Beryle Bell (1932 – 2015)

Why Poppa? 1

Beryle Bell was an amazing and accomplished artist who has had exhibitions of her work in galleries around the country. At 15 years old she was the first civilian patient under Dr Guttmann in the spinal unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital and she was the first one to call him “Poppa”. Vivienne Gordon (Arts Co-ordinator) and Kristen Hart (Physiotherapist) visited Beryle Bell in August 2014 at her home studio to return some of her paintings, which she had lent to the National Spinal Injuries Centre (NSIC). She was happy to show her large collection of work and speak about her life story. Following is an outline of her life’s experiences and thoughts as told by Beryle herself. Enjoy!


Beryle was born in Folkestone in 1932 and was brought up in wartime being constantly bombed and shelled due to living near the coast. In 1946 she won a scholarship to Art School aged 14 years.

Later that year, Beryle was thrown from a motor cycle pillion into a rockery, as a result of an accident with an uninsured driver. She was taken to the local general hospital in Ashford, Kent where she was found to have sustained (amongst other injuries) a T6 comp spinal cord injury. Beryle was initially treated with morphine and quickly became addicted.  When her medical team decided it was time to go home (after 5 months) she was remedied of her addiction ‘cold turkey’ – a dreadful experience.

There was no rehabilitation for spinal cord injuries at this time so Beryle was sent home in her words “to die” without ever receiving any therapeutic input and returned home as a paraplegic on bed rest.  This had a huge effect on Beryle’s family (mum, dad and her sister) and she recalls that her injury almost pulled the family apart.

Beryle could not stand the effect her situation was having on her family and through a friend wrote to her neurosurgeon to request she be removed from the family home (now aged just 15 years). She was subsequently sent to Stoke Mandeville Hospital and became the first civilian patient treated in the spinal unit under Dr Guttmann.

The Spinal injuries unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital

On arrival to  the spinal injury ward (ward 4x) she found an untidy room filled with injured soldiers – some on bed rest, some up in wheelchairs – with clothing and kit hanging and strewn all over the room. She feared there had been a mistake and she had been sent to the wrong place.

Beryle’s first impression of Dr Guttmann was of a very angry and scary man. She was very scared of him and felt she must have done something very wrong  to make him so angry, but had no idea what it was.

She soon realised Dr Guttmann was not angry with her, but he was very upset and angry at the state Beryle had been left in.  She was 4 stone (normally 8 ½ stone) and covered in 13 pressure sores – through one of which, the bone could be seen. Her legs, now fixed in extension (bed shaped), required surgical intervention. Dr Guttmann had experience of the victims of incarceration from the 2nd World War and was angry that a British citizen could be left to develop into a similar state.

Dr Guttmann performed a regular ward round and was feared by all his patients.  On one occasion Beryle could not tolerate the gruff remarks and strict instructions any more, she summoned all her courage and screamed and shouted when he visited her.  She created such an outburst on the ward round that all his team were filled with quiet trepidation at his likely reaction.  Beryle recalls Dr Guttman very quietly and patiently told her “do not worry, do not be cheeky, everything would be OK”.  Beryle thought she had won and from that day forward Beryle and Dr Guttmann understood each other very well and were great friends.  Beryle later referred to him as Poppa – a name that has since stuck.  Dr Guttmann considered Beryle his surrogate daughter.

Beryle’s recovery included multiple skin grafting, surgery to her knees (to allow her to sit up) and nutrition to facilitate her weight gain. During this slow recovery Poppa Guttmann had her trained as an Occupational Therapist to assist with difficult patients. He also supervised her reading matter (i.e. from the ‘News of the World’ to ‘The Observer’), her hair styles and make-up!

Beryle’s family’s only means of getting to Stoke Mandeville Hospital was a long journey via steam train from Kent, through London to Aylesbury.  Her sister managed to visit every month along with her father, but her mother did not manage to visit as regularly.

Beryle’s art in the hospital

I continued my art training while in the hospital and Poppa inspected my work on every ward round – always with funny comments! Teachers were sent from High Wycombe Education Department to support me.”

Beryle would often play tricks on Guttmann when frustrated by his manner.  On one occasion he inspected her on a ward round while she was crocheting with mohair – she realised he was in ‘one of his moods’.  When he arrived at her bedside, he asked her what she was doing and she replied without looking at him “she was crocheting with mohair”, he asked “what was this mohair” and she replied “Mohair, you know, the hair of a ‘Mo’”.  He said no more and walked away bemused.  Later when Guttmann was awarded his OBE for services to SCI and Beryle considered him very puffed up and pleased with himself,  she drew a large  proud cockerel on a poster with a moustache and labelled it  ‘A Mo’ .  She then hung the poster from the pillar of her bed.  The ward staff tried to encourage her to take it down, for fear of making Dr Guttmann, angry but Beryle would not.  When Dr Guttmann arrived at her bedside, he noticed it and considered it for some moments then advised Beryle ‘the moustache is wrong – it looks more like a broom’ and walked away.

On another occasion the matron in charge of the ward became frustrated by Beryle’s art work strewn around her bed space and complained she was such a difficult patient and should not be involved with art on bed rest, but make a basket like every other patient instead.  So Beryle quietly and diligently (with a plan in mind) set about making the largest phallic shaped basket she could – that eventually would not fit under her bed.  When matron complained to Guttmann about Beryle and her ‘basket’ on the ward round, Dr Guttmann merely stated “why do you complain – you asked her for a basket, she has made you a basket” and walked off. (Beryle was very pleased!)

