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Daphne Bell MBE (1926 - 2006):
Teacher; college administrator

Daphne Bell throughout her career was in post as a music teacher, but she had a notable spare-time activity in the musical life of Ulster: practically single-handedly she founded, and for years directed, the Ulster College of Music in Belfast. (She was in fact officially Honorary Director and gave her services for no fee or other income.) 

She was born at St Stephen’s Green, Dublin. Her father, an auctioneer, and mother were Quakers; this being so, Daphne was sent as a boarder to Friends’ School, Lisburn, County Antrim. Rather than pursue a career as an executant musician, she became a teacher, first at schools – Armagh Girls’ High School, Friends’ School, and Ashfield Girls High School in east Belfast. At Ashfield, she insisted that prefects wear distinctive blue stockings, so that they would recognisable at a distance even in the foulest weather. In 1966 she took up a post as Lecturer at Stranmillis College, Belfast (the teacher training college, now Stranmillis University College). She remained there until retirement in 1984 as Senior Lecturer. This was in a real sense her “day job”, which she carried out until retirement in 1983. 

Meanwhile, evenings and weekends, she devoted her considerable energy and commitment to founding the Ulster College of Music. Her aim was to create a privately-funded centre for excellence in teaching music (not necessarily “classical” music). One of her first steps was to secure a distinguished patron, which she did: Dame Ruth Railton, the founder and music director for nearly 20 years of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Dame Ruth was described by Daphne Bell as a tremendous example and inspiration; Daphne described her as “The Great Dame Ruth”. Also from the beginning the College benefited from the support of the outstanding violinist and teacher Jaroslav Vanecek. One later associate of the College and neighbour of Daphne Bell near Queen’s University, described things this way: “There was an astonishing woman called Daphne Bell, who ran the Ulster College of Music on absolutely nothing — no grants, borrowed instruments, teachers whom she coaxed into working for an absolute pittance.” The teachers included members of the Ulster Orchestra, and others who would travel to Belfast especially to give lessons; no big fee, and either a “cross-channel” or a cross-border journey, not to mention the constant shadow of the Troubles. There was one compensation though: the accolade of being described as “visiting professors”.

Closely linked to the College was the Ulster Junior Orchestra, and similarly, some of the internationally-acclaimed musicians who were persuaded to come to Belfast, among them oboist Sidney Sutcliffe and clarinettist Jack Brymer. When she organised masterclasses, only the best would do; for an all-day session of individual masterclasses for oboe students, Evelyn Barbirolli, not just a distinguished instrumentalist herself but who was the wife of legendary conductor Sir John Barbirolli, was only too pleased to take them. Moreover, no hotel accommodation for these distinguished visitors: they were hosted in the homes of friends of the College and students' parents, who also functioned as transport providers. 

It is also worth pointing out that, in a province with a “segregated” schools system – that is, for whatever reasons, the school-age attend different schools effectively according to religion – the College was non-denominational in every sense. Daphne Bell if asked questions on this theme would dismiss them, explaining that being a Quaker she was neither protestant nor catholic, and was from Dublin so not really understand, and was not interested anyway as it had nothing to do with music. (Her Quaker background was not merely that; she was always very concerned for the bereaved which she said was how she was brought up. She occasionally attended Meeting, and legend has it that she did not always speak then.) The entrance test was tough on weeding out the tone-deaf; the only thing to be confessed to was undermotivation. There was no uniform of any kind except, for public performances such as the College Annual Recital, a pullover of a light blue colour, which she chose, she explained, as it was the only colour which could not offend anyone; she seemed rather baffled how important colours could be in Ulster. (She also seemed surprised when it was pointed out to her that blue watered silk was the colour of the Knights of St Patrick.) 

Daphne Bell was perpetually described as “larger than life”, a “big personality”, and such. She was addressed as “Miss Bell”, and while being allowed to address her as “Daphne” was something of a privilege, everyone referred to her as that anyway; and if not, as “Dame” Daphne, a reference to her presence more than to her MBE, awarded in 1989 for services to music in Ulster. Countless students still recall her weekly theory classes, in which the large room was filled with students busily (mostly) completing exercises in keys, scales, relative minors and other musical points. Her sartorial presence was also noteworthy; an energetic figure in cape and wide-brimmed hat was easily recognisable at any distance (as was her near-next-door neighbour Michael Barnes, Director of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s; though while both were dedicated to the Arts in their different ways, so were they recognisable figures round town, though for opposite sartorial reasons). She was even to make an appearance in a social column of a well-known London newspaper: at a music conference, delegates relaxed by playing table tennis. “Dame” Daphne, it was reported, was a formidable player, especially with one hand keeping her impressive headwear firmly in place. 

Latterly, certain developments in the organisation of education in Ulster effectively acted against Daphne Bell personally, though even she would have admitted that not everyone goes on forever, and indeed, she was beginning to suffer bouts of ill health, eventually having to leave her beloved Belfast home (full of various objets d’art which reflected, said friends, her father’s expertise) for a nursing home and latterly, hospital. At her committal were numerous of her former students and many others; music was performed by some of the many College “graduates” to have become musicians at the highest international levels. A close associate and friend said of her: “Though many acknowledged she could be a rather formidable presence, no-one doubted that she was motivated at all times by her concern for the well-being of the College, which she conceived as a place of learning, never an end of itself.” Daphne Bell was often asked the secret of her success; by musicians, parents (though as there were students of all ages this category was not unrestricted), examiners, dignitaries, whomever. Her stock reply was: “By surrounding myself with excellent people of course!” 

Born: 11 July 1926
Died: 12 March 2006
Richard Froggatt
News Letter 27.2.2006 (a personal reflection by Dr Joe McKee Principal, City of Belfast School of Music.); The Spectator 8.2009; private information;; personal knowledge