David BELL (1921-1992)

David Bell This Is Your Life

programme details...

  • Edition No: 48
  • Subject No: 48
  • Broadcast live: Mon 30 Dec 1957
  • Broadcast time: 7.50-8.20pm
  • Venue: BBC Television Theatre
  • Series: 3
  • Edition: 14

on the guest list...

  • Lt Douglas Holmes
  • Mrs Bell - mother
  • Bobbie Constable
  • Anne McMillan
  • Frederick Ripley
  • Robert Skeldon
  • Sandy Stewart
  • Francoise Rousselet
  • Jacqueline Dubosc
  • Bill Davidson
  • Dick Cain
  • Judith Cain
  • Bruce Cooper
  • Sybil - wife
  • David - son
  • Diana - daughter
  • Filmed tribute:
  • Sir Ian Fraser

production team...

  • Researchers: Nigel Ward, Ray Marler, Ronald Vivian
  • Writer: Nigel Ward
  • Director: unknown
  • Producer: T Leslie Jackson
related pages...

Military Life

saluting the armed forces

This Is Your Life by Eamonn Andrews

Weekend Magazine reports from behind-the-scenes

David Bell This Is Your Life

David Bell and guest Frederick Ripley with Eamonn Andrews on This Is Your Life

St Dunstan's Review January 1958


David Bell, MA (Edin), has been invited to serve on the Appeals Committee of the BBC Advisory Council (Scotland). The appointment takes effect from January 1st, 1958, for three years.

As many St Dunstaners will know, David was the subject of the BBC's television feature, This Is Your Life, on Monday, December 30th.

This programme always arouses a certain amount of controversy upon the question of good taste (the subject does not know that he is to appear on television, but is brought to the studio on some other pretext). The newspaper critics, however, were unanimous in praising David's bearing throughout it all. "Gay, serene and friendly," was how one writer put it.

The Independent 6 March 1992

Obituary: David Bell


David Bell, businessman and campaigner for the disabled, born Edinburgh 6 February 1921, married 1945 Sybil Page (one son, one daughter), died Haywards Heath Sussex 2 March 1992.

DAVID BELL was a charity worker, a disabled businessman and a worker for European reconciliation.

Born in Edinburgh in 1921, Bell was educated at Leith Academy and Edinburgh University, and was an apprentice draughtsman with the Edinburgh bus company SMT before the Second World War. He planned to study medicine and was a volunteer with St John's Ambulance (now St John Ambulance) when he was mobilised in August 1939 into the Royal Engineers and served in the Egyptian and Libyan campaigns.

In June 1942, while clearing mines before the Battle of Knightsbridge outside Tobruk, Bell sustained severe facial damage, complete loss of sight and lost both hands. Because of his St John's Ambulance training he was able to tell his rescuers what to do about his injuries and also how to take him back through the minefield. When he heard one of the assistants saying, "We'll never get this bastard back alive," he rallied and told him not to be so daft and to get on with it. He was evacuated to South Africa and did not regain consciousness until August. South African surgeons rebuilt an opposable thumb on the left hand and undertook plastic surgery on his face.

He returned to Britain in 1943, to the St Dunstan's rehabilitation unit at Church Stretton in Shropshire. There he met his wife Sybil. He was married in 1945 and returned to Edinburgh to start a small retail tobacco and confectionery business. He was able to run this with the aid of special equipment from St Dunstan's which he operated with his rebuilt left hand with astonishing speed and precision, handing out goods and change. King Farouk of Egypt, hearing of his story, sent a gift of 25,000 monogrammed Egyptian cigarettes to start the business.

The business expanded and moved to new premises. Bell joined the Edinburgh Merchant Company, the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce and, in 1950, started a degree at Edinburgh University. He graduated with an MA in 1952 and a B Comm in 1955. He continued to take an interest in the university as president of the Undergraduates Association and the Commerce Graduates Association (1965-67), and he sat on the business committee of Edinburgh University's council from 1980 to 1983.

During this time he also worked on behalf of the disabled and for this reason he was the subject of Eamonn Andrews' This Is Your Life programme in December 1957. He was a member of the Round Table and president of the 41 Club (1968); a member of the Disabled Advisory Committee; represented the disabled in local and regional hospital boards; an area representative of The British Limbless (BLESMA); Chair of St Dunstan's Double Handicap Committee; and worked for the National Federation of the Blind. He was in demand as a humorous and fluent speaker at meetings about the disabled (and about business and economics), organised fund-raisings and was a counsellor for the disabled. In 1972 he was appointed MBE.

Bell spoke French and German and through international contacts made while working with societies and for the disabled and ex-servicemen tried to promote post-war understanding. He continued to work and attend meetings despite failing health and in the mid-Eighties moved to Haywards Heath in Sussex.