While in the hospital she also made all the Xmas decorations & witches on broom sticks for Halloween resulting in Poppa saying ” I won’t have spirits in the hospital!”

Beryle did some designs for a German model maker and made enough money to pay for her wheelchair. She also made a doll out of odd bits which was eventually bought by the daughter-in-law of Vice President Fairbanks (VP to Roosevelt). In 1963 she was invited to Indiana USA as a guest at her mansion which was quite an eye-opener showing ‘how the other half lives’.

The food

As a result of the war, the kitchen and serving staff were made up of refugees and immigrants and therefore did not speak or understand English. There was no way for patients and staff alike to request menu options or understand what was being served to them. Beryle was fed using her blue (children’s) ration book.

Beryle recalls the food was bland and tasteless and often it was difficult to even recognise exactly what was being served.  She vented her disdain in the ward comments book. Eventually after many entries into the comments book (that went unread), a 2 weekly menu in English was displayed in the ward and Beryle was eager to know what she had eaten the previous week.  She found that a main course she had eaten (meat pie) had actually been prune tart and the lumpy custard eaten after the same meal had actually been scrambled eggs!  The nurses and patients alike had not realised.

This was the last straw for Beryle and she set about writing a poem of complaint in the comments book.  She forgot about it until she was told the Hungarian cook had burst into Guttmann’s room, inconsolable with anger and flung the comments book at Guttmann.  Guttmann spent the evening reading the whole comments book of Beryle’s entries (laughing).  His only comment to Beryle the next day was to “be careful with the words she chose

Beryle was prescribed Stout and cream to enable her to gain weight.  The cream she drank with no accompaniment and the stout she saved up and gave to the injured service men in the next bed – she was understandably popular!

The military on the ward would also play tricks on Guttmann without him realising.  On every ward round he would expect to check the men’s’ therapeutic work – leather work (wallets) and craft work (bags).  After each inspection however the men would pass the same piece of work up the line of beds (without him noticing) so each was seen to have a high standard of work for him to view – this always tickled Beryle; she maintains he never knew.

Life after Stoke Mandeville

Beryle returned home from Stoke Mandeville Hospital on 2nd February 1954 to an inconvenient home which was dreadful.” I had no access to a toilet or water, I was unable to move round the house and my morale was very low.” However, her old Art School tutor had discovered her return and was of tremendous help in getting her back to Dover Art School to finish her training.

She was given a job as assistant to the Senior Lecturer but the Art School closed and became an Adult Education Centre. She was no longer salaried but paid hourly resulting in fewer hours. Beryle loved working with adults but still did children’s classes and they made a full-size giraffe called “Cynthia” which won an award in London. She also taught mentally handicapped teenagers pottery & painting and devised a teaching method which is still used in Kent.

Upon retirement she opened her own art class in the Village Hall close to where she lived, which continues today after 30 years and some still come to her house for advice. The class is well attended and the annual exhibition, held every October is very successful. During her retirement she was lucky enough to have a one-woman show in Athens, Greece, organized by the British Council.

Beryle has exhibited her work at the Royal Academy, The Mall Galleries, The Metropole and the Welsh Albany Gallery. She also published 2 instructional books for children by Search Press. She still paints today but sadly has developed Macular Degeneration and finds reading very difficult.

Beryle remembers the last time she saw Dr Guttmann on a visit she made back to Stoke Mandeville Hospital.  She ventured down to the sports stadium to meet him.  On seeing her he hugged her close to his stomach and proclaimed “my little girl has returned.” Beryle was now an adult but she would always be his little girl.

Beryle states that she “would never have achieved anything in my life without the love of my two sisters and some of the best and wonderful friends which include Dr Guttmann, Dr Walsh and Mr Michaelis.  All of whom have been a tremendous support, being both loving and caring and extremely loyal over the years.

Beryle – thoughts on her art and inspirations

What/who are the main artistic influences and inspirations for your artworks?

Many, my degree subject was the Dutch Italianists but I love Impressionists especially Pissarro and Sistal and the later work of Vlaminck. Henry Moore’s sculpture is astounding so working with clay, usually porcelain gives me great satisfaction. l also love primitive Medieval wood carvings.

What mediums/styles/techniques do you like to use?

Preferably oil for landscapes. Acrylic and pen for sketching. I’m not a great lover of pastels – but I could change! My greatest satisfaction is working in porcelain, but that sadly is no longer possible.

My main subject was, and is, landscape.

What difference has art made to your life?

All the difference in the world. I could paint myself anywhere I wanted to be. I spent months into years having surgery, so painting, designing things and making things saved my sanity – at least I think it did! Painting can be a great escape from reality – and very, very satisfying.

What would you say to others who are just thinking about doing some creative work?

Go for it! Most creative occupations are satisfying but very few artists have an easy job selling their work and finding employment in the field.

I’m told that actresses once trained, rely on a second occupation for when they are ‘resting’! The same goes for artists!

Have you got any encouraging quotes about your life as an artist – or as an artist with spinal injuries?

I was lucky in choosing a career in art before my accident, a career that could continue. Others are not so lucky. But there are still many branches to the art world:   painting, engraving, printing, pottery, dress-design & making, typography, sculpture………

Thought for the day – someone gave to me – it makes sense:

“Give me the serenity for the things |I cannot change

The courage to change the things I canAnd the wisdom to know the difference.”