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The search for Lt Col F.W. Bell VC: Part 2.

A chance contact in May 2005 put me in touch with Anthony Staunton, the current Editor of Sabretache, the journal that had published my original account of the search for Lieutenant Colonel Frederick William Bell VC in 1997. (3) It was suggested that I update the story.

In 1996, after I had submitted Fred's story for publication (Sabretache 1997:38/2:3-12) I had felt that my researches were complete. However, there was still the problem of the grave. In late August it became clear that the Royal British Legion had been successful in their efforts to find WW2 names to go on the local War memorial, 127 were eventually found. I thought another approach might be worthwhile. The outcome of this was that, with their great help, and especially that of Brigadier Joe Starling, the money for refurbishment was found just before Remembrance Sunday 1996. The BBC were sufficiently interested to make a short film for TV and an interview for radio. Tragically, Joe Starling died a few weeks later, after a long illness.

I had heard from the stonemason that the actual refurbishment would take place in a few weeks, in very early January 1997. I closed my folder on Fred, only to have to open it again a day or two later! Georgina Harvey, the BBC reporter who had set up the radio and TV interviews rang and said that the Australian press were interested in the story; could I please give her another interview and take her to the grave so that she could take some photos. A suitable date was made and she took her photos and made notes. I expressed some doubt about the chances of her piece ever being printed, but she seemed confident.

All went quiet again until lunch time on Sunday 15 December when a man rang our door bell and said that he was Barry Southgate and that he lived around the corner. He had just come back from Perth in Western Australia where, on Sunday 8 December in the WA Sunday Times, he had read an article by Georgina which described my efforts to find out about Fred. He had been fascinated with the story and wondered if I would like the appropriate page to keep, since he'd bought it all the way back with the object of letting me have it!

The paper carried a second piece, this time about Fred's medals and how they came to Australia via Canada. Apparently Fred's step-son had emigrated there and it was he who had sold it to the London dealer. Another piece of the jig-saw had fallen into place.

Christmas Eve bought an unexpected letter from Australia--from Edward Keenan a great grandson of Rosetta, one of Fred's aunts. He too gave me a copy of the article; he also thanked me deeply for my efforts with the grave!

As promised, in mid January 1997 the grave was neatly restored. Another twist came at about 8.30 am on 7 March 1997. Our phone rang and the voice at the other end said that he was a John Bissett, ringing from Perth in WA. His wife was a great niece of Fred; they too had seen the newspaper article and could I please tell them more! I sent them a copy of my story and gave them Edward Keenan's address, they didn't know of him. Later, in June 2000 on a European holiday, they visited us and saw the grave. They told me that a street had recently been named after Fred, Fred Bell Parade, in the Perth suburb of Victoria Park after new evidence revealed that Fred had lived there for a few months working as a local government employee. Edward Keenan died a couple of years later.

In October 1997, I deposited all my papers about Fred in the newly opened Empire and Commonwealth Museum housed in Isambard Kingdom Brunel's old (1830) railway station in Bristol.

A couple of years passed and, on 16 May 2001 the centenary of Fred's deed was honoured with a ceremony around his grave. I had alerted the Royal British Legion of this anniversary. They arranged, and paid for, a further refurbishment of the grave, which had become a little green since 1997. As well as the Legion's representatives, those present also included J. N. Tidmarsh, MBE, JP, the Lord Lieutenant of Bristol, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Phelps, Australian Army and Colonel Brian John, the head of the local branch of the Royal British Legion. Wider coverage had been given on 1 May by the Bristol Times, a weekly historical supplement to the Bristol Evening Post, which published a half page article on the results of my efforts to find out more about Fred.

The ceremony itself, conducted by Canon Roy Harrison, Chaplain to the Gloucestershire County branch of the Legion, consisted of a simple 30 minute grave-side service with flag bearers and a bugler from the Legion. Very dignified and appropriate. Fred would have been extremely proud. The sun even shone!</p> <pre> J. N. Tidmarsh, MBE JP, the Lord Lieutenant of Bristol, a Royal British Legion flag bearer, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Phelps, Australian Army, Colonel Brian John, the head of the local branch of the Royal British Legion and Canon Roy Harrison, Chaplain to the Gloucestershire County branch of the Legion. </pre> <p>Although I had long thought Fred's story to be complete, in August 2003 I was surprised, yet again, to receive an email from Michelle Cracklow in Canada, the granddaughter of George, Fred's stepson. It bought disturbing new revelations about Fred's later years. It read:</p>

