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Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 4, 1990

Francis Dillon Bell: his early life

Francis Dillon Bell: his early life

page 12

Francis Dillon Bell first came into my consciousness as "…a pair of white trousers on someone reclining by her." This came from Nelson's well-known diarist, John Saxton, in September 1845.

The wider extract reads, "On my return…along the cart road, I saw a female with a parasol sitting on the bank above a steep cutting and a pair of white trousers on someone reclining by her. On coming nearer I saw it was Miss A[bsolon] who began reading her book and Mr B[ell] reclining …P[riscilla (Saxton's wife)] said they had come up the Valley together, he assisting her over the bridge and carrying her parasol…" (1)

Francis Dillon Bell was then nearly 23. The nature, or rather the speculation of the nature, of his relationship with Adeline Absolon, then an attractive woman of 26, is not relevant to this article.

Bell first came to Nelson late in 1843, not long after his arrival from London in the Ursula in September. An employee of the New Zealand Company in London, he had been appointed just prior to his departure in May, to be the Company's Immigration Agent at Nelson. The appointment was subject to the discretion of the Principal Agent, Captain Arthur Wakefield. (2) Wakefield was killed at the Wairau Affray, whilst Bell was en route to New Zealand.

Francis Dillon Bell. 1860. Bett Collection. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Francis Dillon Bell. 1860. Bett Collection. Nelson Provincial Museum.

page 13

It would appear that Bell stayed only a few weeks on that first visit, but took up residence in March 1844 and remained for two years. Later, in 1846, he was appointed a magistrate for Nelson, but his other duties seem to have kept him in the North Island for large stretches of time, until 1848.

Bell returned for a second major period in 1848, to take over from William Fox as Resident Agent for the Company. With various trips away, principally to Wellington, Bell remained in Nelson until July 1851. During this period, he married Margaret Hort of Wellington and their first two children, Jessie and Harry (the latter to become a Prime Minister of New Zealand) were born.

So what was the background of this man, who was one of Nelson's earliest settlers and leaders?

Seven years after the Battle of Waterloo and three years after the birth of the young princess destined to become Queen Victoria, Francis Dillon Bell was born, on 8 October 1822. His father, Edward, has been described as a merchant and, two years before Francis' birth, he was commissioned as British Vice Consul (an honorary position) in Bordeaux, France. Although an Encyclopaedia of New Zealand says Francis was born in France, (3) I have not yet been able to prove this; he may have been born in England.

The Bell family was an interesting one, with a strong Quaker background. One of Francis Dillon Bell's ancestors was the Great Quaker apologist, Robert Barclay of Urie. One of Robert's sons, David, went to London from Scotland in the early 18th century and founded the Barclay banking business. David's daughter, Katherine, married another Quaker, Daniel Bell of Tottenham, then a village outside London.

Daniel and Katherine had a number of grandchildren, one of whom was the great prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry. But of more relevance to this story was their daughter, Priscilla, who married Edward Wakefield. Priscilla and Edward were the grandparents of Edward Gibbon, William and Arthur Wakefield. Francis Dillon Bell was, therefore, a second cousin, although many years younger, of Edward Gibbon, the great colonial theorist, of William, the leader of the Wellington settlement, and Arthur, the leader of the Nelson settlement

Edward Bell, Francis' father, came from Hornsey, which is now a northern suburb of London. Little is known of his mother's family. She was Fanny, a daughter of the Rev J Matthews of Cirencester. Edward and Fanny are reputed to have made a runaway marriage.

When Edward and Fanny went to live in Bordeaux is not clear. Their daughter, Frances Katherine, was baptised in St Mary's, Hornsey, in 1818. (4) Almost certainly, she was the eldest of the family. Then came Edward, then Francis. There were four more sons and four more daughters, three of whom were reputed to have become nuns. The only one of Francis' siblings of relevance to this story was his brother, Henry Angelo Bell. Henry was appointed clerk to Captain Arthur Wakefield and travelled to New Zealand with Wakefield in the Whitby. He died of typhoid just a few months after arrival in Nelson, and was buried in the Haven cemetery.

The Bells seem to have continued living in France right through Francis' childhood and teenage years. He was educated privately in Bordeaux and Auteuil. The latter is now a suburb of Paris, but was formerly a country village, at the entrance to the Bois de Boulogne. Francis grew up to be fluent in English, French and Italian and also had a sound knowledge of German. This language facility was to prove very useful to him later in his career.

