Monday, July 25, 2016

Fairy post #25 - Victorian Storytelling Guild History & Biography of Nell Bell

History Project - The Magic of Nell Bell


This post is longer than usual. It comprises two parts:

(i) Formation of The Storytelling Guild of Victoria (now Storytelling Australia Victoria).

(ii) Bio of the late Life Member Nell Bell, award-winning author, storyteller, mentor, mother, teacher, librarian, wise woman and first fairy tale storyteller of the world's first fairy shop, Wonderwings: a doyen of Australian storytelling.

(If printing, press "simplify" to condense layout & reduce page count.)

On your 90th birthday, Nell, we thank you with all our hearts, hair, minds, toes and tails.

By Louisa John-Krol

Nell Bell, doyen of storytelling

Formation of The Storytelling Guild:


According to one of our life members Gael Cresp, “Storytelling is an age old art, which met with a strong revival in industrialized countries earlier last century. In England and North America, libraries introduced regular storytelling sessions and this impetus was later reflected in Australia.”

On 16th October 1978 a group of people, all teachers or librarians, whose work brought them into frequent contact with children, met to discuss their concern that children were missing out on the oral tradition of storytelling, an important part of a child’s cultural heritage. They felt that children’s knowledge of nursery rhymes, fairy tales and other cultural icons, was in decline. Erica Thomas initiated the meeting. Other attendees were Virginia Ferguson, Philip Sydenham, Jacky Talbot and Barbara Tout. Life member Nell Bell recalls Montgomery Kelly (known as Monty) being present at this meeting as well as a Literature Conference at Frankston, where he and other storytellers inspired Nell with their performances. 

Erskine House, now Mantra Erskine beach resort
At Erskine House, Lorne, the idea of the Storytelling Guild surfaced. Nell, Monty and others fell in love with that venue. It was affordable, so they conceived the idea of an international storytelling conference for Australia that occurred there a couple of years later with attendees from around the world. Inspiring discussions about storytelling ensued, not only as a written mode but also as an oral tradition. 

On 29th November 1978, a public meeting occurred at the Learning Exchange Hall, Malvern. About forty people attended (teachers, librarians, actors, parents), forming a Storytelling Guild, electing an executive Committee of five, with Philip Sydenham as President and Virginia Ferguson as Vice President. The name “Storytelling Guild” was chosen because the group liked the idea of an organization modelled on the medieval guilds in which master craftsmen taught apprentices to care for the quality of their work and maintain the reputation of their craft. Aims were to:

1. Promote storytelling in the community by bringing together people from all sectors to share      experiences and stories.
2. Encourage people to tell stories and to develop their skills in the arts.
3. Produce a newsletter (that came to be entitled The Harper).
4. Produce a directory of storytellers.
5. Organise storytelling activities.

Western Australia pipped Victoria to the post, forming its Guild on 14th June 1978, a few months before Vic followed in November. Other guilds soon formed: New South Wales in 1980, South Australia in 1982, Tasmania in 1984, then Queensland and Australian Capital Territory in 1987. Both WA and Vic will celebrate their 40th anniversaries in 2018.

Montgomery Kelly recalls that two other key instigators of the Vic Storytelling Guild were Marie and Richard Turnbull. Marie, based in the Camberwell library system, learned her stories by heart. Philip Sydenham was a librarian at Pakenham and Narre Warren. Julie Halpin and Erica Thomas were the Guild when Monty came along in 1980.

For many years, in winter, the Victorian Guild held a weekend conference at Lorne, when members and visitors would attend lectures, workshops and of course, told stories far into the night. Attendees included Nell Bell, Anne E Stewart, Gael Cresp, Monty Kelly and Gillian Di Stefano. 

Our newsletter had its first issue in Winter 1979, featuring a Letter of Encouragement from Patricia Scott in Tasmania. According to Monty, the title The Harper came from the Dragon Riders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, for when harpers came to entertain the people, they knew songs, stories and news from other dragon holdings.



