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The Bell Family

The Bell Family started life in 1948 as a radio programme on the Children's Hour. It was first published in serial form in 1952, and as a book in 1954: a variant title was The Story of the Bell Family. The US edition (also 1954) was entitled Family Shoes. The Bell Family/Family Shoes is now out of print.

Story | Connections to Other Books | Background | Thoughts | Editions and Availability | Other Media


The Reverend Alexander Bell and family - his wife Cathy, children Paul, Jane, Virginia ("Ginnie") and Angus, and dog Esau - live at St Mark's Vicarage in south east London. Even though Alex comes from a wealthy family, the Bells have very little money. This is because Alex chose to become a clergyman, his father swore never to give him any money.

Paul wants to become a doctor, and has won a scholarship to a very good school. Jane and Ginnie attend St Winifred's, a school that offers "free education to the daughters of poor clergy". Jane is a talented dancer, but there is not enough money for her to have lessons beyond the dancing classes at school. Ginnie is the opposite of Jane - plump, not very attractive, and hates dancing. However, she has "the kind of smile that nobody could see without feeling they had to smile too" (The Bell Family, 1967 Evergreen Library edition:21). Angus has a beautiful voice, and attends a choir school, even though he does not enjoy singing.

The book covers about a year in the life of the Bell family - outings with rich relatives (and trying to find appropriate clothes to wear), a visit to the zoo, the school play in which Jane dances, and the summer holiday are just some of the events that occur.

Connections to Other Books

The Bell Family/Family Shoes has a direct sequel - New Town/New Shoes.

Aside from this, The Bell Family/Family Shoes has no connections to the other "shoes" books.

However, the Bells do appear in the short story, "The Bells Keep Twelfth Night", which appears to be set between The Bell Family and New Town.


In 1947, Ballet Shoes was broadcast on the radio, and this inspired Noel with the idea of writing an original radio work. In an article in the Radio Times , she explains how she approached May Jenkin, the Head of Children's Hour, with an idea:

[I said] that I would like to write something specially for that medium, about an absolutely ordinary family of children, who don't catch burglars, find jewels down wells, or have any of those extraordinary adventures peculiar to children in books and plays. About six months later May Jenkin telephoned me and said, "Have you thought any more about that ordinary family, because ... we'd like to have a play like that next year".
(September 1952, quoted in Bull, 1984:203)

The Bell Family was first broadcast as a six-part serial, produced by Josephine Plummer, on the Children's Hour in 1949. Further six-part stories appeared every year until 1953, and then another in 1955. Angela Bull describes it as "one of the most popular of all children's radio programmes, frequently voted top play of the year in Children's Hour Request Weeks" (1984:203).

It first appeared in print in 1954, in Collins Magazine, as a six-part serial. It is likely that the episodes in the magazine reflected those of the 1949 radio series. However, Barbara Ker Wilson points out that "with her customary care and attention to detail, Noel Streatfeild wrote down the Bells' adventures from a completely fresh viewpoint; there was no question of merely adapting the television scripts" (1961:28).

In 1954 it was published in book form, and Noel again made changes to suit the different medium. (This is discussed below, in Editions and Availability.)


(This section contains "spoilers" for those who have not read the book.)

Probably because of its origins as a serial, The Bell Family has a more episodic structure than many of Noel's books. It is a series of engaging events, rather than a book in which everything builds towards a climax.

Nancy Huse sees the book as being about "the struggle to maintain social ideals in a consumer society" (1994:108). While there is doubtless truth in this insight, it nevertheless fails to capture the appeal of the book, which is rather grounded in the family members themselves. Angela Bull points out that the morality of the book "is staunchly Victorian. High standards of manners, loyalty and unselfishness are displayed by everyone, giving ... an old world charm which appealed as much to adults as to children. They are unashamedly stories about people who try to do the right things. The Bell Family was successful because it presented a family who were idealized and yet credible - the sort of family every listener would like to belong to" (1984:203-4).

The Bell family have one of the most loving environments in Noel's work. Family commitment and solidarity is always present - indeed, almost taken for granted - in her books, and the The Bell Family it is absolutely central. Alex and Cathy are more finely developed than any of her parents to date. Angela Bull describes Alex as a "softened version of William Streatfeild [Noel's father] ... Contentment and tranquility radiate from him", while Cathy, "loving, brave ... is Noel's most attractive mother" (1984:204).