David Bell was gregarious, a connoisseur of French wines, a bon viveur, with diverse interest in music (he played trombone), fishing, disabled sports and talking books.

The Times 11 March 1992

David Bell

David Bell, MBE, who was able to use his own experience of severe wartime injuries to benefit the disabled, died on March 2 aged 71. He was born in Edinburgh on February 6, 1921.

DAVID Bell practised courage and persistence in the face of misfortune which left him doubly disabled both blind and handless. His father was "an old contemptible" and had been taken prisoner in the Battle of the Somme. David Bell was educated at Leith Academy and before the war was an apprentice draughtsman although he was a St Andrew's ambulance volunteer and after the war intended to study medicine. After Munich, he tried to join 603 Squadron RAF but being in a reserve profession was rejected. He then wangled his way into the Royal Engineers and was in the First Field Squadron Royal Engineers from Tobruk to Benghazi. At the Battle of Knightsbridge he was clearing mines in outer defences to let guards and tanks out when a mine blew up in his face. He lost his sight, part of one arm from above the elbow, the other from above the wrist and was unconscious for two months.

Evacuated to South Africa he recovered and surgeons rebuilt his limbs to give him a residual grip in his left arm. But he had no sense of touch. General Smuts who visited the hospital was so impressed by David Bell's spirit that he presented him with his own Victory Pin.

Bell returned to England in 1943, to the St Dunstan's rehabilitation centre where he was taught how to type and took up the trombone. He intended to study languages and become an interpreter but his marriage to Miss Sybil Page, who was a volunteer with St Dunstan's, changed that plan and he decided to go into business. He returned to Edinburgh in 1946 to start a small shop. In this he was aided by St Dunstan's and King Farouk of Egypt. King Farouk had read Bell's story in a British newspaper and sent a gift of 25,000 monogrammed Egyptian cigarettes to help start the business. Bell was able to run the small tobacco and confectionery shop with the aid of special equipment from St Dunstan's allowing him to take money and give change. He manipulated this with startling speed and precision.

The business prospered and expanded but he decided to resume his education by going to Edinburgh University. Being handless he was unable to use braille but was helped by many student friends who read to him and composed lecture notes with him. He graduated with an MA in 1952 and a B.Comm in 1955. He continued to take an interest in the university as president of the undergraduates' association and the commerce graduates' association (1965-67) and he sat on the business committee of Edinburgh University's council from 1980-1983. He continued to work on behalf of the disabled during this time and was nominated to local and regional hospital boards. He was vice-president of the National Federation of the Blind and on the Scottish appeals board of the BBC. In December 1957 he was the subject of Eamonn Andrews' This Is Your Life.

He continued to campaign and work for the disabled and was active in the Round Table, setting up the Ex-Tablers Club (41 Club) in Edinburgh. His linguistic skills were much in evidence in international fund-raising and campaigning. He was the 41 Club's president from 1969-70 and lectured in French and German to ex-servicemen's organisations and business groups. He campaigned actively for European reconciliation and in 1972 was appointed MBE for his work for the disabled.

In the 1970s he continued to campaign but suffered increasingly poor health and for this reason moved in the mid-1980s to Haywards Heath to be near the St Dunstan's Blind Ex-Servicemen's Association. He was gregarious but was also a man who could not stand to hear his "nothings monstered." A bon viveur, he was an inspiration to many sighted as well as disabled people. He leaves a wife and two children.

St Dunstan's Review April 1992

Tribute to David Bell MBE, MA, B Comm

'I knew what had happened to me. I had no illusions about that. Major Townsend said: "Well, David, I am sorry to tell you that to save your life we have to remove your eyes so I am afraid you will never see again".'

These are the first words on the soundtrack of St Dunstan's film Partnership for Life. They were spoken by David Bell who died on March 2nd. Left unsaid was the fact that David also suffered the loss of both hands when a booby trap exploded as he was clearing mines in Libya in 1942. Later in the film David talked about and demonstrated some of the devices that enabled him to work and study, but it was an indomitable spirit which really achieved an outstanding career for this distinguished St Dunstaner.

David was born in Edinburgh in 1921 and was working as a draughtsman in 1938 awaiting University Entrance to embark on a medical career. War was looming and he volunteered for 603 Squadron, Royal Air Force, only to be turned down because he was in a reserved occupation. Instead, 'under false pretences' as he put it, he joined the Territorial Army. He served as a sapper in the 1st Field Squadron (Armoured Division), Royal Engineers and fought in the North African campaign with the 7th Armoured Division, the Desert Rats. He was wounded during the Battle of Knightsbridge, outside Tobruk.

He joined St Dunstan's in Tembani and eventually reached Church Stretton where, in the Orange Tree Café, he met Sybil who became his wife and supporter in all he achieved. They were married in 1945. After training, David became St Dunstan's first handless shopkeeper using equipment devised by our Research Department to handle change and dispense cigarettes.

