Reminiscences of Ernest Bell

Reminiscences of Ernest Bell

As we are hearing a good deal just now about Mr. Ernest Bell, it has occurred to me that a few personal notes, from an old friend and fellow-worker, might have interest for readers. It will be understood that they have been jotted down quite casually, just as they occur, and with no pretence of precision.

My memory is bad, and I cannot recall the date or the occasion of our first meeting; but it must have been a good way back, for I find him mentioned as present at a committee meeting of the Humanitarian League in 1892, and for more than twenty years he acted as chairman and treasurer of that society. I think I may say there was a somewhat special link between E.B. and myself. Our age was almost exactly the same; our temperaments seemed to harmonise, not least in the matter of taking failure as a matter of course; certainly in all those years there was never a word of disagreement, which is not invariably the case in humanitarian societies.

At the weekly tea, which the League used to hold at a vegetarian restaurant, Bell was nearly always present, and his odd mixture of seriousness and humour—a very “dry” humour—was much enjoyed by those with whom he talked. Mr. Gandhi was sometimes one of the company; but whether he there made E.B.’s acquaintance I cannot remember. There were times, too, when Mr. Bell would look in at the office of the Humanitarian League, and walk with me, after office hours, down to Holbein House, where I had a flat; and it comes back to mind how once, as we were plodding along, Mr. Bernard Shaw passed us on his bicycle, and airily waved us a greeting. I guessed we should find him at the flat; for he used to be fond in those days of coming to play duets with my wife; and there, when we arrived, he was seated. He and Bell got on first rate; but I heard afterwards that Shaw’s earliest word to Mrs. Salt had been: “You and I must hold together; for that gloomy bigot, Bell, is on his way down here with H.S.S.” This of course was Shaw’s usual humbug; for there was never any one more free from bigotry than Bell.

But that there were some odd, delightfully odd, points about him, who that knew him will deny. He left a considerable sum of money; but it had to be admitted that his manner of dress did not give the impression of affluence. His friend Bertram Lloyd has told Mrs. Salt that E.B.’s clothes were “no worse” than mine; a calumny which I will not trouble to refute, as Lloyd himself has a story of how a kindly working-man, meeting Bell on the road, took out a copper, and with a cry of, “Here you are, Dad,” gave it to the astonished publisher.

His memory, too, was apt to serve him tricks, occasionally a little awkward ones for an unsuccessful writer like myself. For instance, when the Humanitarian League was coming to an end, it was arranged that, in lieu of a testimonial (which I disliked), a sum which they had in hand should be spent in printing a new edition of my “Animals’ Rights,” which Bell would publish, and hold for me. The prospect, you see, was a very pleasant one; I should, for once, be able to play the part of a generous author, and make free with a half-crown book. But when, after some considerable time had passed, the subject was mentioned, E.B. started, looked rather troubled, and explained that he had quite forgotten that the books did not belong to himself; in brief, he had already given them away. What could I do but beg him “not to mention it”? E.B. and I had a hearty laugh over this story. The scope of Bell’s work was wide; and it is to be regretted that when a memorial was proposed, no serious attempt was made to consult the general body of humanitarians, who might have suggested something worthy.

Henry S. Salt

Cruel Sports, June, 1934, p. 45