The Mystery of Elizabeth Béar



The mystery of Elizabeth Béar has preyed on my mind on and off for many years, but it was not until yesterday that I decided to write an account of it as a memoir or short story if I can call it that. It all began almost sixty years ago.

In 1965 I was a habitué of the Witch’s Cauldron. This was a coffee bar in Belsize Square in North London. It is still remembered as a social centre that drew together many young people from the surrounding Borough of Hampstead, as well as neighbouring areas such as Kilburn, Kentish Town, Camden Town, Golders Green and from suburbs yet further out. We were quite a community and each of us had scores of acquaintances and friends who we met there and went together to parties, the movies and pubs. I was well known within this community because I’d been a regular since 1961 and dealt a little grass and hash.

One day a couple I knew only slightly approached me. They were in their mid to late teens. He was a scruffy youth in jeans, and she had long blonde hair, typical of the young folkie or pre-hippie types that hung around. From a youthful point of view, they made an attractive couple. We had been to several parties together and chatted a bit, as well as at the coffee bar. Their names are long gone from my memory. Even at the Witch’s Cauldron reunions, which have taken place annually since 2021, no-one recalls this couple except me. Of course, if I had their names there might be a chance.

The young man came up to me and said ”Paul, we found a box of books. We thought you might like because you’re into ideas and things”.

They were right. As well as having such interests I’ve always been an avid collector of books. So, I replied that I was indeed interested. They led me to a nearby house in Belsize Park where they rented a room together. I waited at the top of the stairs with the girl and my guide said, “Hold on here a minute and I’ll fetch them from the attic.” He crawled into the attic space and came out with a box holding a couple of dozen books. A quick look showed me they were mostly academic philosophy books. I was not yet knowledgeable about philosophy, but I was curious to learn more, and very happy to add the books to my growing personal library.

I said, “I would like them, what do you want for them?” He replied “Oh, just give us anything for them.” So, I offered him a one-pound deal of grass, which I had in my pocket. He and she smiled happily and took it. One pound, or its equivalent, was worth plenty in those days. Two of you could have a drink, dine out, go to the movies and still have half of the money left. I’m not talking about a luxury night out, but a decent meal and a fun evening, which these days would cost you £50.

I shuffled through the books for a while in the coffee bar, and then later carried my prize home. The box contained mostly classic philosophy books and a couple of hardback poetry books. The first book was the poems of John Donne and had been presented to Elizabeth Béar, November 1960, as the Brighton and Hove girls’ high school upper sixth-form prize. The school’s name and crest are embossed in gold on the cover, and a book plate pasted inside with the award details. I looked through the rest of the books. There was one more volume of poetry, the works of Keats, inscribed with the date 1959 by Elizabeth Béar. The rest were classic philosophy books, mostly hardbacks, like the poetry books. Most of them bore the name Elizabeth Béar written on the first page in black ink.

The prize copy of The Poems of John Donne.

Jumping forward to the present in my story: yesterday I decided to investigate the mystery of Elizabeth Béar. From the poetry shelves upstairs, I fetched the two poetry volumes. In my downstairs study I looked through my philosophy books to extract those that had been hers. Examining the books on my long top shelf devoted to the history of philosophy I found fifteen volumes from the Presocratics to John Stuart Mill bearing her name. Or rather thirteen had her name inscribed and the remaining two each paired up with one of these. So, the mysterious Elizabeth Béar was obviously a bright and intellectual young woman, interested in classic poetry, awarded prizes for academic excellence, and a serious student of philosophy, one of the most difficult and obscure human undertakings.

As I have done before, unsuccessfully, I started an internet search for her name. Searching for Elizabeth Béar was made difficult because Google overlooks the acute accent on the third e and comes up with stuff about bears. Putting the surname in quotes helped narrow the search, for Béar, with its acute accent, is unusual. I located an artist and a King’s Counsel (lawyer) with the same surname. It seems to be French, and online I found that the name is recorded in the 19th century. There was a Bernard Béar, born in the year 1840 in France to Guillaume Béar and Jeanne Marie Abbadie. There is also a geographical link. Cap Béar is at Port-Vendres in the Mediterranean Sea near Perpignan and the start of the Pyrenees. Both fort Béar and a lighthouse are on this peninsula. Perhaps the name originates from this location.

The search took me to the Forebears website, with its unintentional puns, which states that “approximately 2 people bear this surname in total, and they are located in the UK and USA”. Maps were provided to show the location of these countries for the uninformed. This search result seems to correspond to my other web-based findings of an American-based artist Liza Béar and an English lawyer Charles Béar KC, who was called to the bar in 1986 and became a Silk (King’s Counsel) in 2003. He may well be a relative of the mysterious Elizabeth Béar but is a generation younger probably a born around 1960 since he qualified in 1986.