A separate article about the Guild’s choice of logo and its symbolism is beaming here.

The symbol of the harp, or lyre, which appeared on badges, letterhead and banners, referred to the Celtic bard and to the Greek musician Orpheus. 

There was also a membership application form. Membership, as now, was open to anyone interested in storytelling. Members ranged from parents, teachers and librarians to actors, writers and balladeers. Establishment of a constitution followed in 1981. 

During the 1990s, under leadership of such storytellers as Morgan Blackrose and Gil Di Stefano, regular evenings were held entitled The Storytelling Cafe, featuring “The Odd Spot” that encouraged interdisciplinary formats, such as dance, poetry, sandbox art, music or puppetry. There were also workshops, which included visits from overseas storytellers, e.g. Anne Pellowski from the United Nations, who was gathering stories for preservation. There were also links with New Zealand, South Africa, Russia, China, USA, England and Singapore.  A 2003 edition of The Harper acknowledges Arnold Zable as patron.

Each State guild had its own name, constitution, newsletter and program of activities. Although there has never been any central coordinating body, the guilds have exchanged newsletters and visits since their formative years, also holding National Conferences.  According to a “Guilds” article by Nell (Swag of Yarns 2002), the first national guild-to-guild storytelling conference was a joint Vic /ACT effort, “Across the Waves”, at Albury on the Hume Weir, followed by “Rainbow Gathering” WA, Sovereign Hill Vic, NSW in Sydney 1997, ACT Canberra 1999 and SA Adelaide 2001.

On 24th April 2006, Victoria’s Storytelling Guild became an incorporated non-profit association, and the Register of Incorporated Associations provided certification of such on 24th July 2012. By special resolution at a meeting on 4th March 2012, members voted to change the Guild’s name to Storytelling Australia Victoria (SAV). Life Member Gael Cresp, then Public Officer, certified this with Consumer Affairs on 27th March 2012. The end of SAV’s financial year is 31st October annually, with Annual General Meetings being held prior to 31st March in the following year.

Biographical tribute to Life Member Nell Bell:

Nell Bell - pic taken of projector image at her Memorial


"And there is wonder..."


Swag of Yarns, Summer 2005



A decade later, 29th July 2016, in the week of this article’s beam, our oldest surviving Life Member turns 90. Nell Bell is a founding member and former president of The Storytelling Guild of Victoria, as it was called throughout her presidency. 

Nell Bell's bushie grandfather didn’t talk much, but when he did, he told stories. There was also a book loving aunt, a raconteur cousin, and tramps who drank billy tea under a bridge; Nell would sneak off to listen to their yarns. She later explained that they were only called “tramps” while visiting cities and towns. Whenever they went bush, they became “swaggies”. 

Nell also enjoyed lots of poetry and classic Roman tales in school Readers. One of her favourite books was Ruth Park’s “The Muddle Headed Wombat”.


Above: 1st edition of "The Muddleheaded Wombat" by Ruth Park
Below: other front covers of the Australian children's classic






During the Great Depression, cinema was expensive. So Nell’s exposure to media was mostly radio, especially comedy, American Indian tales, and the Argonauts of Greece.

Nell Bell began her contribution to children’s literature and storytelling in 1942 when, as Assistant Matron of Ashfield Foundlings Home in Sydney, she introduced story time for 3–5 year olds. This story time became a regular session, which Nell conducted. Then while raising her own children she became a kindergarten teacher in Eltham. 

