Updated: Dec 17, 2021
Vernon Bell, responsible for introducing karate to the UK, sadly died on Feb 27th 2004 aged 81. During the 1950's he began training with Sensei Henri Plee at his dojo in Paris. Having achieved black belt on April 1st 1957, being the first from our group of islands to do so, he returned to form the British Karate Federation.
Sensei Bell, pictured in the centre, in his parents garden with the four original students of the BKF in 1957
Born in Ilford in Essex he joined the RAF which is where his initial interest in martial arts took hold. In 1946 having left the RAF he was a founder member of The Amateur Judo Association becoming a professional judo instructor in 1949. Simultaneous to his judo Sensei Bell was training in Ju-Jitsu and was third dan at both arts by 1960. Karate became his third martial art having seen photographs of senior graded Japanese instructors breaking wood. Sensei Bell gave the first ever British demonstration of Karate on ITN in July 1957 in the garden of his parents home in Hornchurch. The idea of publicly demonstrating the art was to promote it within the UK but rather than just let anyone train he held very strict selection criteria.
By the end of 1959 there were only 56 registered karateka within the country. Amongst those who started training with him were some of today's better known senior instructors such as Michael Randall, Andy Sherry and Terry O'Neil all now 8th Dans. During the early sixties Sensei Bell took a team which included the afore mentioned karateka to compete in Japan. The first British team to do so.
In 1965 Sensei Bell invited representatives of Japanese Karate over to lecture, instruct and promote karate in London . One of the instructors who came visiting those 40 years ago was none other than Shihan Kanazawa who still visits regularly today giving courses and gradings. This initial visit however was to have a very detrimental effect on the British Karate Federation because some of the Japanese instructors stayed behind to form the Japanese Karate Association in direct opposition to his federation. Of course being Japanese and more experienced in karate also not having such stringent selection criteria their association grew very rapidly. The bulk of his students were lost to him when the Karate Union of Great Britain was formed in 1966. Disillusioned sensei Bell went back to teaching his Yoseikan style of karate rather than Shotokan but he never dropped his selection process.
Sensei Bell was highly skilled in Karate, Judo and Ju-Jitsu in which he held the rank of 10th dan at his death.
The late Shihan Enoeda described Sensei Bell as “a great master of karate who will go down in history for discovering karate for Britain”.
Should you wish to learn more about the early times of karate in England read the The Kanazawa Years by Dr Clive Leyton and Michael Randall published by Shoto.