This seemed to be a dead end. So, I decided to try a new tack, and to contact her old school the Brighton and Hove high school. This is now called Brighton Girls School and is in Montpelier Road, Brighton. Here is another coincidence, for I moved to Brighton in 1966 to study Mathematics and Philosophy at the local Sussex University.

Brighton Girls School has an Alumnae office with an email address, so I sent them this message.

Mon 2/10/2023 15:43

Dear Alumnae Office, Brighton Girls School

I have an unusual inquiry for you.

I own a collection of books that once belonged to your former student Elizabeth Béar. I have never met or heard of this student/woman except through these books.

The collection includes the poems of John Donne. Presented in November 1960 to Elizabeth Béar, as the Brighton and Hove high school upper six form prize. The book has the school’s name and crest embossed in gold on the cover and a book plate pasted inside with the prize details including the name of the headmistress I. Ashcroft inscribed, as well as the recipient.

I presume Elizabeth Béar was born around 1942 to have been in the sixth form 1960-61, and so would be in her early 80s now. In total I have 15 books that were hers including 2 poetry books (dated 1959, 1960) and 13 philosophy books, with inscribed dates from March 1962 up to October 1963, although not all that bear her name are dated. I assume she went on from Brighton and Hove High School to study philosophy at university in London, Oxford or somewhere. I am happy to give you a list of all of the book titles.

I was sold this collection in London around 1964 after it was found in the attic of a house in Belsize Park and have kept it ever since within my own library. I have failed to trace her. Although Béar is an unusual surname, she may have gone abroad or married and left little trace of herself. Anyway, records are limited before the advent of the internet. I have located an artist and a KC with the same surname, which appears to be French, linked to the Pyrenees, and appears in the 19th century if not before. The Forebears website states that approximately 2 people bear this surname in total, and they are located in the UK and USA

If I could make contact with her, I would gladly return the books to her, via yourselves, if you feel that disclosing her information is inappropriate. But I would be gratified to learn anything about her for a short article I am writing on what can be inferred about her from this small library

With thanks for your kind attention

Yours faithfully,

Prof. Paul Ernest

Looking around my study I found two more Béar philosophy books I had laid down and forgotten. Turning to my Ethics shelf I found yet two more Béar books, so my pile has grown to 19 books in total. One of the ethics books, An Introduction to Ethics by W. Lillie has Oct. ’65 as well as her name written in it, and this the latest inscribed date in the collection. So, I must have acquired them in Autumn 1965 or sometime in 1966 before I moved to Brighton to study in October. Thus, I had acquired them not long after she had stored them.

Books of Elizabeth Béar

I seemed to have reached a dead end. The philosophy collection before me is a classical one, with books by and on the Presocratic Philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Leibniz, Kant and Mill. Plus, two ethics books and two poetry books.

So, who is the mysterious Elizabeth Béar? I assume she went on from Brighton and Hove Girls High School after finishing her A-levels to study philosophy at university. Perhaps in London, as one of the books bears a Foyles sticker. I assume she was the kind of young woman, from a public school, who might also have gone on to Oxford University. But this is pure speculation.

I have long harboured a sense of guilt. While I did not steal the books myself, I was a party to the theft, by buying the collection. Perhaps they were abandoned and forgotten? Who is this woman who stored her philosophy library in an attic in Belsize Park? Presumably she had lived in the house in which they were found, and on giving up her room she stored them in the attic. If she was moving to another room or flat, or moving in with a boyfriend, she would most likely have taken them with her. So perhaps she went travelling or working around the British Isles or abroad. Did she come back sometime to reclaim her books, and find them gone? Did she miss them and mourn their loss?

She has been a ghostly presence in my mind for almost 60 years. She certainly helped to found my philosophy library which now holds close to a thousand books. Several of the books have been important and contributed to my thinking and research. I did not even know about the Presocratic philosophers as a group before I acquired the books. Over the years I have periodically found great value in the Plato and Aristotle books, as well as many of the others. So, they have been very helpful to me. Even having the poetry books has been a benefit when we looked at the work of Donne and Keats in the poetry group to which I belong. So hopefully Elizabeth Béar, wherever or whoever she is, would be gratified to learn that her library was not dissipated or discarded, but has been of great use to somebody.

Yesterday afternoon I continued my internet search. I thought about contacting the lawyer Béar to see if he was a relation. Although details of his practice are given online, and indeed a phone number, there was no email address. I did not feel inclined to ring the phone number and leave my peculiar request for information with a receptionist.

