||HOWARD ALEXANDER BELL
by Dr Norman Tricks, who succeeded Dr Bell at his Wrington practice
I knew of Dr Bell when I was a schoolboy, as I lived at Blagdon all through the war, and he was the doctor at Wrington and also the medical officer for the Home Guard, which I was in briefly at Blagdon.
After the war when I became a medical student and lived at Rowberrow I knew him a bit better, because he looked after my old grandmother who first of all lived at Blagdon and latterly at Shipham, and I saw him occasionally - he came to visit her, as he always did every week. When I qualified I went off to the Army, and then I practised in Bristol for 7 or 8 years, but I never really liked the practice in- town, and I always wanted to come out into the country.
I'd put out feelers that if anyone ever heard that Dr Bell was going to retire I'd like to know, and I was rung up by someone who said that, after the particularly bad Winter of '62-'63, Dr Bell was thinking of retiring, as he was then getting to the age of 72, so I said well, what was the best time to see him, and they said usually, if he could, he took half an hour in the afternoon after lunch to dig his garden. He had a busy day: he couldn't start his evening surgery till 6 o'clock and he never got finished till 8 or 9 at night, and afternoon in his garden was the most likely time to find him in.
So one afternoon I went out there at about 2.30, and there he was digging his garden, so I said to him,"Well, I hear you're thinking of retiring, and I'd be very interested in taking over your practice." He said, "Yes, when can you start: can you start tomorrow?"
I said I didn't really think I could, because I was a partner in the practice in Bristol and had to give at least a month's notice, but I'd come as soon as I could, if that was all right. I said I would have the problem that I would have no surgery, because the surgery was attached to his house, and also I would have nowhere to live. He said he would think about it, and so I went away.
The next day I received a short note from him which said: "Dear Tricks. Come as soon as you can. Yours Bell. PS. Thank God we've both got short names." I went out to see him again, him and his wife, and they both kindly said I could have the use of the surgery attached to their house for as long as I wanted. I still needed somewhere to live and eventually I found the Old Mill, which was falling down and we lived in that for four years, and I used the surgery attached to his house which was, considering it was built in 1936, quite modern for a GP's surgery of those times, because it consisted of a waiting room, a big consulting room and a big treatment room, which was quite unusual in those times, and it had a glorious outlook across the Mendips.
I was very happy there, and Mrs. Bell used to answer the phone for me and help with dressings and things like that (in those days we didn't have practice nurses or secretaries or anything like that) Dr Bell very kindly agreed to go round with me for the first month so that he could introduce me to people and show me his way of doing things.
In those days we had a branch surgery at Blagdon and we had surgeries there on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, beside morning surgeries every day of the week including Sundays at Wrington, and evening surgeries every evening except Friday and Sunday, so it was a fairly full life to manage single-handed.
Dr Bell always had Fridays off to go fishing at Blagdon, after a short surgery on Friday morning, which was for urgent cases only; everyone knew he was off on Friday, and people very rarely wanted attention on a Friday: if they did they had to ring Mrs. Bell who would drive up to Blagdon lake and blow her horn, whereupon he would come down in his car to find out what the trouble was, or they would have to ring Dr Grey at Langford, who would cover for him if need be. So people were very used to not coming on Fridays.
On the other hand there was always a full morning surgery on Saturdays at Wrington, then at Blagdon, then in the evening at Wrington again, at 6 o'clock, and this was very popular, this evening one; people from the outlying villages- of Butcombe, Burrington, Redhill and Rickford, would all get together and hire a taxi to come in to the surgery, and they'd all get fish and chips in Wrington.
Dr Bell took me round the practice for that first month, introducing me to, and telling me all about everybody. His surgery was a bit unusual, he had this big consulting room with the lovely bay windows overlooking the Mendips, and all the top of the desk, and all the couches and everything, were covered with boxes with patients' notes in, not in any particular order, as far as I could see, although the men were separated from the women, but he very rarely wrote anything on the notes.
