Shortly before I retired, in April, 1990, I was privileged to make the acquaintance of Tom
Russell, the President of No.3 Squadron Association. During the course of our conversation,
Tom asked me about my retirement plans and I told him how much my wife and I were
looking forward to our forthcoming holiday on Lord Howe & Norfolk Islands, later that year.
He mentioned that, at the time of his own visit to Norfolk Island, some years previously, he
had come across the grave of a former member of No.3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps,
when inspecting the historic cemetery at Kingston. My curiosity was thus aroused and I
resolved to locate the grave during my holiday and, perhaps, prepare a short ‘snippet’ for
publication in the Society Newsletter. Although I did not realise it at the time, that decision
would eventually lead to an extensive research programme, which revealed a great deal of
information about the man who lies buried there.
Norfolk’s Kingston cemetery is situated in one of the most scenic parts of what is, arguably,
the most beautiful island in the Southern Hemisphere. Surrounded by sandy beaches, a coral fringed lagoon and tall Norfolk pine trees, it contains the graves of many convicts, soldiers
and early inhabitants of the island. Understandably, it is a popular attraction for many of the
tourists who visit Norfolk each year, to enjoy its magnificent scenery and learn about its
colourful early history.
There are several historical museums on the island and we visited the largest of them, at
Kingston, soon after our arrival. Although I had very little information to offer, I took a ‘punt’
and asked the curator if she had any knowledge of the grave that I sought. She consulted the
museum’s extensive records and, within a few minutes, had identified the grave as that of
“Roy” Bell, a longtime resident of Norfolk, who had died in 1966. Furthermore, she was also
able to indicate its exact location in the cemetery; thus saving me a considerable amount of
time in searching for it.
Roy Bell’s grave is located in the ‘modern’ section of Kingston cemetery and is marked by a
simple headstone, to which is attached a small bronze plaque bearing the following
Once I had located the grave and photographed the headstone, my original intended ‘mission’
had been completed. By that time, however, I had become curious about Roy Bell’s life, both
as a civilian and in military service. I resolved, therefore, to try and find out as much as I
could about him, during the remainder of my time on the island. Over the next few days, I
spoke to several people, including the Secretary of the Norfolk Island Historical Society,
Mrs. Merval Hoare and Mr. Gil Hitch, of the island’s administrative staff, who were
particularly helpful in supplying me with detailed information and allowing me access to
records and other material that proved invaluable in my researches.
After my return to Sydney, I also sought the assistance of Society member, Alan Fraser, in
consulting the records at the Australian War Memorial and other Canberra-based sources, to
determine what information was available on Roy Bell’s service with the AFC. I am deeply
indebted to all of these people for the tolerance, kindness and generous support they gave to
Raoul (“Roy”) Sunday Bell was born on, and named after Sunday Island (also known as
Raoul Island): one of the Kermadec Group, located in the South Pacific Ocean, about 500
kms north of New Zealand. His date of birth was February 19th, 1882.
He lived there with his family (who appear to have been the island’s only inhabitants) and
during his childhood and ‘teen years, developed a keen interest in – and considerable
knowledge of – the large variety of sea shells and molluscs that were to be found along its
shoreline. His extensive collections were later studied by both the British and Australian
Museums. Around 1910, a hurricane caused considerable devastation to the island and it
became uninhabitable, so the family moved to New Zealand. It appears, however, that Roy
chose to move to Norfolk Island, which is in the same general area, but further west.
Just a couple of years earlier, Roy had been of considerable assistance to an expedition that
went to Sunday Island to study its bird and marine life. The leader of that expedition, Tom
Iredale, was greatly impressed by his knowledge and experience of natural science and, in
1911, recruited him to assist with a detailed study of bird and marine life on nearby Lord
Howe Island. It is logical to assume that this deep interest and detailed study of natural
species would have necessitated the establishment of extensive photographic records which,
at that time, also meant acquiring considerable experience in a range of practical
photographic techniques – there were no ‘One Hour Photo Labs’ around in those days!
Roy Bell did, in fact, become so proficient in the art and technique of photography that a
sizeable collection of his photographic prints, depicting plant and bird life, as well as scenic
views of both Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands is to be found in the Mitchell Library
He volunteered for service in the military forces on 11/11/1915. At that time he would have
been 33 years old. It is reported that he “was not in good health” at the time of his enlistment
and one is left to speculate how desperate the recruiting medicos had become at that stage of
the war, when our troops had been withdrawn from Gallipoli and things were not going
particularly well on the other fronts. In addition to his ‘advanced’ age, and reported ill health,
Bell also had eyesight problems – one of my informants even suggested that he had been an
‘albino’, but this has been denied by Merval Hoare, who described him as having a very fair
complexion, with pale blue eyes. She also stated that his hair was very light in colour, with a
slight ginger tinge, and confirmed that he suffered from extremely poor eyesight, even
though he did not usually wear spectacles.
