Helen Lamb, the indomitable Englishwoman who dreamed up a summertime Brigadoon for the mentally and physically disabled when she created Camp Jabberwocky 58 years ago, died of natural causes Friday at her home in Oak Bluffs, where for six decades she had been a seasonal resident. Her death fell one day shy of her 97th birthday, although her children realized later that since she died at 7:30 at night and was born in England, her death had in fact occurred on her birthday, which was her wish.

In the summer of 1953, defying the mainland experts who said it couldn’t be done and ignoring just about everyone else who said it shouldn’t be done, Mrs. Lamb, a speech therapist from England, brought six children from the old Fall River Cerebral Palsy Training Center to spend July on Martha’s Vineyard. In a leaky cottage on the Camp Ground of Oak Bluffs, she established what would become Camp Jabberwocky, the first sleepover summer camp for the disabled in the United States.

The creation of this camp — exceptional, in part, because its counselors and staff have always worked there for free — assures Mrs. Lamb an important place in the modern history of the Vineyard. But the strength of her character — impatient and outspoken, by turns martial and full of laughing English fun — was nearly as famous across the Island as the camp itself.

Her nickname was Hellcat, given to her by a counselor for her driving habits, which were often heedless of the law. But the name stuck because she was theatrically bullheaded, frightfully blunt and occasionally scathing in her criticism of those — including, sometimes, the campers under her care — who did not work or try hard enough to overcome obstacles in their way. The standards to which she held others were as high as those she held for herself, and she let people know when they did not meet them. Even her children and grandchildren called her Hellcat, and she so loved her own reputation for willfulness and even ferocity in service of her great project on the Vineyard that she signed her Christmas cards that way.

She was an uncompromising socialist from childhood, a skeptic about organized religion, and in all things to do with Jabberwocky a believer that there should be few rules and fewer limits. To Helen Lamb, the children and adults of Camp Jabberwocky always came first, law and expectations be damned.

“In a funny way, she reminds me of Jacob,” her daughter Gillian Butchman said in a 1992 interview in the Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. “I don’t know a whole lot about the Bible, but Jacob is the chap that God chose as Israel. Jacob was a thief and a cheat and a liar. But Jacob got things done. That’s Hellcat. Whatever needed to be done to make this happen was going to be done.”

A born opportunist, Mrs. Lamb seized on the Island’s love of mavericks and its separateness from mainland thinking in order to set up Jabberwocky and make it work. In the 1950s, she said, many people in New England kept their disabled children hidden from public view and sometimes even from the rest of the family. Mrs. Lamb, recently widowed and an émigré from England, came up with the idea of a summer camp for the disabled while vacationing on the Vineyard in July of 1952.

“I had my three children and myself on the beach at Oak Bluffs, and I thought, ‘This is the place for a camp for people with cerebral palsy,’” she recalled of the young people she was working with back on the mainland. “. . . All I was interested in at that time was getting a few of these youngsters out of the city of Fall River, and their upstairs third-floor tenements, and come down to see a beach, get to the water, go sailing. It was for them, but the first thing in my mind was to let the parents have a rest.”

She and her older sister, May, owned a cottage in the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs. In July 1953 — with her first counselor, 16-year-old Ursula Dittami, and her own three young children — Mrs. Lamb led a clutch of six youngsters down the gangplank of the steamer Martha’s Vineyard at the steamboat wharf.

Clinking in their braces, rolling in their wheelchairs, dragging their luggage behind them, they hobbled past an awed and unprepared Oak Bluffs citizenry into the Camp Ground, which in Victorian times had been the site of the greatest permanent Methodist revival meeting on the East Coast. There, in a gingerbread cottage called Happy Days — bereft of heat, a modern bathroom, a real kitchen, or a well-patched roof — they set up the first camp.

“Going from the wharf to the little house, I suppose we looked so strange, just like a troupe of refugees, that people became interested in this group, and wondered, ‘What are you doing?’” she recalled in 1992. She added that after an initial period of confusion and reluctance on the part of some to embrace this little band of otherworldly people, the Vineyard soon took to the idea and to the campers with enthusiasm, proprietorship, and eventually love.

“The first year was definitely an experiment,” Mrs. Lamb said. “There was no such thing on the eastern seaboard as a residential camp for handicapped children. It used to be at one time [that] we never had a penny until camp started, and we never had a penny at the end. And I think that was the easier way of doing it.

“On the beach we would collect all sorts of helpers and then they would come back the next day, and help again.”

On the mainland, she said, these children “were shunted into rooms, but on Martha’s Vineyard they could be brought into the light. You’ve got to think about this too: We were on the beach, and we were here. If someone dropped from outer space and they were a little nucleus on the beach, wouldn’t you go and have a look at them? So we had these strange kids, and a lot of people just wanted to know.”

In the many years since, the camp has risen at dawn and gone barreling across Martha’s Vineyard in a bright red school bus, seizing upon the offerings of an Island summer at a remarkable, all-or-nothing pace. Campers swim at State Beach, make candy at Chilmark Chocolates, ride at Pond View Farm in West Tisbury, windsurf with the aid of special gizmos and careful instructors, play basketball at a school gym, ride the Flying Horses carousel, eat dinners at Island restaurants, go to concerts and put on the most elaborate musicals staged anywhere on the Vineyard.

