Nov 11

Donald Bell: English professional football's only VC

Posted by SoccerHistory

Donald Bell was the only English professional footballer to win the Victoria Cross during the First World War. This article offers detail on his sporting career, particularly during his time as a student in London, and his football career on his return to Yorkshire.

Donald Simpson Bell was born in Harrogate on 3 December 1890 and was educated locally, firstly at St Peter’s School before progressing to the local grammar school. He became a student teacher at Starbeck Council School, Harrogate, and in June 1908 gained a First Division Pass in the London Matriculation Examination, a qualification which enabled him to gain a place at Westminster College, a Methodist teacher training college based in central London, the following year. He was a promising sportsman in his school days and played football for Harrogate Christ Church from around 1905. By the time he moved to London he was already established in the line-up for Starbeck, who were initially members of the West Yorkshire League before progressing to the Yorkshire Combination.

The decision to study at Westminster, rather than, for example St John’s at York, seems to have been inspired partly be his religious beliefs – Westminster was the only Methodist teacher training college for men in the country, and as an active Methodist this would have appealed to him. Perhaps equally important was the fact that the college had developed a strong reputation for sporting success under the inspirational leadership of Leigh Smith, who had played cricket for Durham and was also a fine rugby union player. Smith had briefly taught at Harrogate College and it is likely that Bell would have been acquainted with him prior to his arrival in London.

Bell’s sporting career as a student is outlined in some detail both in the pages of the college magazine, The Westminsterian, and in the programmes and cuttings which appear in the college principal’s log book. In his two years at Westminster he was a member of the soccer, rugby, athletics and cricket teams, and captained the athletics team to victory in the Inter Collegiate Shield in 1911. At soccer it was said, “The robustness of Mr. Bell (its potentialities only, were often by way of warning to an opposition) … was a very large item in contribution towards the team’s success.” (The Westminsterian, July 1911) His contribution to the rugby union side was equally valued: “Of the forwards Bell is the most prominent. He scored in nearly every match. Two or three men were told off to watch him.” (The Westminsterian, March 1910)

In the 1909-10 season he registered nine tries for the rugby team. A tremendous all-round athlete, he represented the college at 100 yards, 440 yards and putting the weight [shot put] and in the inter-year sports at Westminster he also took part in the high jump and long jump. Although a big man, he had great pace and at the 1911 Inter Collegiate Sports he won his 100 yards heat in 10.6 seconds, only to finish third in the final. He is described as “one of the best all-round athletes that Westminster has ever produced” in the history of the college (FC Pritchard, The Story of Westminster College 1851-1951, London, 1951, p.125)

He appears to have signed for Crystal Palace when he first went to London but made no appearances for either the first or reserve teams, most likely due to his busy schedule at college. During the holiday periods he returned home, turning out occasionally for both Starbeck and Knaresborough (members of the Northern League).

After passing the London University Intermediate Arts Examination in 1911, Bell returned to a teaching post at Starbeck Council School in Harrogate. His football career began to blossom and he signed amateur forms for Newcastle United, FA Cup finalists the previous season. On signing he was described as “a tall, strapping amateur who has seen service with Leeds Reserves and one of the London Colleges.” I have yet to ascertain the connection with Leeds City. However, although he played in three of the Magpies’ 1911-12 pre-season trial matches he made just a handful of appearances for the reserve team that season. The reason for this was that he had also signed for Bishop Auckland, Northern League members and FA Amateur Cup runners-up the previous season. His first appearance for the Bishops came against West Auckland in a Durham Benevolent Bowl fixture on 23 September 1911 and despite the step-up from college football he impressed, his performances being described as “superb” (versus Spennymoor United, 14 October) and “brilliant” (versus Hartlepools United, 16 December). His career with the Bishops ended after they were eliminated from the FA Amateur Cup by Stockton in January 1912.