However, without question the most enduringly popular character in the book is the second daughter, Ginnie. In 1976, speaking on Desert Island Discs, Noel recalled that whenever she spoke at Women's Institutes, they invariably asked "What's the news of Miss Virginia Bell" (quoted in Bull, 1984:204). Ginnie is often compared with Nicky Heath, of Tennis Shoes but she is very much a character in her own right, and there is also benefit in comparing her with Jane Winter, of The Painted Garden. All of these girls are "middle children", caught between a "baby" brother, and an older sister - or, for both Ginnie and Nicky, an older sister and brother who are very close, to the exclusion of the younger sister. Ginnie shares with Jane the disadvantage of being the unattractive and untalented member of the family - or, perhaps more accurately, the "normal" one in an exceptionally attractive and talented family. Nicky also seems like this initially. Jane reacts by developing a major inferiority complex that leads to her being difficult and "black doggish" most of the time. Nicky's unshakeable sense of self-worth allows her to rise above it, and prove them all wrong. What sets Ginnie apart from Nicky and Jane is her enormous capacity for love and generosity. It is her big-heartedness that precipitates many of the crises in the book (as well as impulsiveness, and her "satiable curiosity"). Although she may occasionally feel inferior to the rest of her family, it does not overwhelm her, as it has Jane. At worst, it leads to her starting a Dedication book - and even this, done for all the wrong reasons, still shows Ginnie's awareness of the needs of others. She is simply incapable of the level of self-centredness of her predecessors.

Editions and Availability

UK Editions

Following the success of the radio program, The Bell Family was published in serial form in Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls in 1952, with illustrations by Marcia Lane Foster. It was also included in Volume 5 of the Collins Magazine Annual (Volume 5).

In 1954, Collins published it in book form, with illustrations by Shirley Hughes. This version was not identical to that which originally appeared in Collins Magazine. The serialised version is shorter, finishing with Jane receiving a scholarship, and the photo of Esau winning a prize. In addition, the order of events is sometimes changed (e.g. in the serial, the Sadlers Wells audition occurs before the Zoo visit, whereas in the book they are the other way around), some details are added and others omitted (including an interesting passage in the serial, in which Alex speaks to Angus' headmaster about Angus taking up dancing). Furthermore, most of the text is substantially rewritten, as can be seen from the following extracts:

Collins Magazine Annual Volume 5 (1952), p. 175.

The zoo is the Zoo even if you start there feeling cross and miserable. You can't feel cross and miserable very long when you are looking at your favourite animals. Miss Bloggs, hearing about the Zoo party, had as usual tried to help, and had brought Jane a bag of stale buns that had been left over from a Sunday School treat, for her to give the bears. Paul found the snakes terribly interesting, so interesting that it was hard to look at snakes and worry about other things at the same time. Angus was lucky enough to make friends with the keeper and was allowed to throw fish to the sea-lions; Ginnie was given money for a ride on an elephant by Mumsmum, Mumsdad, Aunt Ann, Uncle Jim, Cathy and Alex, so that for once she felt as she said 'full of elephant ride'.

[In this version, Rickie rides the elephants with Ginnie, and makes her feel better about having to make a speech at the school play; Angus tells Liza about being a dancer, and she tells him she wants to be a poetess; while they are both looking at the snakes, Paul talks to Uncle Jim about taking up Grandfather's offer; and Jane tells Mumsdad about her disappointment and jealousy of Angus.]

The Bell Family (1954:121)

It's surprising how often troubles can be sorted out, if only there are the right sort of people about to sort them out with. The afternoon at the Zoo was a sorting out time for Paul and Jane, and in a way for Cathy too.

The trouble, as a rule, about a family going to the Zoo is that everybody wants a look at different creatures. With the Bells and Cathy's family there was no trouble, for they behaved like animals going into the Ark. Uncle Jim and Paul had a passion for snakes, and never wanted to look at anything else, so the moment they arrived at the Zoo they rushed for the snake house. Ricky's and Ginnie's passion was riding on the elephant. They were given enough money for three rides each, and at once they disappeared in the direction of the elephant house. Liza and Angus were almost exactly the same age, and their ambition was to visit every creature in the Zoo, and give food to them all, so loaded with packets of stale buns, nuts and fruit they ran off together. Cathy's father, Mumsdad, didn't mind what animals he saw, but he was especially fond of Jane, and Jane's passion was bears, so they went to the bear pit.

[In this version, Cathy talks to Aunt Ann and Mumsmum about the children; Jane tells Mumsdad about her disappointment and jealousy of Angus; and Paul talks to Uncle Jim about taking up Grandfather's offer.]

In 1965 the book was reissed as a Collins Evergreen Library hardcover, still with the Shirley Hughes illustrations.

In 1988 it was reprinted again as a Swift Books paperback.

US Editions

In the same year as its UK release (1954), it was released in the United States by Random House, as Family Shoes.

In 1985 there was a Dell Bantam Books paperback edition.

As I have not read the US editions, I do not know if the text was in any way amended.

Out of Print

The Bell Family/Family Shoes is out of print. In February 2004, second hand copies through online booksellers start in price at 7. (Source: Addall Used and Out of Print Book Search.)

Other Media

The Bell Family was originally a radio programme on the Children's Hour: details are provided in the Background section of this page.

Children's Fiction


Short Stories



Series and Links

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Images reproduced by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
© 1954 Noel Streatfeild

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