The shop thrived and expanded. With staff to serve and handle stock, David supervised and managed the business. He sought new challenges and became another first – the first blind and handless student at Edinburgh University. With the help of his fellow students, who let him use their notes, and Sybil, who read for him, he studied English, economics, moral philosophy, psychology and social anthropology and was made Master of Arts in July 1952. He immediately embarked on a course for the degree of Bachelor of Commerce, studying accountancy, business methods, French, German and law. He received his degree in 1955.

David served the community in many ways. He was a Member of the Merchant Company of Edinburgh, a member of the Scottish Board of the BBC; the disabled representative on the Local and Regional Hospital Board; he served BLESMA as their representative on the Scottish Council of Social Service and was a member of the Ministry of Labour Disablement Advisory Committee. He also served as Vice-President of the National Federation of the Blind.

Attracted by the charitable schemes it operates, David joined Edinburgh Round Table in 1957 and worked hard as a rank and file member as well as becoming Area Councillor and Edinburgh's delegate to Conferences of the Round Table of Great Britain and Ireland. Tablers retire at 40 and when that time came David became Founder Chairman of Edinburgh Forty-One Club for ex-Tablers.

Once again he rose to high office. A natural linguist who spoke French, German and Russian, David attended international conferences in Europe, United States and Canada. In 1969 he became President of the Association of Ex-Tablers Clubs.

It was for his work for the community in so many fields that he was made a Member of the British Empire in the Birthday Honours in 1972. He had already received an accolade of another sort when, in 1957, he appeared on television's This Is Your Life.

Within St Dunstan's David was a leading light in the group of blind and handless St Dunstaners who will miss him sadly. His energy and initiative led to the exchange of visits with the blind and handless members of the German war-blinded organisation, Bund der Kriegsblinden Deutschland.

In association with Mrs Mary Marsden, David was instrumental in the ceremonial return of St Dunstaners to Church Stretton in 1987. He and Harry Preedy unveiled a plaque in the Parish Church which commemorated the kindness and friendship extended to St Dunstaners by the people of the town during the Second World War.

David won Sybil's love in the face of much competition in Church Stretton and he deeply appreciated all she did for him. Although he had never seen her, he told how people had described her to him as being a little like Judy Garland. He had original wit and spoke eloquently on special occasions. His humour could be self-deprecating as when he described arriving at Church Stretton, facing a new course and saying to himself: 'Because of my disability what can I do? Talk is the best thing – my tongue isn't disabled!'

Those who knew him will know that St Dunstan's has lost one of its outstanding characters but the loss for Sybil and her son and daughter, David and Diana, is immeasurably greater. We offer our sympathy to them and to their families.

Goodbye David

A personal tribute by Bill Griffiths

On my release from a Japanese PoW camp in Java, Indonesia, August 1945, I received a telegram from a Mr David Bell saying that although he was totally blind and handless he was enjoying a full and happy life and described his various activities.

That message gave me a very special kind of encouragement and hope which I have always appreciated.

I have come to know and understand David over the past 46 years. He had a quick and lively mind, was forthright and frank, always eager to help and was compassionate towards colleagues with difficulties, and possessed a warm sense of humour with a sharp wit that brought lots of laughter.

I shall be eternally grateful to David for his friendship. All the handless, and many other St Dunstaners, of course, will sorely miss David, and in saying goodbye to him, my heart and gratitude goes out to his loving and charming wife, Sybil.

A further tribute from Major C F Cooper MBE, Controller, Royal Engineers Association

I was very sorry to learn of the death of Mr David Bell. He was a man of enormous character and determination who overcame the most appalling physical handicaps to follow a career which must certainly have been the envy of most of those who knew him.

Not only does he deserve our heartfelt admiration, but the success which he achieved must also be a tribute to the work of St Dunstan's where he received the first vital treatment and training which built up, both physically and psychologically, a maimed and blinded soldier to take his place in the community and in which he became one of its leading and most respected members.

It is a life story which is an inspiration to us all.

Series 3 subjects

Albert Whelan | Colin Hodgkinson | Vera Lynn | Arthur Christiansen | John Logie Baird | Richard Carr-Gomm | Jack Train
Edith Powell | Anne Brusselmans | Norman Wisdom | Victor Silvester | Jack Petersen | Lucy Jane Dobson
David Bell | Matt Busby | Minnie Barnard | Gordon Steele | Louie Ramsay | Tubby Clayton | Daniel Angel
Anna Neagle | 'Dapper' Channon | Frederick Stone | Paul Field | Noel Purcell | Barbara Cartland
Harry Secombe | Archie Rowe | Humphrey Lyttelton | Francis Cammaerts | A E Matthews