He conducted his surgery most of the time standing up, leaning on the big counter top, which he dispensed from, with all the drugs on the top. He didn't let the patients sit down, because he said that if they sat down they would stay. He let them talk standing up for two or three minutes because, he said, "If you don't know what's wrong with them after two or three minutes, then you're no bloody good at all."
He had little cardboard pillboxes, and on the bottom he wrote hieroglyphics to show what the drug was, and on the top he wrote the instructions and the patient's name: whenever the patients came they had to bring their tablet boxes and bottles with them, so that he knew exactly what they were taking and didn't need to look up their notes.
If the patient needed examination he would put them into the big treatment room and Mrs. Bell would be summoned- she was often down the garden seeing to her hens - he would ring a bell at the window and she would come in and wash her hands, often with her boots on and wearing an old brown overall, and she would get the patient ready for examination or do any dressings that were needed. By this means he got through a vast amount of work: when I took over from him he had something over 2000 patients.
Wrington and the area round it were rapidly expanding at that time: one of the doctors in Chew Magna had just retired, so there were a lot of new patients coming in, and within a few months my list had gone well over 3,000 and I was doing it entirely on my own, including all the midwifery, some of that at Clevedon, some at Weston, and some at Lulsgate- quite a busy time!
Dr Bell didn't like anything to do with midwifery at all; he always tried to farm it out onto others, but I liked it so I took it on. He always said that he never went to any refresher courses nor (as far as I could make out) ever read any medical journals, but he seemed remarkably up-to-date in his treatments, once when I tried to ask him (he was very reticent in talking about anything) how he kept himself up-to-date he said that, when he sent patients off to a consultant for a second opinion, he always took great note of what they said in their letters, and what they said the latest treatment was, and he felt that that was enough to keep him going, and he was remarkable for his age and for the time.
He did quite a lot of visiting and he was very very good with old people- he wasn't terribly keen on younger women, and certainly not children. He didn't suffer fools gladly: he very rarely wrote on the notes, but sometimes he would write things on the back of the envelope like: "This is an impossible woman," or words to that effect- he was usually right!
He was very forward- even before the War - in that he advocated a high fibre diet when most people in those days were advocating a low fibre diet. He got the local bakery to make a high fibre loaf, which was called Dr Bell's loaf and Mrs. Bell used to get up early in the morning and ride her bicycle round the village to make sure the bakers were stocking this loaf, and also to make sure they were open, because she used to say she thought that the tradespeople should be open at seven.
They lived a very Spartan life- they had wooden floors with no carpets, only a few rugs, and they had very little heating. They had a vast garden- an acre, with a vegetable plot and a large number of fruit trees which Dr Bell had planted himself and which he pruned assiduously, and a lot of hens which Mrs. Bell kept. They had a vast retinue of staff- most of them part-time and fairly old, and a full-time cook, because Mrs. Bell couldn't stand cooking.
On Friday Mrs. Bell gave them their money in little brown envelopes, and on Wednesday afternoon she used to go to Weston to do the weekly shopping which was a great outing for her. I had great difficulty if I wanted pathology services, so we had a system whereby people would come in on Wednesday mornings for pathology tests and Mrs. Bell would drop them in at the hospital when she went in on Wednesday lunchtime.
Dr Bell was not socially inclined; he told me he had only once been out to a dinner party during the time he'd lived in Wrington; it had been four people and that was three too many, even though the other three were fishermen. He'd only been to Church once, and that was in the War when the King had commanded everybody to go to Church to pray for victory.
The Bells never entertained anyone in their house- or very occasionally the next-door neighbour Mr. Newsom used to come in and have a drink with them, but even that was rare. I never knew them to go out anywhere and they certainly would never come to us. Mrs. Bell was always generous - for people that she thought needed it -leaving things on their doorsteps- eggs and so on, and for some reason that I could never fathom she thought I liked crystallised ginger, so every week when she went to Weston she bought me some.
They were very generous, they wouldn't charge me rent for the surgery: I implored them, and in the end I insisted on paying something towards the electricity and telephone, but they were very loath to accept. When I was doing surgery at Dr Bell's often in the evenings it would often go from 6 till nearly 9, and if the waiting room was very crowded (there were no appointments in those days) he would go into the waiting room, look at them and say, " You, you and you, there's nothing wrong with you, go home and come another day," and let only one or two stay.