All this and more can be crowded into any day or two of the camp, which is divided into two monthlong sessions in July and August. Known originally and formally as the Martha’s Vineyard Cerebral Palsy Camp, Jabberwocky also hosts people with Down syndrome, spina bifida, autism, blindness, deafness, brain injury and other challenges that range all across the mental, psychological and physical landscapes.

It has since given rise to other camps like it across the country and even in foreign lands. The model for most of them was Jabberwocky, and at its core what the camp was when Mrs. Lamb invented it in 1953 is what it still is today.

Helen Southworth Lamb was born in Lancashire, England on August 27, 1914, the last of four children. Only Helen and her sister, the late May Southworth Davies, lived to adulthood. Her father, Josiah Southworth, was a businessman; her mother, Alice Hammond, was a flamboyant feminist, the first woman to ride a bicycle in the county.

“She always wished to be dropped in the heart of London with a half a crown in her pocket to see if she could make a go of it,” Mrs. Lamb said. Hellcat would get the chance to challenge herself in ways her mother, born in a much more restrictive period, never could.

Both parents were socialists, and Mrs. Lamb said that from childhood, she considered herself a socialist too. When Josiah tried to explain to his daughter that inequities of class and wealth often boiled down to inequities of education, Helen shot back, “Well, all right, you’ve got to educate them! Everyone’s got to have the same!”

She grew up a sickly child, probably afflicted with tuberculosis, and for the rest of her life, Mrs. Lamb was mortified by illness or injury of any sort. She would often stay all night by the bed of a camper who was unwell, even if the sickness were just a temperature.

She entered the Royal College of Manchester as a speech student. “Going up on the train,” she said, “I saw this man with his fiddle at the other end of the carriage. Much older than I, 15 years older. And I looked at him, and I thought, ‘Hm. Nice looking chap. I’m going to marry him.’” It was John Lamb Sr. A talented violinist, he taught music at the Royal College, and there she dogged him until her graduation, crashing his classes in music theory though she knew almost nothing about music. Three days after she turned 21, Helen Southworth and John Lamb eloped.

Her new husband indulged her hope that she might become an actress. She began to tour the provinces, earning good notices. She also doubled as a stage manager, and her fierceness in this capacity radiated from her when costumes failed to arrive from London for a production of Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw’s satire about the Salvation Army. Helen went to the local Salvation Army headquarters and asked to borrow uniforms. The organization knew the play and refused.

“Before the show started,” Mrs. Lamb said, “I got in front of the curtain and told everybody what had happened, and I also told the Salvation Army, which collected donations during intermission, ‘Don’t you dare come in the foyer any more. I don’t care if you’re starving.’”

She remained an actress in spirit the rest of her life — reciting the Lewis Carroll poem Jabberwocky during camp musicals with the arm-waving, eye-rolling style of a Mack Sennett villain. (Beth Ainsworth, a Down syndrome camper, would often put on a white wig and, standing right beside Mrs. Lamb, impersonate Hellcat as she declaimed the poem.) But eventually her husband asked Helen to choose between the stage and having children. She gave up the theatre and the couple had three children ­— Gillian, Janet, and John Jr.

John Lamb Sr., a mathematics expert who worked in secret for the British government during World War II, died shortly after the war ended. Mrs. Lamb came to America in 1950, eventually settling in Swansea with her three youngsters. She arrived knowing the Vineyard well.

A branch of her family discovered the Island late in the 19th century. An aunt bought Happy Days, the gingerbread cottage in the town known then as Cottage City. Her parents, visiting America, bought a larger house in town, and after her retirement from running the camp, Mrs. Lamb spent many summers in what Jabberwocky called The Shack, a carriage house on this property.

Mrs. Lamb’s interest in the rehabilitation of the handicapped and disabled was literally kindled by the fires of the Second World War. In the English countryside, at manor houses converted to hospitals, she began to work with children who had been traumatized by the Blitz, buried in the rubble of their own homes.

Unlike the United States, in Britain the suffering of these afflicted children was visible to all. With patience and hard work, she discovered, many disabled people could learn to talk again, make do for themselves, and achieve independence. But with skilled help so hard to come by, she also got an idea that she would repeat many times, shocking those who did not know her: “It has always been my theory,” she said, often at the camp that she herself had founded, “that these children should be eliminated at birth.”

She loved the potency in that word “eliminated,” particularly coming from a woman who had invented a camp to give challenged children as much freedom and happiness as possible. But her thinking was much less draconian, if no less radical. What she meant was that just as with the very old or terminally ill, a severely disabled child, unable to live without heroic measures, ought to be permitted to die peacefully.

“During the war,” she said, “when they were born brain-damaged, what they did was put them in their little Moses baskets, washed and cared for, by the windowsill where there was some heat from the sun. They would not whimper. They would not cry. If they did, we would take care of them, nurse them and so forth, but we never gave them any artificial help at all. Of course, there wasn’t any to give them. But they just died. Usually within 24 hours, they were gone.”