During the 1950’s, well known Australian writers such as David Malouf, David Martin, Frank Dalby Davidson and others would meet at Alan Marshall’s home in Caulfield. Nell walked in one evening while they were discussing violence in children’s literature. She shocked them by insisting,
“You’ve got to have danger and fear in children’s stories. How else are they going to learn about the real world?” 
Alan’s sister, Elsie McConnell, tried to coax Nell away to help with sandwiches, as the notables sought in vain to convince Nell that Little Red Riding Hood would be best without the wolf gobbling up grandma. Nell vehemently opposed them. Yet they invited her back for many more lively evenings with her hubby George, a friend of Alan. She won a lot, though they wouldn't admit it. Alan did share Nell’s love for children. 
“Always answer any letter a child writes”, he advised her. They also shared a dislike of bullying and discrimination. Alan’s story “Out of the Way, Mug” (published in the 70’s), proved a great resource.
Above anecdotes are from an article entitled “Nell Bell and Alan Marshall - A Special Love” (Swag of Yarns, Summer 1997).


Nell Bell on the cover of Swag of Yarns
Nell's interest in stories led her to further training: in 1975, as a librarian at Preston East Technical School, she taught Introduction to History of Literature and Books. In the same year she toured schools and libraries in China as part of an education program. After that year she also visited New Zealand and America. After qualifying for her Secondary Teachers Certificate, Nell went on to start a Children's Book Club and introduced students to literature via storytelling in the class room. She published an article entitled The Importance of Oral Literature in the Education Department magazine. 

In the 1980s, Nell obtained a Post Graduate Diploma in Children's Literature at Melbourne University, as well as a Graduate Diploma in Children's Literature at Toorak Teachers' College / Victoria College - Toorak campus.

As Librarian in Charge at Templestowe Technical School, Nell was part of a program that taught Understanding Literature to Year 11 & 12 students. Nell remembers that oral storytelling was in Year 12 exams “for a few glorious years”.

Partaking of the 1988 Bicentenary, Nell joined a delegation of Artists in Education sponsored by the Australian Federal Government and JF Kennedy Cultural Centre in Washington sent to America as representatives of Australia. Nell's focus was the use of oral literature in secondary schools and universities. 

Back in Australia, Nell conducted seminars in regional universities for mothers of new-born babies on the importance of literature and stories.

Mentorship was important in the Guild. Although it broadly embraced beginners, or listeners who weren’t performing, there was a sense of responsibility for passing on knowledge or skills. Nell fondly recalls that a mentor advised her not to wave her arms “like a demented goanna”. Her mentors included Montgomery Kelly (a founding Vic Guild member) and Julie Halpin. Monty’s style of sitting quietly suited Nell best. 

A literature professor, Stephen Shaw, from Seattle, USA, also inspired her.

Nell was the first storyteller to perform at Dromkeen and has been Artist in Residence introducing students to literature via storytelling at Methodist Ladies College, Richmond Girls High School and Presbyterian Ladies College. She has been a member of the Victorian Branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia and the Victorian Committee for UNICEF.

In 1995 Nell took a major role in developing students' skills for performances at St Martins, South Melbourne as part of AEDIS (Artists and Environment Designers in Schools). Later that year Nell's storytelling skills won her an invitation to participate in the launch of Children's Week at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Nell has always been quick to volunteer her services as a storyteller for the free children's concerts at national Australian storytelling conferences and has also volunteered as a storyteller at Camp Quality and Children's Hospital in Melbourne and Radio of the Air School in the Northern Territory.   She has also been involved in the Young Australians Best Book Awards (YABBA) and the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC). To quote The Harper (Newsletter of The Storytelling Guild of Vic, Autumn 1997): “Nell has a great love of people and a strong belief that story can show that all aspects of life are a continuing cycle to be celebrated and shared”.

Part of Nell’s contribution as a folklorist came into print with a Melbourne journal Swag of Yarns thanks to JB Rowley, who first connected with the Storytelling Guild in 1989. JB published some 30 volumes starting 1997, then seasonally between 1998 and 2006. For two of those years, 2002-2003, editors were Peter Dargin and Pat Dargin. Swag’s old site does not evoke the enjoyment felt at sliding that smooth magazine from its sheath, opening its pages and reading those columns, enshrining a wealth of folklore from many sources and times. Indeed Nell was acquainted with swaggies, outback workers and Chinese market gardeners, all of whom provided a wealth of tales.

