From the papers of L R Reeve* this affectionate portrait of a minor character in British education. He does not have a Wikipedia page and is unknown to the DNB, but WorldCat record books on history especially a few text books in the Piers Plowman Histories series which were in print from 1913 - 1957. The other author involved in the series and covered by Reeve was also from Goldsmiths - Ethel Howard Spalding
J. J. BELL
I cannot possibly take an objective view of the late J. J. Bell; for his presence in any circumstances always exhilarated me, and other people seemed to be similarly affected, because there was invariably a rustle of anticipation whenever he joined an assembly. He was not a conscious showman, yet his demeanour was that of a laughing cavalier, a manner perfectly suitable, as he was morally and physically one of the bravest men of his generation.
For some years before 1914, he was a lecturer at Goldsmiths' College. At one period he had to face an exceptionally high-spirited and restless group of young men. During one lecture his students were particularly troublesome.
"You are a lot of rebels and hooligans!” he finally shouted, as he walked out of the lecture room.
His pupils were apparentIy outraged at such a monstrous accusation and sent him a round robin suggesting that an apology was due to them. Bell's response won their hearts, and I was told, their subsequent good behaviour. At the next lecture he appeared at the entrance; gazed round thoughtfully at the expectant assembly of young manhood.
"Well," he announced at last, "I came here with the intention of apologizing for my outburst and accusation. Looking at you now, however, I withdraw the word 'hooligans', but must say you are a lot of rebels all right." That amendment was accepted, and honour was satisfied.
I have the idea that he went to Birkbeck College from Goldsmiths', but when the First World War arrived he became Captain Bell, in charge of a company of the first battalion of the 20th London Regiment, whose headquarters was at Blackheath; most of his company were his old students.
Being rather a strict disciplinarian, he was not too popular overseas, yet his company knew that when the battalion was in reserve behind the line, he always made it his business to see that every man in his company was billeted as comfortably as possible, before he settled down. When in the trenches his men realized he was a brave soldier.
When Captain Bell was wounded, the company quickly found that under a new leader they were not so competently led. When they were in the front line again, on one occasion a runner rushed into the trenches shouting, "Chaps! 'Dingdong' is coming along not far behind me. When he turns up let's give him a cheer." When Bell appeared from the communication trench, there was such a yell of welcome that the Germans must have been very disconcerted and anxious.
He specialized in History; but never made the mistake of insisting that whatever other subject was neglected, his was the most important. His mind was too alert, his judgment of values too sound to irritate other men of learning, and attempt to undermine the importance of other specialists or general practitioners; but he did claim very wisely that it was his task to specify all the advantages in his branch of learning. At least one of the Piers Plowman history readers was his creation and I can't imagine a better series existed for many years, than these exceedingly useful history readers.
After the war he became an inspector of schools under the L.C.C. and came into my life fairly frequently, for he was sent to the Lewisham area. His first appearance at the Pendragon Road School, Downham Estate, was typical, for he said to my headmaster, "Good morning, Mr George. I am the new inspector. I have come to learn my job."
A teacher in another school encountered a different reaction. He had applied for a place on the promotion list. Bell arrived in his classroom unexpectedly one day, and asked him to continue his lesson while he stood by to watch the proceedings. When the lesson ended Mr Bell announced, "Mr Smith, that’s the worst bit of teaching I have ever seen. Besides, you haven't shaved today.”
When my headmaster died suddenly on a Saturday, I called the staff together on the Monday, and asked them whether they would like me to ring up County Hall and ask for an unattached headmaster, or simply to carry on and await events.
They replied, "Let's see what happens. We know you, and will all give you our full support."
In the afternoon Bell came along. I asked for a directive.
"You carry on as you are at present. I see no need for another headmaster yet. I’ll see that you have another assistant tomorrow to take your class and you will be free for supervision and clerical work."
He was more than an historian; he was also a shrewd psychologist. At first he came every other day, then every other week, then a month passed. Always he boosted our morale.
"You are doing well," or "I've just passed a classroom. No teacher there but every boy quietly writing.” So we continued for three months, and I acted as deputy again when the new headmaster arrived.
I reluctantly left Pendragon Road, and in 1940 I was evacuated to Devon with a group of London children. On my first visit to the education offices at Exeter, there was J. J. Bell, also an evacuee, and as buoyant as ever. He spoke of the irrepressible students at Goldsmiths' College: "Yes, they were a tough lot, but they made magnificent fighters in France."
Sometime around 1942 I organized a day's educational conference at Totnes, for London and local teachers, together with Stockwell students. There were three main speakers with Bell, and a lively discussion, made for a happy day at a time of long sustained depression during the years, and Bell’s thanks were certainly the most fervent of all I received.
Some years ago a public man declared that there were no more than half a dozen titans among after-dinner speakers. He named them, but had he heard J. J. Bell he would have mentioned another.
Our respected inspector was the chief guest at a teachers' dinner in Catford. One speaker paid a well-deserved tribute to the first headmaster of the Downham Estate, which finally contained six schools.
"Mr Jones," he said, "was the Father of Downham."
Such a remark was of course irresistible to a first-class speaker, and Bell made the most of it, causing an outburst of uncontrollable mirth. That was only one of several witticisms, and for about twenty minutes we were entranced. Since then I have heard hundreds of after-dinner contributions and only one have I enjoyed as much. This was delivered by John Foot, when as chief guest at the annual dinner of the Devon County Bowling Association in Plymouth, he held all of us enthralled by the wittiest speech I have ever heard in the West Country.
J. J. Bell would have enjoyed it for he had no envy, and always acknowledged ability when he encountered it. Truly one can declare that he was a complete man, who maintained the prestige of the L.C.C. Inspectorate. Wherever he may be I hope that he can still enjoy the magic of bagpipes, which meant so much to him during his lifetime.
* Found among the papers of the long defunct literary agency Michael Hayes of Cromwell Road S.W.5 - parts of a manuscript memoir by one L.R. Reeve of Newton Abbot, South Devon. Mr Reeve was attempting to get the book (Among those Present: Very Exceptional People) published, but on the evidence of the unused stamp Hayes never replied and L. R. Reeve published the book himself through the esteemed vanity publisher Stockwell two years later in 1974.
L R Reeve had in a long life met or observed a remarkable selection of famous persons. He presents 'vignettes' of 110 persons from all grades of society (many minor or even unknown) they include Winston Churchill, Dorothy Sayers, H H Asquith, John Buchan, the cricketer Jack Hobbs, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, Marconi, E.M. Forster, Duchess of Atholl, Marie Stopes, Oliver Lodge and Cecil Sharp -- 'it is unnecessary to explain that many I have known have not known me. All of them I have seen, most of them I have heard, and some of them have sought information, even advice from me." Reeve states that the unifying qualification all these people have is '… some subtle emanation of personality we call leadership, and which can inspire people to actions unlikely to be undertaken unless prompted by a stronger will."
Reeve was a teacher throughout his life and deputy head of 3 London schools, headmaster of Loughborough emergency schools, ex-president of London Class Teachers Association and very early member of the British Psychological Society (55 years)... I calculate he was probably born in about 1900. His style is markedly unexciting but he has much information unavailable elsewhere.. He sent 6 typed manuscripts to (from the smell) the chain-smoking agent Hayes…