Sister Dorothy's life less ordinary

25th February 2000 at 00:00
The chair of the Sixth Form Colleges Employers Forum is no stranger to big challenges, reports Simon Midgley

A LIFETIME's vocation nurturing the young has not shielded Sister Dorothy Bell, chair of the Sixth Form Colleges Employers Forum, from some of the harsher realities of life in the 20th century.

Her mother's first husband died in the First World War and she later remarried. Then her father was shot in the head and lost a lung. Later, her half-brother Thomas, a merchant seaman, died in the Second World War when his ship was torpedoed.

En route to India in 1941, Dorothy and her family braved German U-boats in the Atlantic and several ships in her 33-vessel convoy were sunk.

The following year, a wrongly decoded message alleged that 20 Japanese divisions were making for Madras. Forced to evacuate immediately, the 18-year-old Dorothy drove her family several hundred miles inland to Bangalore.

At the end of the war, she does not recall celebrating. Rather, she remembers going down to the docks in Madras to meet British prisoners of war newly-released from Japanese prison camps. Some had been so horribly tortured that she and other British women were not allowed to see them. In one sense, Sister Dorothy's life can be seen as a grim testimony of man's inhumanity.

"I am very aware of the historical fact that just because people were born at a particular time our families have suffered," she said. "Our lives have been touched by so many things. They make us what we are, perhaps."

While she is philosophical about the darker side of life, she has immense faith in people's capacity to achieve, grow and lead fulfilling lives.

Born in a flat in Lincoln's Inn, she attended the City of London School for Girls before becoming a boarder at the Sacred Heart School - first in Roehampton, then in Woldingham, Surrey,when the school moved. By the age of 14, she had decided she wanted to become a nun.

Aged 17, she accompanied her parents to India where her barrister father was to become a judge.

Two years later, another judge's daughter visiting India asked Dorothy if she would like to replace her as a secretary in the British Embassy in Chongqing in the southwestern province of Sichuan. Much to Dorothy's surprise, her parents allowed her to do so.

She spent 13 months in the town where Chiang Kai-shek, te president of free China, had established his Kuomintang government headquarters. She remembers typing the document that signed away British extra-territorial rights in China and the right for Britons to be tried in British rather than Chinese courts.

After returning to England in 1945, she did a secretarial course and then spent a year teaching at a Roman Catholic school in Tunbridge Wells. "I had always wanted to be a teacher," she said.

In 1947, at the age of 23, she joined the order of the Sacred Heart, founded 200 years ago by St Madeleine Sophie Barat during the French Revolution.

The order's raison d'etre was to promote education and social justice by educating the future wives of influential men and also the very poor. Fulfilling this vocation is how Sister Dorothy has spent most of her life.

After reading geography at St Anne's College, Oxford, she took a postgraduate teaching qualification at the order's Fenham College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

She spent a decade teaching geography at the Sacred Heart independent boarding school in Woldingham. Then, for 21 years, up until her retirement in 1989, she was principal of Digby Stuart College, the order's teacher training centre in Roehampton.

At the age of 75, she is as active as ever. As well as being chair of the Sixth Form College Employers Forum, which represents 106 English colleges in negotiations with employees, she is chair of governors at St Charles' Catholic Sixth Form College, north Kensington, chair of London University's Heythrop College and a governor of Christ the King Sixth Form College also in London.

She is also co-ordinator for Aids-related matters in the diocese of Southwark. A close friend of Cardinal Hume, the late Archbishop of Westminster, last year she was awarded the OBE for her services to education.

"I consider myself an educationist," she said. "I feel very strongly about the importance of education - especially about leadership in schools and colleges.

"That's where the secret of success lies. If you have a head of a school or college who is passionately interested in the welfare of each student and member of staff, who wants to find out what it is that is going to lead a boy or a girl, a young man or woman, to something worthwhile in future.

"I have a feeling that that is what is so often missing."

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