12 Maybush Road, Hornchurch, Essex, holds a very special place in British karate history. It was at this address, in his parents garden, that in 1956 Vernon Bell held the first karate class in the UK.
Over the years, Bell’s name has been largely forgotten in favor of other notable instructors such as Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda and Masao Kawasoe. It could be argued that without Bell karate would not have developed such a following in the United Kingdom. Bell has rightly been called “the Father of British Karate”.
Vernon Frederick Bell, was born on 9th October 1922 in Ilford, Essex and was an only child. Educated at Palmer’s Public and Endowed School, he excelled in sports like cross-country
running and football. He dreamed of playing professional football for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, following in the steps of his father who had played in Tottenham’s junior team.
In 1939, having failed the majority of subjects required to go on to further education, Bell volunteered for the Royal Air Force. It was in the RAF that Bell got his first taste of martial arts. In 1941 fellow airman Ray Keene stated teaching him some basic judo techniques. Bell left the RAF in 1946, having achieved the rank of Leading Aircraftsman Cadet, taking a position at the Ottoman Bank in London. By this time he was married to his first wife and a father of two.
Judo became a major part of Bell’s life. He credited it with giving him confidence and helping him overcome a childhood fear of water. In 1948 he founded the Amateur Judo Association with Captain Pat Butler, the author of books on self-defence and judo. In 1949 Bell became a full-time Judo coach, running his first club from his garage.
Bell was fascinated with everything martial art related. He started learning jujitsu alongside his judo. in 1950 he was awarded the rank of first dan in jujitsu by the Anglo Japanese Judo and Jujitsu Society, after grading in Cape Town, South Africa.
Pat Butler awarded Bell his 1st Dan in Judo, in 1952 and his second dan in 1953. Judo had become very popular in the UK and Bell was in charge of forty-two judo clubs. In 1955 Bell re-graded for his 2nd Dan under Judo great Kenshiro Abbe, who had been invited to teach judo for the London Judo Society. 1958 Bell received his 3rd Dan from Abbe.
Bell became aware of karate when he some a photograph in a magazine. It showed a Japanese karate-ka breaking some boards with a front kick.
Bell had been in correspondence with friend Henri Plee, a 3rd dan judoka, for time, on Judo matters. In 1955 Plee sent Bell information on an early student of Gichin Funakoshi, Minoru Mochizuki, who had been invited to tour France and Switzerland. Bell attended the first ever Karate course, held at Plee’s Paris dojo. The course was taken by Mochizuki’s son Hiroo who held a 2nd Dan, awarded by the Japan Karate Association (JKA). The Mochizuki,s practised a basic form of Shotokan karate called Yoseikan karate. This style of karate also consisted of some Aikido techniques.
Between 1955 to 1956 Bell travelled to Paris at regular intervals to train with Plee and Hiro Mochizuki. With encouragement from Plee, Bell began teaching karate in his parent’s garden at 12 Maybush Road in 1956. This was the birth of the karate movement in the United Kingdom. These early days of the movement have been detailed in the book “Shotokan Dawn: Vol 1” by Dr Clive Layton.
1957 was a big year for Vernon Bell. He was awarded his 1st dan in Yoseikan karate from Hiroo Mochizuki and Henri Plee. Following encouragement from Plee to establish Karate in the UK, Bell formed the British Karate Federation (BKF) which was affiliated with Plee’s Federation Francaise de Karate. Also Karate was brought to the attention of the wider British public when ITN News aired a two minute film of Bell and his students training in the garden of 12 Maybush Road.
In the following year the BKF opened its first dojo at the British Legion Hall in Upminster. The BKF became a memeber of the International Karate Federation in 1958. In that same year Bell attended the first European Karate Union meeting held in Paris, where he had the chance to train with Tetsuji Murakami.
Bell invited Murakami to teach the Yoseikan form of Shotokan to the BKF. In 1959 Murakami arrived in the UK ushering in a new chapter in the development of British karate. In the same year Bell graded for his 2nd dan under Murakami.
The next couple of years (1959 – 1963) saw a rise in popularity of karate and an increase in membership of the BKF, with clubs opening across the country. Prospective students had to complete a lengthy application form and were vetted and interviewed by Bell. He believed having brought karate to the UK meant he had a responsibility in who learnt the art.
1963 also saw Britain take part in the European Karate competition for the first time, alongside France and Belgium. In the same year the British Karate movement take another major step forward. In that year Bell wrote a letters to the JKA seeking clarification of the BKF’s status. He had been led to believe that Yoseikan was the official karate organisation of Japan. Letters were sent to both Masatomo Takagi and Hidetaka Nishiyama. On finding out that the JKA were the official body of Japanese karate, the BKF become members of the JKA and withdraw affiliation to the Yoseikan after a six and a half year association.
The BKF were appointed the JKA’s British representatives. Bell was awarded a 1st Dan. What is interesting is that Bell did not grade for this belt.
The following year Bell arranged for the JKA to send a delegation to the UK to demonstrate their brand of Karate. The demonstrations given by Taiji Kase (6th dan), Hirokazu Kanazawa (5th dan), Keinosuke Enoeda (5th dan) and Hiroshi Shirai (5th dan) changed the face of British Karate. The public were blown away by the technical expertise demonstrated by the JKA instructors.
Bell arranged for Kanazawa to stay in the UK and teach for a year. There was a marked difference in Kanazawa’s approach to teaching compared to that of Murakami. There are many anecdotes from students who practiced with Kanazawa at this time (“Shotokan Dawn – the Kanazawa Years” by Dr Clive Layton). What is also interesting, is that all gradings from Murakami were rescinded and students had to re-grade.
1966 marked the beginning of the end for the BKF’s association with the JKA. Kanazawa’s contract with the BKF ended and was not renewed. Bell invited Murakami to resume his teaching. However, some of the students did not want this as they preferred the JKA’s approach to teaching. This led to a group of students, around two thirds of the BKF membership, to break away and form Karate Union Great Britain (KUGB), run from Liverpool and still affiliated to the JKA. The head instructors of the new association were Hirokazu Kanazawa and Keinosuke Enoeda
After ten years of being at the head of the main karate association in the UK, Bell had lost control of the direction karate would take. Feeling bitter and betrayed, especially by the JKA, Bell took the remnants of the BKF and severed ties with the JKA, returning back to the Yoseinkan style of Shotokan karate. It should be noted that Bell acknowledged that the split was not because of disloyalty to him but rather because of the admiration members had for Kanazawa and his method of teaching.
Bell eventually went back to his first love of juitsu. By the time of his death he had had achieved the rank of 10th dan in jujitsu.
Vernon Bell died on the 27th of February 2004. It is fair to say that he can be called the Father of British karate. Without his driving force it would have been years before karate made its way to the UK. It is a shame that his name has mostly become a footnote in the history of British Karate and is not as widely known as it should be.