Shortly afterwards he moved back to the Yorkshire Combination, signing for Mirfield United, again as an amateur. The Mirfield team mostly consisted of semi-professional players, but they were enjoying considerable success and Bell went on to gain some consolation for missing out on honours in the North East. He was a member of the side that defeated Halifax Town to win the West Riding Junior Cup in April and also featured in the team that lost out to Bradford City reserves in the Bradford Charity Cup final. Mirfield eventually folded shortly before the outbreak of war, as much a result of the growing success of Huddersfield Town as any other factor.

In October 1912 Bell signed for Bradford Park Avenue, initially joining as an amateur before switching to become a part-time professional. He made his debut for the reserves in a Bradford Charity Cup fixture against Morley at the end of October As a schoolmaster he was restricted from playing in term-time midweek matches, but otherwise was fully available. His manager, Tom Maley, was himself a former schoolteacher and had been headmaster of a Glasgow school before taking over at Park Avenue.

On 16 April 1912 he made his bow in the Football League when he deputised at left-back against Wolves at Park Avenue and the following autumn he enjoyed a brief run of four consecutive appearances in the line-up. To begin with he looked comfortable in the right-back position: “The defence all round was steady and resolute. Bell’s tackling was good throughout, and his height and weight make him an admirable defender. With more experience of Second League football he should attain yet greater skill, and he plays the clean, robust game which it is always a delight to see.” (Yorkshire Sports, 25 October 1913) After three consecutive wins, Bell, who stood 6 foot tall, came up against the diminutive Wolves winger Sammy Brooks and was found lacking. Although he later recovered his poise, Bradford lost and Brooks scored the winner. This was to be his last first-team appearance for he was unable to break into Park Avenue’s line-up for the remainder of the 1913-14 season as they went on to clinch promotion to the First Division for the first time in the club’s history. Bell continued as a regular in the reserves and for 1914-15 was captain of the Midland League side. 

Shortly after the start of the 1914-15 season Donald Bell’s request to the Bradford directors to be released from his contract was granted and in November 1914 he enlisted in the West Yorkshire Regiment. By June 1915 he had risen to the rank of temporary second lieutenant and was now attached to the 9th battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment. From November 1915 he was stationed in France, although in June 1916 he returned home on leave to get married. Within days of his return he was back in action at the front as the Battle of the Somme commenced.

It was on 5 July 1916 that his act of bravery earned him the VC: “On the 5th July the Battalion made an attack on the German trenches, and almost immediately after leaving our own trenches came under heavy fire from a concealed machine-gun on our left flank. Seeing that the gun would hold up the attack, your son crept forward with two men and put the gun out of action with a bomb, which also knocked out the gun team. This was a most gallant act, and in my opinion it was entirely due to that our attack was completely successful. The Germans would not face our men's charge. Many were killed and over 140 prisoners taken, also two machine guns, and the position was carried.” (Letter from Lieutenant Colonel HG Holmes, 9th Yorkshire regiment to Mr & Mrs Bell, reproduced in Harrogate Herald, 26 July 1916) Five days later he was dead, once more leading a bombing party at Contalmaison against the German lines only to be mown down by gunfire. He was buried nearby and the spot became known as ‘Bell’s Redoubt’. It is something of a coincidence that the only other professional footballer to gain the VC, Willie Angus, played for Celtic who were managed by Willie Maley, brother of Park Avenue manager Tom Maley.

Donald Bell was a fine all-round athlete who blossomed as a sportsman during his two years at Westminster College. On his return to Yorkshire he showed signs of developing into a top class full back before the intervention of the war. An able leader of men (both as captain of his team and leader of his men at the front) he was also guided by his faith and he appears as a man very much in the tradition of the nineteenth century muscular Christians. He is quite rightly remembered for his bravery on the battlefield rather than his performances as a footballer, and is commemorated by a stained glass window in the chapel of Westminster College (now located in Oxford and part of Oxford Brookes University) and by a memorial at Bell’s Redoubt erected in 2000 and partly funded by the PFA, the Football Association and the Football League.

A longer version of this article appeared in issue 24 of Soccer History Magazine