What about the American artist Liza Béar, perhaps she was a relative too? My searches revealed that Liza Béar is listed as being born on the 10th of May 1942 and is a writer, filmmaker, and media activist based in New York. She was the co-founder of the magazine Avalanche (1970-1976). So, this birthdate is about the same time as Elizabeth Béar was born, according to my calculations.

Searching further for her details turns up Eliza and the Bear, an indie rock band from London. But there is a Wikipedia page for Liza Béar. This says Béar was raised in France and England. She studied Philosophy at the University of London.

Suddenly it starts to fall in place. Liza Béar from England, born in 1942 studied Philosophy at the University of London before moving to New York in 1968. This could be her!

Liza Béar is a distinguished film artist with a string of awards and grants. My next search brings up her LinkedIn page. There she indicates that She took an honours degree in philosophy at Bedford College, University of London, and even lists nine courses she studied as an undergraduate in philosophy.

These include:

  1. Presocratic philosophy

  2. Plato and Aristotle

  3. Empiricists and Rationalists

  4. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason

  5. Ethics

This list fits so well with the mini library. There are two volumes on Presocratic philosophy, six volumes on Plato and Aristotle, three volumes on Empiricists and Rationalists, one volume comprising Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and four volumes on ethics.

The fit is so perfect, I think I have solved the mystery of Elizabeth Béar. She is none other than the artist Liza Béar, author of Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers. She is a well-known and respected film maker and according to her LinkedIn profile a supporter of such causes as Arts and Culture, Civil Rights and Social Action, Environment, Human Rights, Poverty Alleviation. Thus, by my lights, as well as being significant artist she is a good person. She must have abbreviated her first name to the handier and less formal Liza. Perhaps this change also signifies moving on from her previous one to a new artistic identity.

And another coincidence is revealed. I took a master’s degree at Bedford College, University of London in 1974, the same place as she studied. It was a charming small college in the middle of Regent’s Park, where I was based, although my studies included courses at other colleges of the University of London. Sadly, the place has long been closed, sold off as a language school to Middle Eastern investors.

Our paths have crossed and recrossed. This starts in Belsize Park, where I hung out at the Witch’s Cauldron, in the vicinity of which she presumably lived. Perhaps she even visited the Witch’s Cauldron for a coffee when I was there. Then there is Brighton where she went to school and I to university. Finally, Bedford college where we both studied, albeit at different times. If our paths did indeed intersect, it would have been in Belsize Park at the Witch’s Cauldron in the early 1960s.

So having potentially solved the mystery, today I tried to contact her via LinkedIn. However, the site would only let me do so if I paid a subscription to upgrade, even though I have been a member for fifteen years.

Then I found her FaceBook page. It is unmistakably hers, and I was able to leave her this message.

Dear Liza Béar, I bought a box of your philosophy books in 1965 in Belsize Park. I have been investigating The Mystery of Elizabeth Béar – who is the bright young woman who studied philosophy? I have tracked you down to Bedford college and then a successful career as an artist / filmmaker / author in USA. Greetings from Paul Ernest (also a philosopher / mathematician / educator). Do you want to see the piece I have been writing about you? Hello and Best wishes!

Will I hear back? Whether or not, I believe that I have solved the Mystery of Elizabeth Béar. I think I now know who the young woman is who contributed to my philosophical education. Hopefully I’ll be able to thank her and return her books if she wants them.

I am most gratified that my quest led to the resolution of the mystery that has dogged me down the years. The name is a puzzle no longer. Now all I must do is to wait to see if she replies.

(02-03/10/2023 with corrections 04/10/2023)

AFTERNOTE added 05/10/2023

I received a reply on Facebook Messenger

Liza Béar

Thank you Paul! Where exactly did your acquaintances find the box?

are you sure it was in 1965 and not later?

Also, Keats and Donne were two of my favorite poets, and I very much doubt I would have discarded them in such a cavalier fashion!

In fact my recollection is that at least one of the two came with me to New York. I will have to double check.

Paul Ernest

Great to hear back from you Liza. Do you have an email address to which I could send the whole memoir? I don’t think you abandoned the Keats and Donne and philosophy books, but stored them away. Here’s the plate from the Donne book. It could have been 66. What do you recall of Belsize Park? Did you ever visit the Witches Cauldron coffee Bar? I have built a website around memories of our goings on there!

I posted the story as images on her FB page 05/10/2023. She replied on 07/10/2023

Liza Béar

Thank you, Paul. Glad the philosophy books were of use.

Paul Ernest

Thanks a million – they were, are, and you have solved my mystery too! In terms of use – I have just finished a series of papers on the Ethics of Mathematics!