Bell was a talented watercolourist, was an enthusiast for Italian music and sang well. A man of "slightly over middle height" (5) David (later Sir David) Monro described Bell in 1845 as being "exceedingly good looking with long and straight legs". (6)

By the age of 17 the need for employment became of importance. What better source than his Wakefield relations and, in particular, Edward Gibbon who was, by 1839, deeply involved with schemes of emigration to New Zealand.

The London which Dillon Bell came to was a city which had developed rapidly over the previous 20 years or so, to incorporate more and more of the surrounding villages. Its population was close to two million. The superb Regency building era, and its prime architect John Nash, had given way to such people as Thomas Cubit, who had developed much of Belgravia and Pimlico from 1827 onwards.

page 14

The growing population had necessitated new forms of transport. London had had its first regular horse-drawn omnibus service since 1829. But what was to be the most far-reaching development were the railways. The first railway within London had been opened in 1836. Euston Station was opened a year later, as the terminus for the first main-line railway between London and Birmingham. Parliament had passed 39 more bills for new lines during 1836 and 1837. Many of the great London docks had been built in the early pan of the century.

Great social and political changes were taking place, Britain was no longer an agricultural nation, ruled by the wealthy landowners, squires and clergy, but one which was now dominated by the new classes formed by commerce and industry. The spectacular Reform Bill of 1832 had changed the electoral basis of Parliament The Georgian era had come to an end in 1837, and in 1839 the young Queen Victoria was 20.

The economic upheaval and social distress, caused through the change from an agricultural to an industrial society, still continued to affect large segments of the population.

Emigration had developed as one of the ways to relieve this distress. Before 1830, the highest number of emigrants in any one year had been 30,000, in 1832 it was 130,000.

Edward Gibbon Wakefield's theories of colonisation, and the events which lead to the formation of the New Zealand Company, are sufficiently well known to followers of New Zealand history not to detail here. Suffice it to say that the decision to form the New Zealand Company was taken at a dinner hosted by banker John Wright, at his home in Hampstead, on 20 March 1839. Just under two years previously, the New Zealand Association had been formed, with the objective of establishing a New Zealand colony on Wakefield's principles, but circumstances had proved this particular vehicle not to be the one able to take the action necessary. The prospectus for the New Zealand Company was issued on 2 May 1839. Ten days later, the Tory sailed for New Zealand, with the advance party commissioned to buy land for the first settlement, the settlement that was to become Wellington. (7)

Exactly when, in 1839, Francis Dillon Bell joined the staff of the New Zealand Company, I have not yet been able to discover. To have been there from the very earliest days certainly must have been stimulating and exciting. His first position was as Assistant Secretary.

The operating structure of the Company was surprisingly similar to a business of comparable size today: a group of directors, a series of sub-committees and a small, structured, paid staff. To quote from Michael Turnbull's thesis. The Colonization of New Zealand by the New Zealand Company: "The Company's office was divided into two departments, the Secretary's and Emigration, the former being the overall responsible authority…the departments were…small and were located in the same building. The Secretary's Department had about three clerks, there was an accountant and a book-keeper, and the Emigration Department had two." (8)

The Emigration Department dealt, virtually exclusively, with the recruitment of, and arrangements for, the labourers and their families, who received assisted passages. The Secretary's Department dealt with everything else: correspondence with the land purchasers, emigration arrangements for those of the purchasers and their families who actually emigrated, chartering of ships and their provisioning etc etc.

The office was very understaffed as a result of the reluctance of the Company to spend anything more than the bare minimum in this area of the operation. The organisation was fully extended in launching the first expedition to Wellington. Only the freshness and enthusiasm of the staff ensured that all the necessary preparations were made. At the same time, the public relations aspects were not overlooked. The expedition caused quite a stir. Michael Turnbull sums it up, though, by saying, "Throughout [the Company's] proceedings were characterised by what one of the Wakefield group called 'hury scury [sic]'." (9)

I shall not attempt in this article, to cover all the aspects of Bell's work for the Company in London, but will focus on the period relating to the Nelson settlement.

page 15

By 1841, the Company's activities had grown enormously. They had the ongoing matters relating the Wellington settlement, the intensive arrangements for Nelson, including negotiations with the British government, the merger of the Plymouth and New Zealand Companies and the proposals for a secondary Wellington settlement – Wanganui.

At the beginning of April, the Company firmly advised the British government of its intention to form the Nelson settlement. The advance party sailed in the Will Watch and the Whitby on 27 April 1841.

