Obituary - Dolly Bell, 1937-2009

27th November 2009 at 00:00

Dolly Bell was a performer in search of an audience. And so, standing in front of a class of pupils, she found her vocation.

But it was not a vocation she discovered until she was 40 years old. Born Dolly Knight in 1937, she spent her youth at her local Essex grammar school, before marrying David Bell.

The couple had three children: Matthew, born in 1964, followed by Tim a year later, and Elizabeth in 1969. During their childhood, she held a succession of temporary jobs, mostly as an auxiliary nurse, but also cleaning and, at one point, frying fish.

But she was not a natural housewife: "I am to housework what Yehudi Menuhin is to ice hockey," she used to tell her children.

So, in her mid-thirties, she enrolled in Brentwood teacher-training college. She had always been interested in other people, and had an obvious ease around children. She was also a natural motivator. During a teacher-training secondment, she was given a woodwork class to cover. While she had no idea how to use the machinery involved, she had no problem convincing the pupils to use it.

Her first full-time job, in 1977, was as a science teacher at Westborough High School for Girls, in Southend-on-Sea. She had a great appreciation for the natural world, scientifically and artistically: when out for a walk, she would regularly stop to admire the colours of a sunset or the shape of a tree.

But her love of teaching was not just about the subject or the pupils. She was an actor in search of an audience: whether on stage or at the local bus stop, she was always performing, and made friends wherever she went. She was also involved in local amateur dramatics, writing, directing and often acting in plays.

And she would write sketches for pupils, colleagues and friends to perform at a local old-age home. One such sketch incorporated a song-and-dance number about a particular type of sea grass; its chorus included the repetition of its Latin name, Halimione portulacoides.

She also directed drama performances at school. When Westborough eventually merged with a local boys' school to create Prittlewell High, Mrs Bell found herself having to intervene in a fight between two teenage boys in one of her plays. She discovered they were arguing about the correct form a ballet move should take.

Hers was an ability to shake things up, to challenge people's perceptions. When one teenage boy persistently misbehaved in her class, she told him that she would come and give him a kiss if he was not quiet. He did not listen; she acted on her threat. The boy did not cause trouble again.

She had a wide vocabulary, but was not averse to resorting to simpler, more effective language. On one occasion, she loudly called a pupil an "arschloch", the German word for "arsehole". It was only later (she claimed) that she recalled the German exchange pupil at the back of the class.

But she was unconcerned with hierarchy or protocol: she wanted only to deal with whatever situation was in front of her.

Nonetheless, she had a natural radar for distress. If pupils were being bullied, or were struggling at home, she would find them and listen to their problems.

She became the confidante of pupils and staff alike. "I wish she was my mum," people would tell her children. A walk to the local shops could take hours because of all the children and parents who wanted to talk to her.

In fact, long before titles such as "pastoral counsellor" became current, Mrs Bell was fulfilling the role; in later years, the title became official. She would joke that she had more comebacks than Frank Sinatra: the offer of a pastoral job drew her back from the brink of retirement.

But, she pointed out, no one is indispensable. She was in her early sixties when she finally retired from Prittlewell.

In retirement, she found more time for amateur dramatics, painting and drawing, but she had lost her core audience.

Gradually, her health declined, assisted by her 20-a-day cigarette habit. She had a heart bypass, followed by diabetes and progressive lung disease.

Dolly Bell died on October 2 at the age of 72.

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