An ex libris anecdote

It was early July 1930, and eleven-year-old Brisbane schoolboy, Jack Bell, had just been awarded a sixth edition copy of The Wonder Book of Aircraft for his entry in the City Hall Prize Essay competition.1Harry Golding (ed.), The Wonder Book of Aircraft (London: Ward, Lock & Co., Limited, 1927), Encountering this same bruised book, ninety years later, left me wondering what course Jack Bell’s life might have taken, and what influence—if any—this prize book might have had?

When officially opened in early April 1930 Brisbane’s newly completed City Hall became the state’s tallest building. Thousands visited the capital in the months following to see this imposing structure, the Lord Mayor also inviting schoolchildren to submit their written impressions to a council-funded prize essay competition.

Museum of Brisbane collection

The son of a Scottish carter, young Jack Hunter Bell was living with his parents and two younger siblings at 39 Gallway Street, Windsor when he received his essay prize. Like many other titles in the Wonder Book series, the cover of Jack’s book was consumed with a dramatic illustration calculated to reinforce the notion of British aerial leadership. The cover of Jack’s sixth edition featured a state-of-the-art airliner, an Armstrong Whitworth Argosy. Guided by a navigational light beam it is depicted hurtling through the night sky with its cargo of passengers, silhouetted by internal cabin lights, seemingly oblivious to the noise, the darkness, or the drama that surrounds them. What primary-school child would not have been captivated by such imagery, or the book’s 256 pages of ranging narrative (supplemented by 12 additional colour plates)?

This was aviation’s golden age, a time when the aerial exploits of Australians, and Queenslanders, were being routinely lauded both nationally, and internationally. Charles Kingsford Smith’s famous Southern Cross had flown the Atlantic in late June that same year, and a month earlier Amy Johnson had landed at Brisbane’s Eagle Farm airport—becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. For many however, the hardships wrought by the economic depression of the early 1930s would postpone, if not diminish their sanguine hopes of also taking to the skies.

(BELL JACK HUNTER : Service Number – 404390, NAA: A9300, BELL J H, ID 5380745).

While Jack Bell did eventually get to fly, it was probably not the career his younger self had imagined. After leaving school he began working in Brisbane as a despatch clerk and surgical instrument salesman with the Taylors Elliott Veterinary Company. In mid-August 1940 however, just seven months after Britain had declared war with Germany, he voluntarily enlisted for military service. Whereas his younger brother and father had both donned khaki (i.e., Army) uniforms, Jack elected instead to wear Air Force blues. Re-mustering as a Wireless Air Gunner, he was granted a commission in May 1941 at the same time he was posted overseas. Following seven months of initial training in Canada, flying in Fairey Battle (No.3 BAGS, Manitoba) and Noorduyn Norseman (No.2 WAGS, Calgary) aircraft, he received his first operational posting. This involved flying 9 Squadron (RAF) Wellington bombers from RAF Honington in Suffolk. Scarcely two months later, he received another posting, this time to No. 37 Squadron at RAF Shallufa in Egypt, just a short distance from the famous Suez Canal.

Jack’s war was fought mostly here, in the Middle East. During the following year he completed almost two operational tours, “consistently show[ing] the greatest devotion to duty and enthusiasm for his work,” during “many long distance operational sorties including attacks on targets in France, Germany, Italy, Cyrenaica, Create, Tripolitania, Sicily and the Dodecanese.”2BELL JACK HUNTER : Service Number – 404390, NAA: NAA: A9300, BELL J H, ID 5380745. His war was typical of that experienced by others flying combat missions then, not least because of the abruptness with which it ended. Paradoxically, it was a non-operational landing accident on 13 July 1942 which ended his shooting war, and also earned him a Distinguished Flying Medal.3The London Gazette, 19 January 1943, Supplement 35873, 438, Although injured along with several other crew members, he managed to escape after the aircraft he was aboard collided at Adir (Palestine) with another stationary Wellington. Both his pilot and co-pilot were killed in the ensuring conflagration.

Reference: AIR 81/16592, U.K. National Archives (Kew).

Ordered to return to Australia he spent the next two years instructing in both Queensland and South Australia. For a brief time though, in September 1943, he was attached to No. 71 Squadron (RAAF) flying coastal patrols along the east Australian seaboard in Avro Ansons.

Flying Officer Jack Bell left the RAAF in early September 1945 with 633 flying hours in his logbook, almost half that time accumulated during combat operations. He joined more than 160,000 Air Force personnel who also discharged in the months immediately following the war’s end. He left with “an impeccable” conduct record, his commanding officer having also described him then as “somewhat of a humourist.”4BELL JACK HUNTER. Aside from these few insights, little else has been learned of the personality that was Jack Hunter Bell. This outline has revealed only the sketchy outline of a man’s life, leaving us to speculate still if The Wonders of Aircraft might have had any influence. Perhaps it did help shape Jack’s decision to join the Air Force and perhaps too, like many of that generation, that experience proved more than enough. The war had caused a fundamental shift in how many regarded the aircraft:

People began to view the aeroplane not as a Messiah but rather as an ambivalent agent in human affairs, even as a menace … new tones of ambivalence, anxiety, and above all realism obtruded into the nation’s consciousness, replacing the tremendous optimism and hope [previously] invested in flight during the inter-war years.5Joseph J. Corn, The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation, 1900-1950, 65,

We have yet to discover what post-war involvement he had with aviation, if any. Electoral roles reveal only that he worked as a commercial traveller after the war, he and his wife, Gwenyth, living for a short time in Townsville (1954), along with their three children. The family eventually returned to live in Brisbane but tragically Jack died on 11 November 1979, aged sixty. He was buried at Tuncurry (NSW). Remarkably though, his 1930 prize book somehow survived as a cherished family possession, long enough for it to eventually find its way back into the Museum of Brisbane (MoB) collection co-located within the Brisbane City Hall.

Within the next few years MoB staff will likely begin their initial planning for a major exhibition to mark the City Hall centenary in 2030. We should expect such an exhibition to highlight, amongst other things, the important contributions of sculptor Daphne Mayo, architect Emil Sodersten, and long-serving Lord Mayor Clem Jones. As this story reveals however, City Hall has also profoundly influenced the lives of its many rate-paying citizens, often in ways that are not always news-worthy or self-evident. Maybe, between now and 2030, a MoB curator will stumble across Jack’s dog-eared copy of The Wonder Book. And, just maybe, he or she will recognize the significance of its long and circuitous journey, enough to want to ensure that Jack’s story, and his prize essay book, are also guaranteed a place in that centenary exhibition.