Very occasionally the Club loses a member of iconic status, either because of his length of service and the contribution he made, or through his many years of membership, or a combination of the two. Peter Bell, who died in his 98th year in Winchester on 20th May 2016, was one such member. He was the last to have joined the Club before World War II (and to have rowed at Henley in the 1930s, albeit for his school and college), was elected Captain in two one-year spells after the War, and acted as a Joint Honorary Secretary for eight more, during which the Club’s centenary was celebrated. He was a member for 77 years, covering nearly half of the entire lifetime of the Club.
Robert Peter Mangin Bell was born on 11th September 1918, exactly two months before Armistice Day in the Great War. His father was the vicar of St Hilda’s, Darlington, and he went to Durham School, where he rowed in the First VIII in 1936 and 1937, and also played in the 1st Rugby XV. His first Henley was in 1937, when he rowed for the school in both the Visitors’ and the Wyfold Challenge Cups in what was the school’s first visit to the regatta.
He was awarded a Leavers’ Exhibition to read modern languages at Jesus College, Cambridge. He continued his rowing in a college boat club which had flourished under Steve Fairbairn and regularly entered senior events at Henley. He rowed in the Jesus Ladies’ Plate crew in 1938, and in the Grand in 1939. Successes at Cambridge included the Fairbairn Cup in his first term, and in 1939 in his second year winning the clinker division in the HORR and going Head in the Lents and Mays. He joined London in February 1939.
The onset of hostilities in World War II were to affect Peter’s plans next, as they did for so many others of his generation. During his third year at Jesus he was commissioned into the 21st Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery as a Lieutenant. After training in the UK, his unit was assigned to the North African campaign, but diverted en route to reinforce the Far East Garrison at Singapore, which itself fell to the Japanese invaders. Eventually he took part in the Java/Sumatra campaign of 1942, until the surrender of the Dutch and British forces. Prisoners of war were assigned either to the notorious Burma railway or, as in Peter’s case, to prison camps on mainland Japan. They travelled there in transport ships that were vulnerable to attack by US submarines, whose captains were unaware of the Allied personnel on board. He was fortunate to survive the journey and remained in Japan until the end of the War, returning to the UK via Canada and on board the Queen Mary.
Peter decided to take a ‘war degree’ and to start articles as a solicitor, joining the firm Collisons in Bedford Row (later Stone Buildings), where Archie Nisbet, Olympic silver medallist and later LRC Vice President, was a partner. Peter was quick to return to Putney. He was in the winning LRC HORR crews in 1949 and 1950 at the end of the early period of LRC domination of the event. He represented the Club at every Henley between 1947 and 1951. Weighing in at around 12 stone, and usually a stroke side man, he rowed in the Grand throughout these five years and also in the Stewards’ crews in 1950 and 1951. He was Captain of the Club in 1948 and again in 1950, the intervening year probably being one in which he saw his priority as being to complete his solicitor’s finals. He became a Life member in 1952.
There then followed eight years, 1953 to 1960, in which he was elected Joint Honorary Secretary of the Club. He shared the post with Terence Boyland until 1956 and then with John Tressidder. At this distance in time it is not known how they shared their duties but finances were undoubtedly tight in the post-war period. 1956 was nevertheless a busy year. This was when the Club celebrated its centenary, both commissioning the coaching launch, Casamajor (happily still in use today 63 years later under different ownership arrangements linked to LRC members), as well as the portrait by Cosmo Clark RA (which now hangs in the Long Room, and is featured on the front cover of the Club history). The Club’s annual dinner of that year, at Grocers’ Hall, also doubtless took up much of Peter’s time. We have much to be grateful for in the unstinting service he gave to the Club. Moreover, he added to his labours as Hon Secretary of the Head of the River Race, a post in which he is listed in the Almanacks from 1957 to 1966.
Subsequently, after a spell of coaching, Peter took up other water interests and became a keen sailor, moving his family down to Winchester in 1968. He retired as a partner in Collisons in 1982. His last visit to the club was in 2007 at the formal opening of what was in effect Stages I and II of the Club’s major redevelopment, launched after the turn of the century. Peter was kind enough to remember the Club in his will and his bequest has been added to the current appeal for the new gym and men’s changing rooms. This is effectively Stage III. For someone who had to live with the infamous zinc troughs (instead of showers) and the elderly changing room, Peter would have been so pleased to see the huge investment nearing completion, taking the Club from strength to strength.
The family’s connections with the Club live on through his son Aidan, who joined whilst at school in 1985, and is a Non-Rowing member now based in Bristol. Another son, Simon, is a past member. Peter’s elder brother, J R N (Dick) Bell, a Country member from 1948 for 30 years, used to officiate at regattas on the Tyne.