Over half a century ago, in a prisoner of war camp, one man’s love of languages and his passion for education established his lifelong commitment to international understanding.
The Frank Bell story
Frank Bell, the founder of the Bell Educational Trust, was taken prisoner in the Second World War in Java in 1942. During his imprisonment he was in five different Japanese prison camps. As soon as prisoners were settled in one camp, they were ordered to move to another. Under prison regulations prisoners were forbidden to teach, learn, compile or possess notes on any subject or meet in groups for discussion. Serious study was also impossible due to the frequent moves and confiscation of materials.
However, confronting desperate conditions in the camp, Frank Bell established an 'Undercover University'. He organised language classes in Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Italian and Russian, as well as history and public speaking. Lessons, timetables, vocabulary, grammar exercises and multilingual dictionaries were neatly and tightly written on every scrap of paper that could be found, from the backs of envelopes and soap wrappers to government forms and tobacco wrapping paper.
And so the secret 'Kuching University' was established in the camp, overcoming practical limitations, extreme hardships and the express prohibition that “prisoners of war are not allowed to teach or lecture others in any subject.”
After the war, Frank Bell returned to England, and worked for the University of Cambridge. He was convinced that international understanding and harmony could exist if people throughout the world understood each other through language. He founded the first Bell Language School in Cambridge, England in 1955 and later established the Bell Educational Trust in 1972. The Trust was founded with the aim of providing language education, mainly in English, for adult students and young learners; to train teachers and to offer language learning and teacher training experiences that promote international understanding and intercultural exchange. The Bell Foundation is part of, and governed by, the Bell Educational Trust.
The Frank Bell archive is held at the Imperial War Museum, London, and can be visited by appointment. The archive contains documents from the secret university at Kuching and includes photographs, dictionaries, certificates and records.