Marvellous Marion

Not quite a horse-drawn cart, not quite a bus and not quite a taxi, but Marion Bell’s Char-a-bancs were very popular with passengers sick of the trains arriving late.

This week we finish our story about amazing Fremantle businesswoman and adventurer Marion Bell, who was a suggestion for the renaming of King’s Square, but has instead been identified by Fremantle council as worthy of consideration somewhere else in the city. As we pick up the story, she’s just returned from her journey around Australia – the first by a woman driver and certainly the first with an 11-year-old daughter in the passenger seat.

She arrived back in Perth on Wednesday April 7, 1926.

The West Australian reported: “An enthusiastic crowd thronged Forrest Place and the steps of the GPO. Scores of persons craned out of windows or leaned over the balconies of nearby buildings to watch the cars arrive shortly after 1pm.”

While Ms Bell’s decision to take her daughter on the trip may have worried others, she probably drew on her own adventurous youth for inspiration.

She was born in New Zealand and grew up on her grandmother’s station in the Bay of Islands district of the North Island, later moving to Whangerie on the west coast.

One day as a 10-year-old she decided to take one of her father’s racehorses and visit her grandmother – a distance of some 580 kilometres – without telling anyone. She wore the horse out about 150 kilometres short of her destination, but found shelter in a Maori hut and pushed on the next day to safety.

Apparently her most prized possession as a child was an atlas, and as a young woman she once rode the full length of the South Island and travelled through the South Sea Islands and the Americas.

Ms Bell apparently had great business acumen; she ran a furrier’s business in Sydney after moving to Australia, and even when it hit hard times and she lost £6000 she reportedly found other means to refill her bank account with £7000.

Arriving in Fremantle in 1924, she started a charabanc business (something between a bus and a taxi) with just one vehicle offering trips up and down to the Perth CBD. Eighteen months later she’d expanded it to a fleet of five.

She’s not the only entrepreneur capitalising on the state government’s inability to run it trains on time, and they face open hostility from authorities who angle to get them shut down. But when word leaks out, the backlash from a public which has finally got used to the idea of being able to turn up to appointments on time, is so strident that they back off.

By 1929 Ms Bell and her husband bought out the Fremantle Taxi Service, which operates opposite the railway station and tram terminus, adding her sedans known as the Fremantle “De Luxe” Sedan Taxi.

It has been claimed Ms Bell set up Fremantle’s first taxi service, but her adverts in contemporary newspapers revealed that she “took charge” of the Fremantle Citizen’s Ambulance when she purchased the taxi company.

She did reform the service significantly, hiring ambulance officers with first aid training – something relieved columnists noted hadn’t always been the case. They also noted that she wasn’t above jumping behind the wheel herself if there wasn’t anyone else available in the bustling business – and apparently “there was no speed limit”.

Although her name was mentioned with reverence in newspaper articles and journals for many years as a result of her trip around the country, she didn’t escape without some controversy.

A Fremantle publication, The Weekly Herald, reported that her husband Tom was charged with common assault after knocking out a rival conductor “over starting times and priority of place at the charabanc stand”. Mr Bell’s defence of being too timid to have instigated the fight wasn’t washing with the judge who knew of his boxing experience, so he offered up that Mrs Bell was so displeased with his lack of pluck that she’d “roared him up” so he’d put up a decent fight.

She was also told off by Fremantle council for not putting up a fence around her home in Queen Victoria Street “as promised”, while in February 1927 she was walking along Market Street to when seaman Joseph Olsen grabbed her by the throat. Her screams scared him off, and when Tom drove up moments later they went after him, holding him until police arrived for an arrest.

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