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Patricia Bell 1926 to 2012

Nigel Lutt shares his personal recollections of Patricia Bell, Bedfordshire's County Archivist, 1969-1986.

 Patricia Bell

I well remember my first encounter with Patricia: I had just graduated in 1982 and walked into the Record Office to ask if I could work as a volunteer. Kindly, generous, capricious, energetic and formidable, Patricia Bell was one of those people you never forget and working under her was never dull. She was always ready to encourage people to choose archives as a career, and I am not alone in my debt to her.

Patricia was born on 28th July 1926 to a farming family at Bierton, near Aylesbury, Bucks. After gaining an external degree with London University, she trained as an archivist at Hampshire Record Office, before moving to Bedford in 1956 as assistant to her distant cousin Joyce Godber, herself County Archivist from 1946. At that time the Record Office occupied cramped conditions in the Shire Hall, Bedford, but Joyce planned a larger repository in the new County (now Borough) Hall which opened in 1969. On Joyce's retirement Patricia was appointed her successor and supervised the move to the new premises.

Much important work was achieved under Patricia's watch: key archival collections arrived, including the estate papers of the Dukes of Bedford. Parish archives were surveyed on site and deposited in quantity, while many registers were transcribed and microfilmed. The first tentative attempts were made to use the County Council's main-frame computer to sort birth and baptism entries from the Methodist records.

Despite her background as an archivist Patricia was never keen on what she saw as bureaucracy for its own sake. 'I have done all your little forms,' ran a withering memorandum to a senior officer in what was then called Personnel. She was very down-to-earth, and although you would not want to cross her as a boss, she never stood on a misplaced sense of her self-importance. When the County Solicitor considered that she had been defamed by Harry Newman, a famously litigious farmer from Stagsden, and asked whether she wanted to go to law, her reply was on the lines of 'No, that's exactly what he wants'!

Patricia Bell's other interests were wide-ranging. She was a member of the Church of England (and a former elected lay member of the General Synod), and in 1986 she published Belief in Bedfordshire, a history of Christianity in the County. She was president and later patron of Bedfordshire Family History Society, and between 1988 and 1993 she was a Governor of the Harpur Trust. Patricia was also editor of the Bedfordshire Historical Record Society's publications (1977-1991) and compiled several volumes herself.

Patricia Bell's humanity and desire to help others is reflected in all her work and achievements, but she should perhaps be best remembered as a County Archivist who encouraged everyone to use archives. County Record Offices could be forbidding places back then - particularly if you were not an academic researcher - but Patricia Bell helped to break down the barriers and create Bedfordshire and Luton Archives & Records Service as we know it today.