Sunniside Local History Society

Thomas Bell Local Artist


Thomas Bell

It was thanks to Derrick Bell contacting our History Society that the story of his father the late Thomas Bell, artist, poet, sculptor and musician evolved. Derrick is pictured above displaying one of his father’s paintings, depicting Lang Jack English displaying his legendary strength and bad temper. The painting has been donated to Whickham Library where it is on permanent display. Derricks wife Norma is pictured with her father-in- law Thomas in 1997, the year of his death.

Thomas Bell

Thomas was born at Chapel Avenue Dunston in 1915, one of four children, brother’s George, Dick and sister Hilda, he was educated at Dunston Church School. He discovered at an early age that he had artistic talent, unfortunately the family couldn’t afford to buy him the necessary materials to pursue his artistic aspirations seriously. In keeping with most families in those days they were rather impoverished. His mother made ginger beer in a small outhouse and sold it to neighbours to help support the family, she also displayed an artistic talent, painting beautiful flowers on the floor because they couldn’t afford new lino.

Fortunately Tom didn’t abandon his undoubted talent, probably inherited from his mother, he continued to sketch and paint using whatever materials at hand. He married Florence Thornton on Boxing Day, the 26th December 1935 and they had two sons Derrick and Carlos. Tom was eventually employed by Raines & Company Delta Steel Works, he remained there for 33 years. He then worked as a Turbine Attendant at Dunston B Power Station and remained there until failing eyesight necessitated his early retirement. Unfortunately he had suffered from the disease glaucoma for several years, the disease robbed him of the sight in his left eye and his sight gradually deteriorated in the other eye during the 1960’s. Tragically by the 1980’s Tom had lost his sight altogether.

Throughout his life Tom loved to paint and write, even though in later years he would have to use a magnifying glass to continue his hobby. His choice of subjects were diverse, he used his imagination and painted portraits of fishermen, horsemen and hounds, tropical scenes, Spanish courtyards and a middle class family at leisure, depicting their more opulent life style. He even painted the famous ‘Last Supper’ on a hard boiled egg as an Easter gift. He sketched a range of Dunston buildings and scenes, among them Christ Church (where he had married Florence), the Collingwood Hotel, the Wooden Barbers shop, Bute Hall, the Store buildings, Cement Buildings, Chancellor Club, Old Albert Cinema and the one man ferry on the Tyne. In later years his sketches would be the only existing image of some of those buildings.

His talent knew no bounds, in 1968 one of his sons bet him that he wouldn’t be able to paint a masterpiece like Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Tom bought a canvas for 30/- (£1 50p) he normally painted on a piece of hardboard. In just 4 weeks he produced an excellent full size portrait even though he had used oil paints for just a short period of time. The portrait now hangs in the home of Derrick and Norma’s son Leo. Tom also contributed greatly to our local history by producing an oil painting almost three feet square featuring a local folk lore character, Lang Jack (John English). Jack had a ferocious temper and when a horse and cart full of stones killed his dog he tipped them over into a ditch. Tom captured the event perfectly even featuring Jacks cottage in the background at Woodhouse Lane Fellside. The portrait hung for some years in a local hotel and thanks to Tom’s son’s Derrick and Carlos it will now find a final resting place in Whickham Library to be enjoyed by the community. Carlos managed to retrieve other oil paintings of his father’s, which had hung on display in the Royal Hotel at Dunston. Tom’s mother was very pretty and was of a dark complexion, he often joked that she was of Maori descent and painted her portrait depicting her as just that, a Maori maiden .

Tom was a committed Christian and also a talented sculptor, his sculpture of Madonna and Child was very much admired and was donated to St Mary’s Catholic Church at Whickham. His sculpture of Christ was presented to the Vicar at Swalwell. His portrait of the face of Christ was donated to the Chapel at Dunston Hill Hospital.

Although known locally as an artist, Tom also loved poetry and displayed a great talent for writing. He wrote a range of poems, Farewell the Old Dunston B, The Old Swalwellers, The Vagabond, The Wind at Night, The Atheist, Powder Puff Sally, The Things God Gave Us, The Toy Soldier, The Swallows, The Sweetest Lie One Christmas, Summer Morning and Remembering Old Whickham. He became a V.I.P. member of the International Poets Society.

The poems were published by Readers Digest in the United States of America and by a company named Starladen. They were so taken with Toms poems that they sent his son Derrick and daughter in law Norma a complimentary copy of the book and two of the poems, The Wind At Night and The Toy Soldier mounted on beautiful oak bases.

Incredibly Tom never received a painting or drawing lesson in his life, his was a natural God given talent. His portraits were displayed in several local exhibitions including the Art Centre at the D.L.I. Museum in Durham city. He was also a very talented musician, he could play any musical instrument within minutes of picking it up.