He seemed to know who was going to be ill and who really wasn't. They all obeyed, and went home, whoever they were- he seemed to have this dictatorial thing, and sometimes when I was very tired and he thought I'd had a long day and surgery was going on, he would march into the surgery when I was treating a patient and put a huge tumbler of whiskey on the desk and say: "Here, you'll need that, by the look of the ones out there." He could get away with it.
He himself always drank a mixture of half gin and half syrup BP. He used to sip it in the evenings, and he had a wind-up His Masters Voice gramophone with very screechy records which I could hear as I was doing evening surgery. He used to spend time tying flies and things. I can't ever remember them having a television, but I think they did listen to the wireless.
Of course what he was most famous for was fishing, and really this was because he conducted post- mortems on thousands of fish- trout that were caught at Blagdon lake (before the days of Chew obviously) to see what they were eating, and then he tied flies to resemble these creatures, and then he developed a method of fishing where you cast out and pulled in the lure very slowly, which was quite novel, and which resulted in people writing to him from all over the world about his methods.
He was very very well known for this- he liked certain places on the lake, particularly where there was an old ditch or something like that- there was a bush up at the east end of the south side where he liked to fish- it was called Bell's Bush, but he never referred to it as that, he always called it 'the bush' because he hated any publicity.
On a Friday he often had his tea there, and there were two sisters, Elsie Pearce and Sissy Tyler, who used to do the teas at the fishing hut, and they said he always used to have two boiled eggs as his favourite tea- mind you I should have thought he had eggs all the lime at home judging by the number of hens Mrs. Bell kept.
When he died The Field ran an obituary about how he'd revolutionized fishing, but he would have turned in his grave if he'd only known, because he hated any sort of publicity. Often on the end of letters from consultants to him about patients, if the consultant was a keen fisherman there would be a PS asking what sort of fly he thought that they should use at Blagdon - Greenwell’s Glory, or Grenadier or whatever it might be, and when he was on his rounds he would call in at the fishing hut to see what was going on, and maybe dissect some trout and see what was in them, and that's really why he was so famous- because of his fishing and fly tying.
What else can I tell you? He was mad keen on animals, particularly cats; he loved dogs as well, but he was very very fond of cats- if he went to visit someone, the first thing he would do was pick up their cats and play with them, and the cats all knew him and loved him, and the dogs: some people would send for him to look at their cat or dog if it was ill. Once I was asked to go and see to a tortoise that was ill- they rang up Mrs. Bell who didn't quite get the message it was a tortoise, she thought it was a patient, and passed the message on to me and I only found out when I got there.
Every summer Dr and Mrs. Bell always went off to the Spey, or maybe the Esk to fish, with the cook and some of the staff, and the dog, a terrier which was called Esk, I think. That's the only time they ever took off as far as I know. Mrs. Bell ran the household, and everything was for her dog, and her hens, which were never killed, they were always allowed to live to a ripe old age and die naturally. She refused to have a collar on her dog, and she used to take it with her in the car, and then she would let it out of the car and it would run down the lane and she would drive slowly behind it, so if another car came the other way she would hold the other car up while she stopped, opened her door, let the dog jump in then let the other car pass, so she was well known in the lanes.
She used to come up to Blagdon surgery on surgery days half an hour beforehand to make sure the oil stove in the surgery was lit, and she would take up all the medicines that had to go there to be dispensed. She had a bag called the Blagdon bag, and then she'd sit in the examination room there with the dog on the examination couch, so if you wanted to examine someone she had to lift the dog off the couch. She just loved coming there, she used to drive slowly back to Wrington afterwards through the back lanes with the dog running in front of her. She was very autocratic to the people in the village, as I said earlier, but, something which only came to light when Dr Bell was very ill and dying: a consultant came to see him (which they did in those days) and had a chat with Mrs. Bell, during which he discovered that she came from a certain part of Scotland which he knew a bit about. When she'd gone out he said to me: 'Do you know that Mrs. Bell can only be Lady So-and So? "because at the place she told me she comes from, there is only a castle, there is nothing else there."
