Written by Luke Morris
Arthur Leonard Bell was born into a warm albeit rather full family – being one of twelve children. His father (Jonathan Bell), a “true Cockney”, was born in 1853 in Bethnal Green. By Arthur’s own account his father was quite the “eccentric” given his tendency to walk the Old Kent Road wearing a full suit of armour as well as purchasing strange items, such as stuffed bears and even a camel, to adorn the outside of the family furniture business.
Arthur’s mother (Martha Bell nee Callow) was the second wife of Jonathan Bell after his first wife died, leaving seven children. Arthur describes his mother as “a very fine woman, very patient, long suffering and able to retain a fine sense of humour”. With a total of 14 mouths to feed, Arthur’s upbringing meant he was taught to “eat anything and like it” – something that would prepare him well for his time stationed in India during 1918.
Arthur would participate in many innocent activities with fellow “street urchins” up and down Old Kent Road, causing annoyance to many of the adults. Arthur says what ultimately led to children of his generation becoming “quite hardy and independent” was this combination of indoor and outdoor upbringing. Against this backdrop, it was the world of art that took centre stage for him and during his early years he received a collection of prizes and recognition. Later, he came to believe his background and upbringing worked against him, leaving people of talent such as himself, and his brother Jack, “standing very little chance to get anywhere in the world of art”. Nevertheless, he persisted and after leaving school aged 14, landed himself employment at a local printers. He worked there for 2 months before being accepted into Camberwell Art School.
It was during this time World War 1 broke out and while Arthur and his friends did not realise the full significance, two of his brothers would join up straight away in the Veterinary Corps (Sid Bell) and the Artillery (Ernie Bell). These were times of “intense anxiety and excitement” due to the night raids by German Zeppelin airships. When a Zeppelin was shot down over North London by a British aircraft it resulted in a glare so intense that from 12 miles away it was “possible to read a newspaper”.
The war impacted on everyday life on all fronts and as a result Arthur’s studies at Camberwell were disrupted by interruption and subject cancellations. Nevertheless, conditions did not deter Arthur in his progression and he won a scholarship paying £12 a year. A number of jobs in textiles and design followed before a failed attempt at entry to the Royal College of Art. Frustrations grew at home with finance and conditions to the point that Arthur, now of legal age, turned to military service if only to guarantee to be “sure of clothes”. After missing the deadline to volunteer, he became a conscript in the 3rd GD Bedfordshire Regiment, his poor eyesight meaning he was placed in the reserve – jokingly labelled the ‘tame rabbits’. His friend H S Sands (Sandy) refused involvement as a conscientious objector.
Arthur’s first experiences of the military proved challenging. He dodged any form of voluntary involvement in tasks and always exited his barracks in Hammersmith by the rear. From London, his unit travelled to Kent for the firing range. Rations were small, which resulted in cheeky methods of trickery to secure more. In one instance he was caught by a farmer for stealing apples. Despite his eyesight, Arthur passed his shooting training as First Class Shot, just missing Marksman and the extra 6d a day pay that came with it.
Later, Arthur travelled to Gravesend where he transferred to the Suffolk Regiment. Here, many soldiers were rehabilitated back to full fitness after wounds or injuries sustained in action. Arthur recalls “cussing and swearing” from one soldier passed fit for more action. Further training involved precautions in the event of gas attacks. An officer who seemed all too happy to torment soldiers during this training received “a real pummelling” during the night by soldiers who had been forced to repeatedly use the primitive gas masks – nothing more than a bag with goggles soaked in chemicals. Arthur recites an instance in which, using an improved mask, he sat in a gas chamber for many minutes watching his tunic buttons turn green. As a fully trained soldier he travelled to Aldershot and quartered in Alma Barracks, gaining the rank of Corporal. His promotion didn’t last long after an altercation with an officer but overall he was happy to be back “with the lads in the ranks”.
With the war still in the balance during 1917, Arthur’s battalion travelled to India once they had been inoculated for smallpox and typhoid. A train to Portsmouth took them aboard the cross channel ferry Viper where the cold conditions forced him below deck with “everybody lying on everybody else”. The regiment landed in Cherbourg before travelling to Taranto, Italy – an important hub for troops wounded at Salonika. From Taranto it was across the Red Sea to India through the Suez Canal on a ship named The Nile – “a dirty ship with mud oozing from between the deck boards”. Conditions were appalling: water shortages led to a lack of hygiene and no fresh kit meant lice.
A stop along the way to restock for coal meant a chance to escape the ship but bathing in the waters was forbidden for fear of shark attacks. The Nile experienced an outbreak of smallpox during this time which dispatched members of the crew “at an alarming rate”. Arthur took his turn in standing sentry over the separated part of the ship reserved as a makeshift hospital where, he comments, “it was heart-breaking to hear the delirious noises”.