Sadly his wife Florence died in 1982 and Tom spent his final years living with his son Derrick and his wife Norma. Thomas reached the age of 82 years, he died in September 1997.

Thomas Bell produced some exceptionally fine works of art and also displayed a talent for writing poetry. His work compared favourably with many other artists of note yet he never achieved fame outside of the Northern Region. Through this website the story of Thomas Bell and examples of his work will at last be carried across the world, bringing albeit belated, a measure of the fame which he so richly deserved.

The Wind At Night By Thomas Bell

As I lie in bed at night under blanket and sheet, I listen to the wind as it sweeps the street.

It brushes my window as it passes by, leaving behind its weary sigh.

Somewhere a dog barks the night is late, because the wind has rattled a garden gate.

Like the voices of loved ones long since gone, it whispers there memories and travels on.

It travels on like a thief in the night, sweeping waste paper and leaves in flight.

It sweeps the fields and stirs the trees, the lonely wind that no one sees.

It sweeps the roof tops, leaves fences torn and fades away at the break of dawn.


Having already met Thomas Bell’s son Derrick and daughter in law Norma, we recently visited his other son Carlos and his wife Evelyn. Carlos managed to recover a lot of his father’s work from a local hotel, it appears that Thomas was a remarkably kind and generous man who simply gave away much of his work. Carlos and Evelyn are pictured in October 2004 at their home in Dunston, where they very kindly allowed us to copy his paintings and sketches. We have the permission of both Carlos and his brother Derrick to publish Toms work on our website.


In November 2004 we visited the home of Derrick and Norma Bell’s son Leo, he is pictured here with his wife Lisa, Leo and Lisa own Leo’s grandfather’s painting of the Mona Lisa. Thomas Bell copied the famous Leonardo Da Vinci portrait, because his sons Derrick and Carlos bet him that he couldn’t produce a creditable copy. For the first time Thomas bought canvas, paying 30/- (£1.50) for it, he usually painted onto any available surface, normally hardboard. The result of the portrait is self evident, an excellent reproduction of that masterpiece. Leo has happy memories of watching his grandfather at work, he is very proud of him indeed and wouldn’t exchange his Mona Lisa for the original.


Thomas Bell often joked with his mother, that with her dark complexion and black hair she looked like a Maori maiden. He painted this portrait of her depicting her as a just that, a Maori maiden. Tom painted the other picture of their home on Chapel Avenue at Dunston, it is the small red roofed house sandwiched between the two larger ones. To the left of the picture is a small white outhouse, Tom’s mother made ginger beer inside that and sold it to neighbours to help earn money for the family upkeep.



Because of the high quality and historic value of Tom Bell’s work, we will publish his sketches and paintings for some time yet. Through his artistic talent he has captured buildings long since demolished and provided perhaps the only record of their existence.

This sketch shows Dunston Colliery during production. It is a detailed drawing and as important an archive item as a real photograph would be. Tom even includes the miners leaving work, at the gates the Deputy with his stick. The stick was not a badge of office, it was used to ram home the explosive sticks and the clay packing prior to detonation by the Deputy. Dunston pit belonged to Coal Owner Bowes and was opened in 1874, unfortunately it closed again after twelve months. The pit remained idle for fifteen years before it was reopened in 1889. It eventually closed for good in the mid 1940’s, the site of the old pit was bought by Taylor Pallister & Co Engineering in 1958.

The painting of the domestic scene in a middle class home seemed a strange subject. Tom imagined that this was how the more affluent people in the Jesmond area might live. He joked that if his work ever made him famous he would buy a home like this.

Before failing eye sight put an end to Tom’s working life in 1966, he was employed at the Dunston B Power Station. Following it’s closure he went back and later composed a poem referring to the end of the Power Station:

Farewell to the old Dunston B.

It stands like a defeated giant, no more power or sound

As the demolition men bit by bit, pull it to the ground.

The place is damp and cold

No more boilers warm the air, as they did in day’s of old.

Through broken panes the sparrows fly in

They chirp there contented, on the girders within.

There’s no more steam or sound of machine

No more mechanics to be seen.

And so as we look around the turbine floor

We picture faces that are no more.

The turbine attendants who were always there

Watching their machine from table and chair.

Lockers stand empty with open door

An old magazine lies on the floor

Coat hangers on the wall are used no more.

The canteen now stands empty and cold

No more smell of dinners or clatter of plates

No more sound of chatter from the worker’s and their mates.

We think we hear footsteps in the basement below

Or is it just the rain tapping the floor through the window pane

Or are they the footsteps of friends passed on?

Still attending their pumps, like the days they were on.

When the demolition men have cleaned up and gone

It’s then that the Council move on.

Planting with trees and making the site all green

Leaving no trace of where it had been.

Goodbye old station and the pals I knew

Left to remember there are but a few.

Thomas Bell