Afterwards I spoke to Mrs Bell about it, and it turned out that it was true; her father was an Earl or some such rank, and she'd been brought up in this castle in Scotland, only taught by a very simple governess, never been to school, and that was why she could never spell or write properly. She'd wanted to be a nurse and her father forbade it, and so she ran away to become a nurse, and this was during the First World War, and they wouldn't take her for nursing because she was not educated enough, and, I believe, not old enough, but they would take you in for VD nursing, so she went in for that, and that's where she met Dr Bell, when he came back from the War; I think they met then.
She told me that her brother had run away and married some Frenchwoman, which shocked Mrs. Bell very much, and this Frenchwoman had run away with all the family money. In spite of that, when she died Mrs. Bell left over a million, which was a lot of money in those days - still is, and she left it all to an animal charity- cats' home or dogs' home or something like that.
I think I'm right in saying that he trained for medicine at Cambridge- he qualified with the conjoint degrees at London before the War, then went off to the War, and took a Cambridge degree after the War, but I'm not 100% sure of this; I know he served in the RAMC in the first War, and as I've said, he acted as medical officer to the Home Guard in the Second World War. One of his complaints was that he had the same names almost as Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, which he said was the bane of his life- he often wished he didn't have such a similar name.
I remember when I gave up the surgery in his house and went down to the new purpose- built surgery in Station Road, and put up a notice there saying that I was moving, and also one thanking Dr and Mrs. Bell for letting me use the surgery in their house for so many years, he was absolutely furious, he tore it down, said he didn't want any thanks for it, and he didn't want us to go, and he never visited the new surgery again.
Mrs. Bell came down occasionally and picked up the Blagdon bag in the mornings, but they were very upset, I suppose because they no longer saw the people coming to their house. Dr Bell never saw people very much, he never went out very much, he spent most of the time in his garden, although people used to use his garden as a sort of footpath through from School Road to Ropers Lane- he never minded people wandering about there- he was quite happy.
I think that's really about all I can tell you at the moment..... It has just come to me- I never heard anything about Dr Bell's own family, except the story that he apparently had one brother who got married late in life to a lady much younger than himself, and they went on the Queen Mary or the Queen Elizabeth or one of those ships to America for their honeymoon, and Dr Bell's brother died on the way.
So the young widow cabled Dr Bell and asked what she should do, and Dr Bell just cabled back: "Cremate and bring here." She didn't know quite what that meant, so she had him cremated in New York and came back with the ashes and came to stay with him. Dr Bell was horrified to find this relatively young person living with him and he never knew what to do with the ashes either- how he got rid of her I can't remember, but I do remember that the ashes were in an urn in the garage all the time, and many years after he hadn't done anything with them. That's all for now. Bye.
Recollections of Dr Bell by Valerie Yeoman
Dr Bell was handsome, gruff, straight to the point, he didn't suffer fools gladly, but he was always kindly. He had a cold bath every day. Dr and Mrs. Bell never washed their hair- they used to rub it with a clean towel every day.
There were no carpets or curtains in his house- he thought they harboured dust- and he always wore crepe- soled shoes, which squeaked on the highly polished floorboards. There was a wonderful smell in his house, because he used to "put up" all the medicines in there.
He walked to the top of Wrington Hill every day- so much slow walking, so much fast walking. He loved his garden, and he had his apple trees pruned and trained so that you could pick apples standing on the floor. Their dogs were always named after Scottish rivers. They never celebrated Christmas, only New Year.
Having been called out twice to see a neighbour's son, as he came out of the house he was heard to mutter: "What that child needs is Tantrum Tablets." When I came home from the nursing home with my first child, who weighed only 5lbs 12oz and was suffering from jaundice, Dr Bell paid us a visit. When he unwrapped her he burst out laughing. Asked why, he said that she reminded him of Gandhi, but it was said in a kindly way. He would often bring a bottle of whiskey or stout to elderly patients who couldn't have afforded it. When he visited at home he would pick up the family cat and toss it on the bed.