Swag of Yarns, Summer 2005

Nell’s articles still stand up. They include “Crooked Mick” (Swag of Yarns, Summer 2000), an Australian folktale kept alive throughout the 20th century by the likes of Alan Marshall and Bill Wannan, about life on the Speewah with a larrikin born so long ago, “the Jenolan Caves were still wombat holes”. 

Then there is Nell’s original story “Bilby Saves Easter” (Swag of Yarns, Autumn 2001), complete with a helpful wombat who tries to keep warm and gets chocolate all over his furry bottom. 


Bilby by John Gould

Another particularly memorable article by Nell is her essay “Here Be Dragons” (Swag of Yarns, Winter 1998), comparing and contrasting dragons of various cultures, noting five types of Chinese dragons and giving due respect to The Lung, who, lionlike, brings peace, prosperity and justice. Of the Western dragons she touches on the ancient Greek belief in dragons being the outward form of inner knowledge, forming a bond of destiny (Telos, the toils of Fate), with the Milky Way as a place of immortality, where a dragon dies and is reborn. She also mentions the bearded or feathered serpent whose beard symbolises wisdom, with links to Osiris from Egyptian myth, Iguana the Fire God of the Mayans, the Rainbow Serpent of Australia, and Varuna of India. All these were once part of Gondwana. As plants, fossils and terrain are similar, so are (Nell contends), their myths.

In her interview “Thanks for the Memories” with Jenni Woodroffe (Swag of Yarns, Summer 2005), Nell remembers Nell Robb, a founding NSW guild member & friend, who died 2003, and told medieval tales. There’s the anecdote of a truckie who thanks Nell for bringing a love for books to his boyhood; now he dangles a book on a hook, where most of his mates would flout a scantily clad lady. Nearby rolls a column with a Lithuanian folktale that Nell has collected. As Nell recalls, JB’s Swag of Yarns and the Guild’s newsletter The Harper both “broadened our vision” as Australians.

In 2005, Nell Bell was awarded the Leila St John by the Children's Book Council of Australia, administered through the Children’s Book Council of Australia, for services to children's literature. According to reasons outlined on the nomination form, Nell Bell is defined by her generosity of spirit and her love for children. On Sunday, 27th February 2011, Nell’s daughters Susan and Bronwyn and members of the Storytelling Guild of Victoria accompanied Nell to be presented with her Leila St John Medal at Wattle Park Chalet in Surrey Hills.

Nell receiving her Leila St John Medal from CBCA


More recently, Nell participated in a project entitled Bridging The Gap Through Art. She was pictured in a local news report about this with a boy, sharing memorabilia with him, glasses perched on her pert nose, mouth in full fletch, clearly releasing a volley of words. The caption read: “Generation gaps don’t come much bigger than the gulf between elderly citizens in primary care and primary school students”.

Anne E Stewart and Louisa John-Krol recall how Nell mentored storytelling, which for Anne began in 1977; and for Louisa 1990 at Wonderwings Fairy Shop in Richmond. This venue was the first fairy shop in the world, and Nell Bell was its first storyteller. Proprietor was Anne Atkins (“the other fairy Annie”), though Anne E Stewart preferred the title “Gypsy”. Among its other pioneer fairy storytellers were Guild members Suzanne Sandow (Moth), Matteo and Mary-Lou Keaney. 

Some of these Wonderwings storytellers, such as Matteo and Moth, went on to serve as president or other committee roles in the Vic Guild. More about Wonderwings magic (Part I) and its circle of fairies is at the Victorian Fairy Tale Ring blog.


