't let them come out into the open let me come inside. Let me join you, as we can't have a Unit being pulled two ways". This did indeed provoke Cambell who was emphatic saying that the Party was not a darts club a man can just walk into at will when it suited him. To which I remarked that this was exactly what I felt about the Unit. Pollit seemed to be enjoying himself and came back with a friendly bit about the lad having a point. He went on to say that the Unit was a real Popular Front activity. He asked Campbell to get that well across to O'Donnel and, turning to me he said something like, "The world's very far from perfect. You'll have to take the rough with the smooth out there". Turning to Cambell he said, "I am going to give him something to show that, in the spirit of today, we trust him." To me he added, "Keep it in a safe place like inside your belt. Only use it if you really need to. The party will always back that Medical Unit; you've helped a lot by coming to see us". He went to his desk and typed a few lines, reciting them as he did so, requesting that I should be given every help. He signed it and put a rubber stamp on it. Then, to my surprise, he cut the document down to minimum size with a pair of scissors. When he put in my hands I realised that it was not typed on paper but on a piece of white silk.