Researched and written by Sue James for the Past on Glass/Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Times projects at Sutton Archives.
Margaret Bell was born in Uppingham in Rutland, the eldest of six children of a local surgeon and physician. She attended a convent school in East Grinstead from where she progressed to the University of London where she gained a B.A., which was remarkable in itself as degrees had only been awarded to women at the university from 1880. In 1888 she was employed as a teacher and taught Mathematics at St Stephen’s High School in Clewer, Windsor until 1891.
In May 1891 Miss Bell was appointed as a Mathematics teacher at Sutton High School for Girls. Although her main subject was Maths, she was also described as “a capital tennis player” and was a keen participant in and director of, various dramatic productions. She was promoted to the position of second mistress in September 1894 and remained in this post until 1903 when the headmistress, Miss Duirs, fell critically ill with tuberculosis and had to leave school midway through the year, dying soon afterwards. Margaret was appointed as her successor in the October of the same year which engendered cheers from the students, an indication of her popularity. The fact that she, as a teacher at the school, was promoted internally was also considered remarkable at the time.
We know from the description of Miss Bell in her early years at the school that she was “tall and stately with golden hair coiled close to her head”. Her personality was described variously as “kind”, “reserved”, “sympathetic”, “dignified”; she was “a stern moral judge” whose pet hates included “slouching, slovenly manners, slang, shingling and (we fear) smoking in women”. Her pupils were expected to walk in the corridors with their hands behind their back; a direction she once made to a member of staff who was swinging her arms on her way into school! Miss Bell was strict but she was not without a sense of fun. In 1911 she opened a larger kindergarten at Fernwood, a house on the corner of Cheam Road and Robin Hood Lane and she was often to be seen stopping on her way to the Senior School so that she could talk to the young children. One of the boys remembered her playing games of ‘cat’s cradle’ with him. One of her staff referred to her as “a Victorian with an open mind” which sums her up quite well.
The Great War was probably the greatest challenge that Miss Bell faced in her 20 years as headmistress. When the students started the school year in 1914 the war had been going on for a month and the need for the population to raise funds was soon apparent. As soon as the girls came back she organised them into great fund-raisers for over 40 different charities. In addition, they sent parcels to lonely soldiers and sailors, collected waste paper and silk worms for sale plus they dug up the school grounds to provide vegetables for the fleet. Miss Bell gained quite a reputation for knitting mufflers, hats and socks for the troops. She insisted that all the girls should learn to knit too and also that they should sew hospital bags as a response to the Lady Smith-Dorrien appeal to help wounded soldiers. Miss Bell instituted an element of inter-form competition in this which no doubt helped to achieve the total of nearly 3,000 bags by the end of the war.
During the war hundreds of large, local houses were taken over to be transformed into hospitals. There was one such hospital, Benfleet Hall, in Benhilton where many of the Old Girls of the school volunteered as VADs. In 1916 40 wounded soldiers were invited down to the school where they were given afternoon tea, played games such as ‘bumble puppy’ and sang a number of popular songs of the time. One Old Girl remarked: “Imagine Tommies smoking, or otherwise, filling up the gallery at the far end of the hall, and in a free and easy manner chorusing their favourite songs, unawed apparently by the air of educational sanctity which must hover over the place”.
In 1915 Miss Bell decided to stand for the Sutton Council and she was returned for South Ward, unopposed. She, plus two others, became the first women to serve on the Council. She wrote down her reasons for going into public life: “Until a few months ago, I regarded myself as a most unsuitable person for municipal work. I have not come forward now without much consideration ; and I am quite certain, though I can never prove it, that had life continued for us on the old normal easy lines, I should not have been standing before you to-night as a councillor-elect of your next Urban District Council. But the 4th of last August changed, for all of us, the outlook of our lives. We have had to reconsider many things, and to decide whether we would remain in our own groove or whether we would take up other service. And this has meant much serious looking forward, and an attempt to realise what the aftermath of this awful war will be. We cannot fail to recognise that, in a few years’ time, there will be a great shortage of men of the age when men generally come forward to do public work. A time must come when the vast majority of Englishmen will be either old men who do not want the additional burden of public work, or young men who are too inexperienced to undertake it. And unless the women of England are ready to come forward to help with public work, much that is of vital importance to the welfare of the nation will be done either badly or not at all. And when the time comes it will not be sufficient that the women should be willing, they must also have been trained and have had experience in public work.”
As soon as the War was over, Miss Bell started to extend the school by adding new classrooms in order to meet the growing waiting list for places. By 1923 she was suffering from ill-health and decided to retire at the early age of 58. The school was devastated at her resignation as her tenure at the school had spanned over 30 years. One student remarked that “she has been here for so many years that we cannot imagine the school without her.” The Sutton Advertiser of Friday April 13th, 1923, included an account of a presentation which was made to Miss Bell at Sutton Public Hall. She is described as having “doubled the popularity of the school and (with) trebling its high reputation.” Having retired she travelled to Italy for many months over several years to indulge her love of art. Her last visit to the school was in 1946 when delayed Jubilee celebrations were held for the school’s 160th birthday. She passed away in Etchingham in East Sussex on January 27th 1949; she was 83.
All research carried out of behalf of the HLF funded Past on Glass/Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Times projects at Sutton Archives is the work of volunteer researchers and is unverified by the Sutton Archives team. All sources have been credited where possible. If you notice any errors or discrepancies in this work, or can add to the research, please contact [email protected].