A new ship, The Malwa, took them from the Persian Gulf to Bombay. This was a happier journey and Arthur spent much of his time carrying out duties similar to that of life in barracks. Although the mode of travel changed to rail once on dry land the previous outbreak of smallpox required a speedy journey to Delhi Fort, which would act as a quarantine zone. Arthur was stationed here for many weeks, experiencing illness, with the only outlet being that of sentry and patrol duties. The limited entertainment available included the Mautch Girls and their exotic dance. Arthur comments that he never experienced real India apart from what he saw at railway stations and shipping docks. He describes seeing the station platforms resembling a pile of rags only to realise up close they were homeless people. After spending Jan-Feb 1918 in Delhi, it was on to Dera Dun at the foothills of the Himalayas where there was a noticeable lack of mechanical technology within the small villages.
His destination was Chaubattia, a 5 day march at 15 miles a day and uphill. The hills provided excellent views for Arthur and his unit which, he presumed, had “been used ever since the British have been in India”. Each night he was stationed in a camp with his first sight in the morning being that of the Himalayas – “a very lucky young man to have this opportunity”. The area included “large rhododendron bushes with beautiful blossoms, eucalyptus trees, pine trees and good clean air”.
Long treks down the river were a greatly enjoyed by his unit, despite the leeches. Other wildlife was prevalent also with sights and sounds of jackals, hyenas and even a puma straying too close – enough to warrant it being shot for fear of an attack. Standards were maintained with very strict attention being paid to army routine: parades, presentation and guard duty. Arthur was ultimately ordered to leave the mountain foothills and return to the “plains and the heat” but not before a deep love for this part of the world had been instilled in him. In September, he was transferred in September 1918 to the 1/6th Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment.
Back on the plains and stationed at Agra, the iconic Taj Mahal was within visiting distance. He recalls seeing the surrounding area littered with cremated bodies while the wild local dogs would be seen trying to eat the bones lying about. Deaths increased with the outbreak of influenza and Arthur saw nine bodies in the Jumna River and witnessed the cremation of another. Relocation back into the hills rescued Arthur’s unit from the influenza outbreak but not before an 18 mile uphill hike, the destination this time being Chakrata.
His unit was not sent home immediately at the end of the war. Arthur contracted sandfly fever followed by malaria. In hospital, he was promoted to Lance Corporal during a visit by his superior, Col Drayson. He was transferred to sent to Lucknow with men of the Highland Black Watch Regiment where he attended Lucknow Art School. He enjoyed the company of the Scots even if they were “rather wild” and “shook the place up considerably”. Arthur enjoyed his time in Lucknow; cycling through gangs of monkeys keen on stealing his food, learning and listening to native students at art school and becoming friendly with a young lady before being publicly shunned for not being a rank of officer – a common issue.
The journey home begain with a 1,200 mile train journey to Bangalore and thence to Deolali, a city 100 miles from Bombay. Here, Arthur, an inexperienced Lance-Corporal, was in a perilous position when he was forced to negotiate with locals – some intent on murder. His own soldiers – a collection of leftovers from demobilisation – included two he suspected had been in Indian prisons. On the final leg, his transport ship was nicknamed the ‘Flu Ship’, due to eight deaths by influenza as well as the unfortunate death by scalding of an infant.
Following demobilization, Arthur Bell worked as a commercial artist for J Lyons Advertising and G Street & Co, amongst others. During the Second World War, he served in the Auxiliary Fire Service. In 1949 and 1951, two paintings were displayed in the Royal Academy, with both works being sold. In later years, Arthur and his family settled in Walton-on-Thames, where he became a founder member of Molesey Art Society and an art teacher at evening classes at Rydens School.
In 1968, Arthur recorded his recollections of his early life in South London, his time in the army, and post-war years, for his grandchildren. These give a profound insight into a tough upbringing, the struggle to follow an artistic career, and the idiosyncrasies of army life. Nonetheless, Arthur was dissatisfied with what he had written, and produced a revised version in 1976. His handwritten memoirs were transcribed by his daughter.
A testament to his character is evident during the Second World War and his involvement with a local German POW camp at Hinchley Wood near Esher. Arthur wrote to the ‘superintendent’ asking if the camp held any artists. It did and a Mr Karl Hubert Hagemann agreed to visit Arthur’s home every Sunday. Despite the language difficulties the men became good friends and would simply sit and paint. Karl was eventually persuaded to enter a poster design competition by the Diocese of Guildford under an anonymous name which he won. Arthur and Karl remained friends, regularly writing and sending illustrations, until Karl’s death. Arthur Leonard Bell died on 16th November 1992, his 94th Birthday.
Taken from Arthur Bell’s memoirs, SHC ref ESR/25/BELA/1-2.