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Mary Teston Luis Bell (1903–1979)

by Joyce Thomson

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with John Renison Bell

John Renison Bell (1889-1973) and Mary Teston Luis Bell (1903-1979), air force officers, were husband and wife. John was born on 25 May 1889 at Scottsdale, Tasmania, son of George Renison Bell, mining agent, and his wife Phoebe, née Cox. Educated at the Friends' High School, Hobart, he worked as a clerk and accountant in solicitors' offices at Devonport and Launceston. On 8 January 1915 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. After training as a signaller, he embarked for Egypt with reinforcements for the 12th Battalion; because he gave first-aid to fellow soldiers in the troop-ship, he was nicknamed 'Doc'.

Having seen action at Gallipoli soon after the first landings, he was evacuated to England on 20 August with enteric fever. Bell transferred to the Australian Flying Corps in April 1917. Commissioned as an observer in June, he proceeded to France two months later with No.3 Squadron, A.F.C. (No.69 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps). On 6 December, while artillery-ranging over Messines Ridge, Belgium, he shot down a German reconnaissance aircraft. In January 1918 he went to England and qualified as a pilot, rejoining his squadron in September. He was mentioned in dispatches and his appointment terminated in Hobart in July 1919. Bell was 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, with brown eyes and a slim build; quiet, courteous, but self-assured, he had a striking command of words.

Mary was born on 3 December 1903 at Launceston, Tasmania, daughter of Rowland Walker Luis Fernandes, a clerk from England, and his native-born wife Emma Dagmar, née Mahony, great-granddaughter of Jonathan Griffiths. Her parents separated in 1906. Educated at Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Launceston, and St Margaret's School, Devonport, at 14 she took a job with a Devonport solicitor to supplement her mother's income. Mary was a serious-looking and ambitious girl, scarcely five feet (153 cm) tall and interested in flying. She met John in 1919. Obtaining a commission in the Royal Australian Air Force on 30 August 1921, he served at Point Cook, Victoria, and at R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Melbourne. He married Mary on 19 March 1923 in St Andrew's Anglican Church, Brighton. In 1925 the Bells sailed for England. John attended the Royal Air Force Staff College, Andover, before carrying out liaison duties with the R.A.F. Mary learned to fly and gained a British private pilot's licence in April 1927.

Returning to Melbourne in February 1928, John was promoted squadron leader; next month Mary secured an Australian private pilot's licence. John resigned from the air force on 8 September 1929 to join the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd; he was to become its chief aviation officer in New South Wales. Mary qualified in December 1930 to hold a ground engineer's licence. By 1939 the Bells were living in Brisbane where John was Queensland manager of Airlines of Australia Ltd. As the threat of war grew, Mary (known as 'Paddy') assumed the leadership of some forty women undertaking instruction in aircraft maintenance at Archerfield aerodrome and formed the Women's Air Training Corps on 17 July 1939. Elected commander, she organized the voluntary corps on semi-military lines. John was mobilized in September and posted to the directorate of organization and staff duties at R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Melbourne. Next year he was promoted acting group captain and made director of organization.

In February 1940, as commandant, Mary established W.A.T.C. headquarters in Melbourne; she instituted branches in other States and pressed for the formation of a women's air force auxiliary. Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Burnett asked the Bells to draw up a preliminary plan for the employment of airwomen. Shortages of male ground-staff eventually led to the establishment of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force in February 1941. That month Mary was appointed staff officer (W.A.A.A.F. administration), with the rank of acting flight officer. Considered to be a 'socialite' and to lack managerial experience, she was overlooked for the post of director and resigned from the W.A.A.A.F. on 5 June. She rejoined the service in October 1942, worked in several directorates and resumed civilian life on 11 April 1945.

John had been appointed O.B.E. in 1943. He held acting air commodore's rank when he left the air force in October 1945. The Bells farmed in Victoria and later in Tasmania until 1968. John died on 22 August 1973 in Hobart and was buried in Mersey Vale Memorial Park cemetery, Spreyton; Mary died on 6 February 1979 at Ulverstone and was buried beside him; their daughter survived them.

Select Bibliography

  • H. N. Wrigley, The Battle Below (Syd, 1935)
  • S. Mann, The Girls Were Up There Too (Canb, 1986)
  • J. Thomson, The WAAAF in Wartime Australia (Melb, 1991)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Apr 1937, 4 June 1941, 1 Jan 1943
  • Mercury (Hobart), 24 Aug 1973
  • J. R. and M. T. Bell papers (privately held).

Citation details

Joyce Thomson, 'Bell, Mary Teston Luis (1903–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Fernandes, Mary

3 December, 1903
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia


6 February, 1979 (aged 75)
Ulverstone, Tasmania, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.