In view of these circumstances, it would appear that the military authorities were prepared to
overlook Bell’s physical disabilities and accept him for service in order to take advantage of
some other talent that he possessed. I believe that this was his expert photographic
knowledge and practical skills in that field – which were not exactly commonplace in those
early years. Strange though it may seem, good eyesight is not necessarily a prerequisite in
photographic work – particularly the processing and printing of films. During my own early
years with Kodak, that company employed a considerable number of blind and partially blind
workers in its black-and-white processing laboratories, because they were more adept at
working in semi- and total darkness than most sighted people.
This hypothesis is further strengthened by the fact that Roy Bell eventually served with the
photographic section of No.3 Squadron, A.F.C., with the rank of 2nd Class Air Mechanic.
Despite a good deal of searching in official records, Alan Fraser was unable to find out very
much about his service career. What is known is his official number (4663) which, Alan
suggests, might indicate service in some other section of the forces prior to a transfer to the
AFC. Furthermore, Alan was unable to find Bell’s name included in the list of squadron
personnel when it embarked from Australia, although it does appear on the nominal roll of
‘other ranks’ who proceeded from England to France in August, 1917. This evidence tends to
support the theory of a transfer from another branch of the army, but is not conclusive.
Another 3AFC record (Squadron Order No.13, dated 17/9/17) lists Bell as having returned to
the squadron after detached duty with No.5 Squadron, R.F.C., but unfortunately gives no clue
as to the nature of that duty. There is no further mention of him in any of the 3AFC War
Diary entries from that date until they were discontinued, in 1919. The AIF Nominal Roll
shows his date of enlistment (11/11/15) and the date on which he returned to Australia
(15/1/19). This was some considerable time prior to the return of the main party of AFC
personnel, which came home on the “Kaisar-i-Hind” in April of that year. The reason for his
earlier return is not clear.
After landing in Melbourne, Roy was not permitted to continue his journey and join his
family in New Zealand because of the quarantine regulations that were then being enforced
in an attempt to control the deadly ‘flu epidemic, raging at that time. He went, instead to
various towns on the Victorian and NSW coastline, where he continued to locate and collect
marine specimens for scientific study. His expertise and high standing in the field of natural
science is evidenced by the fact that no less than twenty sub-species of molluscs have been
named in his honour.
He eventually returned to Norfolk Island and remained there as a resident until his death in
1966. Throughout the remainder of his life, he continued to pursue both his scientific studies
and photographic work. Examples of his beautiful scenic photographs are still to be found in
a number of the island’s museums. During my own visit I sighted, in one of them, a large format enlarger which almost certainly belonged to Roy Bell, although it was not specifically
identified as such. Merval Hoare told me that he eventually ceased his photographic work
about 10 years prior to his death.
During his many years of residence on Norfolk, he contributed a number of learned papers to
zoological publications and had many photographs published in books on bird life and other
natural history subjects. One of his scenic views of Norfolk’s magnificent coastline was
selected as the design of the island’s very first postage stamp (1947), which was used
exclusively for a number of years. Another of his photos (a species of sea bird) was also
reproduced on one of their stamps issued in 1961. Today, philatelic sales represent a
significant proportion of the Norfolk Island economy.
Merval Hoare lived next door to Roy for a short period and came to know him quite well.
She described him as a tall, rather thin man with a very fair complexion. The fact that he
coughed a great deal was attributed to the fact he had been gassed during the war (although
this has not been officially corroborated). During World War 2, Roy again saw service; this
time as a telephonist on Norfolk Island. That task was probably a great deal more significant
and important to the war effort than it might at first seem. After Japan entered the war, a
military airfield was constructed on Norfolk Island and it became an important staging post
for military aircraft flying in the South Pacific region. Good communications would, of
course, have been an essential factor in its operational efficiency.
It seems that, in later life, Roy became a firm believer in spiritualism and claimed to have
‘made contact’ with a former sweetheart. So far as I have been able to establish, he never
married and lived alone in his small cottage in the island’s main township of Burnt Pine.
There he tended his garden and was much admired by the townsfolk and particularly by the
local children, who passed by his door on their way to and from school. Sadly, his last few
months were plagued with illness and he spent a good deal of his time in hospital, where he
finally passed away on 28th March, 1966, at the age of 84.
After reviewing my researches into both his civilian and service life, I have come to the
conclusion that the real memorial to Roy Bell is not that tiny gravestone in Kingston
Cemetery on Norfolk Island, but rather the invaluable collections of scientific specimens and
photographs that he has left as a legacy to future generations of scientists and naturalists.
May he rest in peace.