In early March, Bell had been appointed Secretary, pro tem, on John Ward's resignation to take up another position. This increased his responsibilities, and workload, enormously.

Remember, he was only 19! Working through New Zealand Company papers, I found him writing despatches to William Wakefield in Wellington, drafting the Company's written representations to the Government and dealing directly with the new group of land purchasers. Bell had an easy, fluid style and, for a 20th century researcher, thank goodness, a very legible hand. His language was simple and direct.

The days immediately prior to the departure of the Will Watch and Whitby were overwhelmingly busy. Bell "…work[ed] through two whole nights running and [was] proud of, rather than disgruntled with, the fact" And he "…personally delivered land orders to anxious purchasers already embarked on the emigrant ships." (10) .

Bell's annual salary as secretary was set in April at £150, but raised several days later to £250. This compared to a Principal Agent (William and Arthur Wakefield) at £1,000 and the Second Clerk at £100. In October he was paid an extra £50, as a gratuity for extra services. (11)

By August, he was completely exhausted and wrote that "I go to Boulogne for two or three days tomorrow to recruit my health which hard work has quite knocked up…" At the same time, he declined an invitation from another person to visit Oxford, on the grounds of pressure of work, but promised to visit in October. (12)

John Ward returned to the Company, as Secretary, in October that year and Bell resumed his Assistant Secretaryship.

As well as actually working from the office in London, Bell, of course, visited the emigrant ships prior their departure. He also seems to have made several trips to further farewell family and friends at later stages, whilst ships were still on the English coast. One such trip, on 19 December 1841, was to see his young cousin, Emily Wakefield, daughter of William Wakefield, then aged 15, who had embarked for New Zealand on the Clifford. Bell's account, given to John Saxton three years later in Nelson and recounted in Saxton's diary reads, "…his coming on board…was quite an adventure. He arrived at Deal before the ship. He then went by gig to Margate and seeing a ship approaching towed by a steamer very rapidly, guessed it was the Clifford, and started in a 4 oared wherry and got on board late at night. He left at 6am with the Pilot at Deal." (13)

When Bell actually decided to emigrate to New Zealand is not clear, but there is evidence to suggest that this had been regarded as a possibility right from 1839. The first definite record I have been able to find was of an undated meeting with Edward Gibbon Wakefield "…who appointed an interview in Finsbury Square, where having walked in silence for some time contrary to his…usual chatty manner, he suddenly turned round to [Bell] and proposed [Bell going] to New Zealand." (14)

By early 1843, Bell's plans to emigrate were being finalised and passage was booked on the Ursula. A ship of 600 tons, she was not a New Zealand Company charter, but a legal agreement was entered into with her owners for her to sail from London to Wellington and Nelson. Some of the conditions which had related to the emigrant ships prevailed: a surgeon/superintendent, food and accommodation standards. Bell was charged by the New Zealand Company to "…examine into the treatment of theemigrantson the voyage a) in reference to Surgeon Superintendent's Certificate and b) against ship owner's potential monetary claims." He also carried a steel-engraven seal of the Company's arms for the Agent at Nelson. (15)

page 16

The Ursula carried a total of 37 passengers: 11 cabin, 12 intermediate and 14 in the forecabin. Only six of these were assisted emigrants, a family by the name of Trotter. Initially at St Katherine's Dock, the Ursula sailed from Gravesend on Wednesday 17 May. Detained at Portsmouth for two days, due to adverse winds, she finally quit England on 22 May and arrived at Wellington four months later, on 13 September 1843. Francis Dillon Bell was a month short of his twenty-first birthday.


1. Saxton Diaries, Vol II, p46
2. New Zealand Company Records, NZC 102/11.
3. An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, Vol I, p188
4. Registers of St Mary's Church, Hornsey
5. An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, Vol I, p191
6. Letter David Monro to Miss C Monro, 18 September 1845 quoted in Thoroughly a Man of the World, Rex E Wright-St Clair, p70
7. Fatal Success, Patricia Burns (ed Henry Richardson), pp11–17
8.The Colonization of New Zealand by the New Zealand Company, thesis Michael Turnbull, pp97 and 98
9. ibid, p86
10. ibid, p96
11. New Zealand Company Records, NZC 31/3
12. ibid, NZC 18/2
13. Saxton Diaries, Vol I, p112 and New Zealand Journal, 21 January 1943, p19
14. ibid, Vol II, p73
15. New Zealand Company Records, NZC 102/11 and NZC 202/3