The birth of a disabled child often drives families apart, Mrs. Lamb told the Vineyard Gazette, arguing that this cannot be overlooked: “I have known many families where the mother and father have parted because of their handicapped child. And the siblings suffer greatly. I don’t think I know of one family where siblings haven’t suffered.” And if the severely disabled child lives to adulthood, she added, parents often grow too old to take care of them.

Though she never discussed the irony of her belief in depth, in practice everything Mrs. Lamb did ran counter to her thinking. Her life was dedicated to helping the disabled live to the fullest measure possible.

The first summer of camp was thrilling, Mrs. Lamb remembered. People approached the children on the beach at Oak Bluffs curiously. Some were fearful, believing that cerebral palsy and what was then called mongolism was catching. But soon the group attracted helpers. David Crohan, the gifted pianist and once an Oak Bluffs restaurateur, came over in the evenings as a youth to play for the youngsters.

Soon her young campers were picnicking, swimming and sailing for the first time. And the Island was helping them do it.

Vineyarders loaned cots to the new camp. Markets gave free food, a dairy free milk. Soon came free tickets to shows, invitations to special events and meals at restaurants, and in recent years, despite the rise in prices, free gasoline for all camp vehicles. The 4-H Club donated a building on New York avenue in Oak Bluffs for the second season. Workmen gave the camp a free heating system there. Later Vineyarders and Vineyard groups built small dormitory cabins on the site. The camp was now firmly established, a part of Island life.

In the camp itself, the philosophy glittered with simplicity: “It was one of Hellcat’s rules,” said her daughter Gillian, “to develop your particular interests, your particular talents — and that’s true not only for campers, but for the counselors. Let the counselors do what they want to do. If a counselor wants to take a camper to a dance concert, or an all-night beach picnic, let them do it. If they want to start a pottery class, fine. Don’t have a prescribed way.”

According to the camp history book, written by counselor Clark Hanjian, the camp in 1965 moved from the 4-H site to a new 14-acre campus on hilly Greenwood avenue in Vineyard Haven, donated by the Episcopal Parish on Martha’s Vineyard.

In 1967, with some of the original child campers growing older, the camp assumed control of Camp Freedom, a project for adults run for several years on the Vineyard each August by the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation. These two camps now made up Jabberwocky ­— a name given to the institution by John Lamb Jr. because of the family’s fondness for the works of Lewis Carroll. Cabins at Jabberwocky are christened with pattering nouns from the Jabberwocky poem — Bandersnatch, Momeraths, Slithy Toves, Gyre and Gimble, and Uffish.

In 1968, Mrs. Lamb began a transition of leadership, with Gillian Butchman and John Lamb assuming the duties of assistant directors. In 1974, at the age of 60, Mrs. Lamb turned over formal leadership of Camp Jabberwocky to her children, but she remained a daily visitor and spiritual field marshal into the 1990s. Mrs. Butchman resigned as director of Jabberwocky at the end of the summer of 2004. Mr. Lamb retired after the summer of 2005. The camp directors now are Arthur Bradford, Johanna Romero de Slavy in July and in August Jack Knower. All three are longtime Jabberwocky counselors.

No matter how long she lived in America, Mrs. Lamb retained her brisk British accent, a delightful hearty laugh and an outlook that was steadfastly English and egalitarian. She told the Gazette in an interview that she bought all her clothes at the Thrift Shop in Vineyard Haven and that she had no idea what a BMW or the NFL was. She was an expert gardener, and Mr. Hanjian, the camp historian, wrote that she loved to be served a piping hot cup of properly brewed English tea.

Of Jabberwocky — its uniqueness in the country and its importance to the separate spirit of the Island — she remained proud to the end of her life. But she never said so directly, for she hated the idea that any achievement could not be surpassed. One inferred pride in what she had done from a sparkle in her eyes and a sudden strengthening of her voice.

Helen Lamb the socialist was proud that in the long history of Jabberwocky, no counselor has ever been paid a penny. For decades, they have come to work with her campers because they loved it and for no other reason. Many are teenagers, some as young as 15. This has kept costs exceptionally low. Officially, Mrs. Lamb never had to charge parents more than her 1953 price — $15 a week. Many, of course, give much more.

Helen Lamb the Islander was proud that the unceasing generosity of the Vineyard bespoke the wisdom of her choice for a campsite. In the dark ages of 1953, she knew that the Vineyard was a place apart. She sensed how delighted the Island was to foster such a thing as Jabberwocky.

And Helen Lamb the Hellcat was proud, and confident, that the camp — as well as the overwhelming and self-conscious force of her own character, which in large measure created it — is likely to live on as long as there is a Vineyard to host it.

In addition to her three children, she is survived by six grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

A small gathering to scatter her ashes will be held at Lambert’s Cove Beach at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday.

At 6 p.m. a service celebrating her life will be held on Sunday at State Beach in Oak Bluffs at the Jabberwocky spot. All are welcome to come and spread rose petals on the water. There is access for people with handicaps.

Donations in her memory may be made to Camp Jabberwocky, P.O. Box 1357, Vineyard Haven MA 02568.