Wonderwings Fairy Shop, 1990's


Some of the ways in which Nell mentored us was in building our repertoire, sharing her writing in the form of books or essays, and fostering our interest in history, especially germane to folklore. For example, she was interested in how fairies sank from the status of powerful pagan elementals to tiny winged insects, a diminution that Puck bemoans in a tribute to Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Rudyard Kipling’s novel Puck of Pook’s Hill. We learned that it was the Elizabethans who first put wings on fairies, and it was during the Victorian age, as well as between the first and second World Wars, that fairies were tamed almost beyond recognition and banished to children’s nursery rhymes. 

Nell’s essay “Witch Stories in Children’s Literature”, 15th November 1982, cited such luminaries as folklorist Katherine Briggs (e.g. A Dictionary of Fairies), George MacDonald (The Princess and the Goblin, The Wise Woman, At the Back of the North Wind and other titles), in a Bibliography of two typed pages. Text is too faint to scan, but I've made photocopies. Nell explores three strands of witch types in fairy tales and folktales; namely, (i) wise woman / guide / healer / goddess; (ii) wicked witch whose evil comes into combat with a wise wizard; and (iii) a figure of ridicule. She contends that throughout the centuries across various cultures, witches have played a vital role in the psychological and sociological development of children (notwithstanding "children's literature" did not come into being as a literary genre until the early 19th century), delineating boundaries or conveying social mores, thus we cannot ignore messages in their portrayal.

Notably, Nell fostered cohesion in a performing arts industry that could be quite ruthless. She urged us to join the Guild, educating us on the need to gain permission to tell Aboriginal stories (unless they were already in the public domain from an appropriate indigenous source), and providing advice on ethical dealings with audience members, especially children. On this last point, a particularly memorable comment from Nell was:
“Never, ever promise a wish to a child. So many wand-waving fairies are wickedly irresponsible. What are you going to do if a kid asks for Mum and Dad to reunite? Or for their sick sibling to recover from cancer? Or a dead pet to wake up?”
In other words, Nell raised fairy storytelling out of the mire of vapid children’s entertainment and fostered our curiosity, knowledge and sensitivity.

In her final years, until her death in Spring 2016, Nell resided in Westgarth Aged Care Facility, Melbourne.

left to right: Louisa John-Krol, JB Rowley, Nell Bell, Anne E Stewart, 2014
“Seanachie, keeper of the old lore”. That’s what Anne E Stewart calls Nell Bell, her mentor of nearly four decades. For a detailed explanation of that term, please refer to my article “Lorekeeper - Seanachie / Shanachie” at the Victorian Fairy Tale Ring blog.

Information on Nell’s storytelling degree and storytelling in school curriculum is covered in report on the Guild blogspot re Leila St John Award here.

Thanks to the storytellers for your resources, 

June (JB) pointing at Louisa's cap, Nell in centre, & Anne top left

Update, November 2016: Nell Bell's Memorial took place at Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne, on 16th Nov 2016 shortly after her death. Her siblings, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren attended, among many other loving relatives, friends and storytellers.

Ronda Gault & Anne E Stewart at Nell's Memorial

June Barnes-Rowley (JB), storyteller, educator and author: http://jbthewriter.wordpress.com/

Report of our visit by Anne E. Stewart: http://www.anneestewart.com.au/news/nell-bell-seanachie

Report of our visit by Louisa John-Krol in the Victorian Fairy Tale Ring blog

Nell, Louisa, Annie and JB are also mentioned in Wikipedia

By Louisa John-Krol

Public Officer of Storytelling Australia Victoria (2014 - 2017)
Vice President of The Australian Fairy Tale Society (2016 - current)
Leader of Victoria's Fairy Tale Ring
Member of Writers Victoria, Athenaeum Library 
& The Monash Fairy Tale Salon


1 comment:

  1. Louisa, not only are you a fairy, you are an angel as well. I was going to visit Nell for her Birthday today but she is too tired after family events but I rang reception who are going to print off a copy of your article and give it to her. With so much much thanks for an article that I am sure will make my old friend very happy.MUch Love Anne E Stewart

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