Margaret Bell, “a Victorian with an open mind”

Today’s post is written for us by Sue James, History teacher and keeper of the Sutton High School archive which dates from 1884 to the present.   Sue has a particular interest in the contribution of women to the Great War and the effects of the War on their lives. She has also written a talk entitled ‘Mummy, what did you do in the War?’ which is based on the school magazines of 1914-1919.

Here at the project we very much expected to find girls from Sutton High School among our sitters, but it was a wonderful surprise to discover that we also had images of the school’s formidable Headmistress, Miss Margaret Bell.  Miss Bell visited Knights-Whittome’s studio in Sutton on at least two occasions, once during 1906 and then later in 1915.  Today Sue, who was able to confirm the identity of Miss Bell when we originally uncovered the plates, tells us more about this remarkable woman. Our thanks go to her for this wonderful insight.



Miss Bell, Photographed in 1906 by Knights-Whittome

Margaret Bell was born in Uppingham in Rutland, the eldest of six children of a local surgeon and physician, Thomas Bell and his wife, Louisa. Her father was also the medical officer for Uppingham School, a school which he himself attended as a boy. Miss Bell and her sister Alice were sent to a convent school in East Grinstead, St Margaret’s; unusually, the students were a mix of orphans, scholarship girls and the daughters of gentry. Miss Bell 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 Mathematics, 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.

The exterior of the school and the school hall when Margaret was here. You can see a balcony on the right of the photo of the hall –  this was in front of the headmistress’ office.

Miss Bell

An image from the Sutton High School archives

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.


Probably the greatest challenge that Miss Bell faced in her 20 years as headmistress was the Great War. 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.


Miss Bell, Photographed in 1915 by Knights-Whittome

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’ [whatever that was!] 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.

Sutton High School archive

It is difficult to tell whether Margaret’s middle name, Katharine, was spelt with an ,a’ or an ‘e’ as it differs from source to source. I have plumped for an ‘a’ as she signed herself that way in the 1911 census.

Find My Past has Margaret mentioned in all the census returns from 1871 (although in 1891 she is at Clewer, described as Mary K Bell and in 1939 she is at Battle, in the transcript as Marjorie Ball. I found both through her sister, Alice Mary).  They also have her teacher registration certificate.

I have recorded her death as being at Etchingham, as it says that in the school magazine but the registration district in Find My Past is Chichester which is miles away. We would need to order a certificate to get a definitive answer.

I’m sure there is more to discover about Margaret; for example, I think she went to Cheltenham Ladies College but I would need to approach the school to find that out.

6 thoughts on “Margaret Bell, “a Victorian with an open mind”

  1. Another brilliant post showing how much historical detail can arise from a photographic archive. Last week the Project Officer for the Past on Glass, came to address the Archives and Artefacts Study Network (A2SN) Annual Conference at Sir Richard Arkwright’s Cromford Mill, Derbyshire. The delegates were delighted with her presentation which showed her enthusiasm, expertise and commitment.


    • You are too kind Keith. I am glad to have been invited to speak. Thank you for your support of our work.
      This post is just one example of how important these kinds of archival records can be as historical sources. Our plates have certainly sparked some fascinating research from a very wide network of interested parties. In this case, we were able to provide Sutton High School with some photographs of Miss Bell that they had never seen before, pictured at a much younger age than those held in their own collections. This kind of collaboration is a mutually beneficial exercise for all parties.


  2. “Bumble Puppy” – an early form of pinball machine I think! or a bit like mini skittles? Have so enjoyed this ‘Past on Glass’ series, thanks to all involved for such an interesting project


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