Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Barbara Bell (1870–1957)

by Ann R. Shorten

This article was published:

Barbara Bell (1870-1957), Catholic educationist, was born on 26 July 1870 in Dublin, third child of Hamilton Bell, well-known teacher and a member of the Irish National Council of Education, and his wife Bridget, née Funcheon. After education by the Dominican nuns in Dublin and, later, in Belgium, she taught in Holland with the Ursuline nuns. In June 1895 at Cambridge, England, she passed the examination in theory, history and practice of education conducted by the Teachers' Training Syndicate. Shortly afterwards she was offered a position in Egypt; but then Mother Gonzaga Barry of Loreto Abbey, Ballarat, Victoria, invited her to assist in the training of teachers for the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Barbara telegraphed her father for advice. His reply was: 'Australia, unquestionably'.

She sailed in November 1895, intending to stay two years. Initially she worked with the Loreto Sisters at Ballarat, and later at Loreto convents elsewhere. In 1899 Bishop Delaney of Hobart invited her to Tasmania; there she worked in the convent schools of the Sisters of Mercy, lecturing, demonstrating teaching methods and advising on school organization. In 1901-04, at the invitation of Archbishop Carr of Melbourne, she provided courses of training for the Sisters of Mercy, the Presentation Sisters and the Faithful Companions of Jesus at several Victorian convents. In December 1905 she accepted an appointment as mistress of studies and method at the new Central Catholic Training College. Under the guidance of the principal Mother Hilda Benson and Barbara Bell, who held her post until 1909, courses were established for a diploma in education and to prepare student-teachers for the registration qualifications of the Council of Public Instruction. Barbara was a member of the board of examiners of the Teachers' Registration Committee, set up under the 1905 Act. She also travelled to New Zealand where she conducted training courses at several convents and visited other teachers' colleges.

It is not known where Barbara Bell lived between 1910 and 1913 and what formal work, if any, she undertook. For a while she cared for her blind brother; early in 1913 after his death, she joined the Religious of the Sacred Heart in Sydney. Later that year she visited her family in Ireland, continuing her noviceship at Roehampton, England. In 1916 she taught in New Zealand at Timaru, where she also lectured on teaching methods for the nuns. Later, at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, she was in charge of the teacher-training of young nuns. Subsequently, she returned to Timaru, moving in 1935 to Wellington, and in 1947 to Auckland. She died at Remuera on 18 September 1957.

Barbara Bell's life-work in the training of Catholic women teachers was of particular significance. She introduced contemporary developments in the theory and practice of education in her courses, encouraged teachers to keep abreast of new developments, and urged critical adaptation of those ideas which seemed helpful and educative. She insisted upon thorough preparation of lessons and the maintenance of weekly records of work. Firm but always just as a teacher, she was noted for her ability to use varied methods, and to interest children in drama, poetry, music and art.

Her sister Mary Bridget (1874-1946), known as Molly, came to Australia about 1897 at the invitation of Bishop Gallagher of Goulburn, to conduct teacher-training courses at convents in Albury, Wagga, Goulburn, Yass and elsewhere. In February 1903 she joined the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Loreto Abbey, Ballarat. After her religious profession in June 1905, Mother M. Baptista continued to work in Loreto schools, at first in Victoria and later in Western Australia. Gentle, firm and thorough, she was considered a fine teacher, who took particular interest in younger children. After her retirement she taught music until prevented by ill health. She died in Perth on 3 October 1946.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Fogarty, Catholic Education in Australia 1806-1950, vol 2 (Melb, 1959)
  • K. D. Kane, Adventure in Faith (Melb, 1974)
  • Cambridge University Reporter, 1893-94, 1895-96
  • Advocate (Melbourne), 23 Dec 1905, 9 Feb 1907
  • Lettres Annuelles de la Société du Sacré Coeur de Jésus, 3, 11 (1957-59, Religious of the Sacred Heart, Braybrook, Victoria)
  • Central Catholic Training College, papers and correspondence, 1906-24 (Melbourne Diocesan Historial Commission Archives, Fitzroy)
  • Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary Archives (Loreto Abbey, Ballarat).

Citation details

Ann R. Shorten, 'Bell, Barbara (1870–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 July, 1870
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


3 October, 1957 (aged 87)
Remuera, New Zealand

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