This is what she looks like, then and now.

Liza Béar 1972

Liza Béar 2020s

A list of the books of Elizabeth Béar found up to and including 05/10/2023 (includes additional philosophy books located in a further search)

POETRY (2 books)

The Poems of John Donne (Hard covers, Oxford University Press). Presented to Elizabeth Béar, November 1960, as the Brighton and Hove girls’ high school upper sixth-form prize. The school’s name and crest are embossed in gold on the cover, and a book plate pasted inside with the award details, including the name of the headmistress I. Ashcroft, as well as that of the recipient. 

The Poetical Works of Keats (Hard covers, Oxford University Press). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar Christmas 1959.

PHILOSOPHY (22 books, in chronological order of philosophical subject matter)

The Presocratic Philosophers by G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven (Soft covers, Cambridge University Press, printed 1960).

Ancilla to the Presocratic Philosophers by K. Freeman (Hard covers, Blackwells, Oxford, printed 1956). Hand inscribed in ink Elizabeth Béar.

Plato by A. E. Taylor. (Soft covers, Methuen, printed 1963). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Plato Parmenides, Theaitetos, Sophist, Statesman (Hard covers, Everyman Library). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar Nov ‘62

The Republic of Plato, Translated and Notes by F. M. Cornford (Hard covers, Oxford University Press). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Lectures on the Republic of Plato by Richard Lewis Nettleship (Soft covers, Macmillan, printed 1962). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Aristotle by Sir David Ross (Soft covers, Methuen, printed 1964). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Aristotle Metaphysics (Hard covers with dust jacket, Everyman Library). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar October ’63.

Aristotle’s Politics and Athenian Constitution (Hard covers, Everyman Library, printed 1959. Bearing Foyles bookshop green sticker). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Greek Political Theory by E. Barker. (Soft covers, Methuen, printed 1960). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

The Philosophical Works of Descartes, 2 volumes. (Soft covers, Dover, printed 1955). Both volumes hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Spinoza’s Ethics (Hard covers, Everyman Library. Bearing Foyles books green sticker). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar March ’62.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke, volumes one and two (Hard covers, Everyman Library, printed 1961). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar in vol. 1 only.

Leibniz Philosophical Writings (Hard covers, Everyman Library, printed 1961). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar twice, on first two pages.

Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume (Hard covers with dust jacket, Oxford University Press, printed 1961). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar Oct ‘63

Immanual Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Hard covers, Macmillan & Co.). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Kant’s Theory of Knowledge by G. Bird. (Hard covers, Routledge and Kegan Paul, printed 1962). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Mill on Bentham and Coleridge (Hard covers, Chatto & Windus). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

Principia Ethica by G. E. Moore. (Soft covers, Cambridge University Press). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar January ’62.

A Hundred Years of Philosophy by J. Passmore. (Hard covers, Duckworth. Bearing Foyles books green sticker). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar.

An Introduction to Ethics by W. Lillie (Soft covers, Methuen). Hand inscribed Elizabeth Béar, dated Oct. ’65. Hand inscribed note on title page “NB Useful bibl.” (Presumably refers to the bibliography).

Witches Cauldron 1960s site at

New in progress


Paul Ernest

This entry was posted on in homepage and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Mystery of Elizabeth Béar

    1. You, Mr. Ernest, have written a captivating account which draws the reader in to a “can’t put down” situation!
      It reminds me of a couple of used books I have bought in the past- 1 with a photo and 1 with a poem to someones mom.
      I wonder about those folks also. But your story “takes the cake” Mahalo nui loa from Hawai’i.

      Comment by Edward P Johnston on 15 October, 2023 at 6:48 pm
    2. What a wonderful detective story. Thank you.

      Comment by James Warrior on 17 October, 2023 at 7:10 am
    3. Paul, I am so sad that despite her early background in poetry and philosophy, Ms Bear, would appear to have grown into a person either unwilling or, because of cruelly cynical life experiences, unable to share or even understand the romantic and essentially human story that you have so beautifully described for us. Unfairly or not, she must always be judged by her brutally limited and clipped response.

      Comment by Patrick alexander on 18 October, 2023 at 2:40 am
    4. So pleased to hear you enjoyed this! I disagree that EB is brutally cynical. I, a stranger. approached her and she responded promptly and with formal good grace. I have no right to demand or expect even that, let alone anything more. No reason why she should ‘friend’ me, or be effusive in any way. We are ships that passed in the night, with a friendly enough signal between us, strangers both then and now!

      Comment by Paul Ernest on 18 October, 2023 at 2:57 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.