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Bell, Elizabeth Galloway (1911–2007)

by Christina Bell and Bill Ford

Elizabeth Bell was a member of the Buddhist Society of Victoria for more than 40 years, and its president for 20 years in the 1970s and 1980s, a time of great growth of the religion in Australia. She followed the Theravadan tradition, common in South-East Asia, which emphasises a monastic life of meditation as the way to reach enlightenment, but she was ecumenical in her acceptance of all forms of Buddhism.

She made the society's premises available to a Zen group, and in 1982 was on the committee that organised the Dalai Lama's first visit to Australia. In 1988 she was a delegate to the women's conference of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, and she was in demand as a speaker on Buddhism at schools and universities.

Bell's father, William Watson, was a ship's master who regularly visited Melbourne. He eventually brought his wife, Christina, from their home in Scotland to settle there in 1907. Elizabeth was born there, followed two years later by her brother, Thomas.

Elizabeth received her leaving certificate from Coburg High School in 1928, and then studied commercial subjects. In the 1930s she worked at the Primrose Pottery Shop, where she associated with artists and writers, and had her portrait painted by the Russian-born artist Danila Vassilieff.

She was a poet, too. When she was still young, her poems and stories were published on the children's page of the Herald and she later had poetry published in Angry Penguins, Melbourne University Magazine and Comment.

In 1945 Elizabeth was introduced to the jazz musician Graeme Bell and they married in 1946. She accompanied his band to Europe in 1947, and in 1950 their daughter, Christina, was born in England. When they returned to Australia the Bell band enjoyed great success. The marriage did not last and Graeme moved to Sydney and later remarried, but they remained good friends.

Bell searched for meaning for many years and found it when she heard a Burmese monk speak in 1963; she was struck by his certainty and calmness, two attributes with which she came to be closely associated. She became a committee member of the young Buddhist Society of Victoria in 1964.

She opened her home for meetings, meditations, occasional visits from Buddhist teachers, and cultural events. She always extended a warm welcome to overseas students and new arrivals, including many Sri Lankans who remember fondly that hers was one of the only faces of welcome and acceptance they saw.

Bell wrote for and eventually edited Metta, the newsletter of the Buddhist Federation of Australia, and was involved in the establishment of the Buddhist Council of Victoria. In 1999 she wrote a history of the Buddhist Society of Victoria, and was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for services to Buddhism. Characteristically, she was reluctant to take personal credit for the award.

Highly self-educated and with a passion for learning, she instilled in her family the values of thought and inquiry, as well as tolerance and compassion for all sentient beings. A natural consequence of her compassion was her adoption of abandoned animals, support for animal welfare agencies and, of course, vegetarianism. She was never happier than when a cat was sitting purring on her knee.

She was also a magnet for people who sought her calm counsel when they faced problems. Even when she was unwell, she was an empathic listener ready to do whatever she could to help others.

She was a gentle feminist who always believed that women should take their rightful place alongside men in all walks of life. A project dear to her heart was the establishment of a monastery for Buddhist nuns in Victoria. Fortunately she lived long enough to see her vision take shape.

In recent years Bell wrote a number of poems. She was thrilled to correspond with Les Murray and to see her poem Ern Malley's Sister published last year in Quadrant.

Her insight and calm acceptance towards the end of her life were assisted by her Buddhist beliefs and the mental strength developed through meditation.

Elizabeth Bell is survived by her daughter, Christina, her granddaughter, Fiona, and her son-in-law, Bill.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 2007

Citation details

Christina Bell and Bill Ford, 'Bell, Elizabeth Galloway (1911–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bell-elizabeth-galloway-15211/text26412, accessed 21 October 2018.

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