<pre> Fred and his first wife Isabelle travelled the world together

during his war posting. I have some of her souvenirs she purchased

on her travels. I can't recall how she died but Fred then married my great grandmother Brenda Cracklow. They lived across the river from each other and were friends before Isabelle passed away. Brenda's first husband passed away of cancer in 1931. Brenda had had four children with George Agnew Cracklow named; Douglas, Cynthia, George, and Mary. George Agnew Cracklow's grave can be visited in Simmons Yat at the old church on the river. He was an architect and was the man who built Darklands in 1912. I was there in 1999 and George's grave was in very good condition. Brenda then married Fred and he moved in with her at Darklands. It was named Darklands because of all the trees surrounding the house. Mary, one of Brenda's children, resided with them. The rest of the children went off to war. My Grandfather George Junior, also known as Anthony, married my grandmother Emma Britland and they had two children, Barbara and Christopher. I know you don't really want the info on my family but there is a reason I am telling you this. Fred may have been a courageous man at some point but, once he married Brenda and retired, he was a whole different man. As Fred never had any of his own children, his medals where passed on to George Junior. My father Christopher and my Grandfather emigrated to Canada in 1972 with their families. My grandfather was diagnosed with cancer and discussed with my dad

that he would be the next to receive the medals. They both decided

that, since Fred was not a blood relative, and since Fred had done

something unspeakable to some family members, then our family did

not want to keep the medals as a reminder any longer. So they sold

the VC and the others in the late 1980's for $C14,000. I am not

sure of the date. Brenda lived her final days with her daughter

Mary, since they were both on their own. Mary died in 1997 and is

placed next to Brenda, who died in 1982, near Worcester. Fred spent

his last years in a hospital in Hereford for the mentally ill. He

was moved to a nearby hospital where he passed away. I am sorry if this becomes a shock to you after all the research you have done but, as you know history, is not always what is documented. This is why our family has not looked alter his grave and why the Medals were sold. Our family did give him a proper burial when he died. My father Christopher Cracklow still has the miniatures. Cynthia and Douglas are still alive and well and residing in England; however George (deceased 1990)and Mary (deceased 1997) have been gone some time now and dearly missed. I hope I have been of some help as to how he spent his retired years, why the VC was sold and how it came to Canada. If you have further questions please do not hesitate to ask. Sincerely, Michelle Cracklow </pre> <p>My medical background leads me to guess that Fred, who married Brenda Cracklow when he was 69, may well have suffered from Alzheimer's disease, known as 'senile dementia' at that time. This could have been responsible for his bizarre behaviour.

Although the above story seemed genuine, it did contain some discrepancies with known details. Fred's obituary in the Times said that he 'died at Bristol', not in Hereford; Fred's first wife was called Mabel Mackenzie Valentini, not Isabelle as given above. Further enquiries, however, revealed that a 'nearby hospital' was actually one nearer home in Bristol. 'Isabelle' was an error in the family memory of the name of Fred's first wife. She was always known as 'Belle', short for 'Mabel', and not 'Isabelle'.

In early September 2004 I was sent details of Fred's Death Certificate. He died in Stapleton Hospital, Bristol, which I know had previously been 'Stapleton Workhouse', later Manor Park Hospital and is currently called Blackberry Hill Hospital. His death was certified as due to 'arteriosclerosis'.

Later, in September 2003, Michelle (Stewart nee Cracklow) wrote again.</p>

<pre> This is the information I have gathered thus far. Fred and Brenda Cracklow (Illingworth) knew each other as friends in Symonds Yat. They lived across the river from one another. After Fred's wife passed away, Fred remarried to my great grandmother Brenda. They resided together in Darklands, the house my great grandfather built in 1912. They married on February 20, 1945. </pre> <p>Brenda had four children from her first marriage. Fred had no children of his own. Brenda's children are as follows:

* Mary Cracklow born March 30, 1913, deceased September 25,1997

* Douglas Cracklow born January 6, 1917

* George Anthony Cracklow born May 15, 1919 Deceased November 6, 1990

* Cynthia Cracklow born May 6, 1922

George Cracklow was my grandfather.

Fred and Brenda travelled to Australia together for a VC ceremony. They lived there for six months. Brenda tried to convince her children they should move there to live; however, they declined the invitation. Brenda and Fred returned home.

Fred was diagnosed with mental illness and was relocated to a mental health hospital in Hereford and was later moved to a closer hospital in Bristol to live out his remaining days. Fred passed away on 28 April 1954.

It was George Cracklow that inherited the medals on Fred's behalf.

George relocated to Canada in 1973 with his wife Emma (Britland) to join his son Christopher (my father) and daughter who had already relocated to Canada. George contracted cancer and discussed with Christopher that the medals would be passed on to him. They decided that they would sell the medals and contacted Fred's surviving relatives to offer it to them.

They declined the offer, apparently for lack of funds. George was then asked by the Museum to donate the VC. The Australian government eventually purchased the VC in the late 1980's for 14,000 Canadian dollars.

To this day my father still has the miniatures and I have enclosed a picture that he took of them today for you to see. I hope I have been of some help to you all. I have tried to stick to the facts and have left out some personal information to protect the privacy of some living relatives.

Later, the following photos (taken in 1946, when Fred was 71, before he and his wife, Brenda went to Australia) were sent to me by Michelle Stewart, nee Cracklow. They were taken by, and are currently owned by Emma Pauline Cracklow. The pictures included one of Brenda Bell, Barbara Cracklow and Fred Bell and one of George Cracklow, his daughter Barbara Cracklow and Fred Bell.

The miniatures were offered to the WA Museum, which originally agreed to buy them. Later the Museum changed its mind. The set was then likely to be auctioned some time in 2004. I later heard that the family now don't intend to sell.

With these clarifications, and the eventual fate of the miniatures, this must surely be the final chapter of Fred's life.

However, life is full of surprises and, on 11 July 2004, I had the following message from Peter Enlund, East Burwood, Victoria, Australia.</p>

<pre> You have cited the Duffields of Bicton book and I have direct links with the Bell family. I am first cousin five times removed to a Rosetta Bell, George's sister, b in 20 February 1812 in Greenwich.

Lydia and George had a daughter, also named Rosetta and so we can

see where the name comes from. George also has cousin, Rosetta

Rebecca Bell, who is my third great grand-aunt. Her grandfather,

Henry Trubshaw BELL b 1752 is my fifth great grandfather. I have been researching the Bell family for less than a year but have had great success in tracing it from afar. It was just yesterday that I received some research from the London Metropolitan Archives with the baptismal records of Henry Trubshaw BELL and a few of his relatives back to 1695. I had already ascertained that George Rutledge had married into the family and learned of his journeys to Australia. The fact that his George Bell accompanied him was a bolt out the blue as is the history that has been documented by the Duffields of South Australia. </pre> <p>I don't really expect anything else to turn up. However, several pictures of Fred's earlier life had been sent to me. These, and others, along with links to Fred's family tree and extracts from 'The Duffields of Bicton' can be seen in the full updated version of 'The Search for Fred Bell VC' at http://www.briggs

[Editor] Having received the original article in May 2005 James Briggs forwarded the following e-mail which was received in September 2005. Included with the e-mail were two photographs of Fred, one of which appears on the next page.
 Hi James

 My name is Robert Dethridge. I am a grand nephew of Fred Bell. My
 mother Betty (nee Bell) being one of Fred's brother Harry George
 Bell's children. Some years ago, I read our local Sunday Times
 story about your wonderful efforts in bringing Fred's resting
 place and history to light but I only happened across the full
 story on the internet this week. I was moved by the sheer effort
 and sincerity displayed in your research and the onflow of
 activity from it.

 I am contacting some of my other Bell related cousins and printing
 off copies of your story for those that may not have internet
 access. Only one of Fred's nieces, Pat Bell (86) presently
 survives. Pat would have met Fred but, unfortunately, she is
 suffers dementia.

 Myself, my sister and my cousins have some mementos of Fred but, in
 line with modern day relatives, exactly what we hold I cannot say.

 I personally have 2 faded and moth eaten photos of Fred in full
 officer's uniform, previously having rested in on the piano of his
 sister Eva Bell's house in Cottesloe (a house gifted to her by
 Fred) for about 65 years or so. One is signed, both around 1916.

 I still live in Cottesloe and recollect our Aunt Eva telling us
 stories about Fred and his brothers. I knew the Bell house in
 Cottesloe very well (my mother inherited it) and it is not the one
 in the photo behind the early shot of Fred on a pony.

 I also have an 1947 story from our lccal press with a photograph of
 Fred meeting the last Western Australian to win a VC. Story
 entitled "First Meets Last". An oil painting by his artistic
 sister, Luna, hangs on my lounge room wall as does a photo of his
 brother Bert.

 Fred was possibly Cottesloe's first real hero. His photograph hung
 on the main wall of City of Cottesloe council chambers for over 80
 years (it may still be there). The only other photograph on the
 same wall being of the King or Queen at the time.

(3) James C Briggs. The search for Lt-Col F W Bell VC, Sabretache, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2, April-June 1970, pp. 3-12. A .pdf copy of this article is available through INFORMIT or from the Editor. See James C Briggs website
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Author:Briggs, James C.
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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