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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times

Chapter II. — The First Generation. — Sir Francis Dillon Bell, 1822-1898

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Chapter II.
The First Generation.
Sir Francis Dillon Bell, 1822-1898.

Dillon Bell's early life—He joins the New Zealand Company—His arrival in New Zealand—Various public activities—Friendship with Sir George Grey—Provincial and General politics—Agent-General—Letters to his son.


Sir Francis Dillon Bell (father of Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell) was one of the pioneer colonists of New Zealand. His life was so varied, influential, and distinguished, and his son inherited so many of his characteristics, that a brief sketch of his career will be of interest to the reader. For it was in the environment of the father's manifold public activities in all parts of New Zealand that the son acquired his unique knowledge of New Zealand politics, of Native Affairs, and of the problems of the city merchant and the country squatter.

Strange to say, no biography has yet been written of Sir Dillon Bell. Yet his career in New Zealand, and later in London, is crammed with history, romance, and human interest. Unfortunately, he refused to allow his papers to be preserved, and (apart from public records) some family letters are all that escaped destruction.

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Sir Dillon Bell was born on October 8, 1822. He was the second, son of Edward Bell of Hornsey, London, who carried on business as a merchant in France. His mother was the daughter of the Rev. J. Matthews of Cirencester. His early life up to the age of seventeen was spent in France, where he was taught by tutors at Bordeaux and Auteuil. He thereby acquired, without effort, a mastery of the French Language, which proved invaluable in later life; for while Agent-General in London, half a century later, he was entrusted by the British Government with important diplomatic negotiations in Paris bearing on French claims in the Pacific. In 1839 he left France to become Assistant Secretary of the New Zealand Company in London, whose Court of Directors was then deeply embroiled in controversy with the British Government regarding its proposals for forming a settlement in New Zealand.

He arrived in New Zealand in 1843, and, although only twenty-one years of age, was soon engaged on behalf of the New Zealand Company in transactions of the greatest importance and responsibility, involving the expenditure of large sums of money. It was not long before he acquired a fluent command of the Maori language, and his tact and diplomacy made him an invaluable negotiator. For although his aloofness was occasionally a handicap in his contact with the colonial settlers, it was a great asset in dealing with the Maori Rangatiras. These chiefs were great gentlemen, with a fine appreciation in others of that same dignified reserve and old-world courtesy which they themselves so signally displayed in their speech and deportment.

Soon after his arrival at Wellington, Bell went to page 11Auckland, where his first efforts to secure land for the Company were frustrated by the erratic Governor FitzRoy. Later on, he made a further effort to acquire rural areas, but was anticipated by other land claimants, and the idea of forming a Company settlement in the north was abandoned. While in Auckland he served in the militia on the outbreak of hostilities with the Natives until the force was disbanded.

He served as a Magistrate at Nelson (1846), as a Resident Agent at New Plymouth (1847), and thereafter returned to Nelson as Resident Agent. During these years he was twice entrusted with the task of negotiating for the purchase of land in the Wairarapa. On the first occasion he could find no paramount chief with whom to negotiate, and was also hampered by the presence of squatters who (contrary to Governor Grey's warning) were illegally occupying the land. On the second attempt in 1848 he was on the point of completing the purchase of 900,000 acres when fresh complications arose, and the attempt was abandoned.

But at New Plymouth in the previous year he had been highly successful, and, with Governor Grey's assent, he purchased 13,500 acres, including the famous Bell Block. His reputation was now established, and at Grey's request in 1849 he joined the old Legislative Council that existed before our present Constitution came into force. However, Fox and the Court of Directors of the New Zealand Company objected to one of their officials occupying this post, and accordingly Bell resigned in the same year. Thereafter he devoted himself to straightening out the affairs of the Nelson settlement.

"He completed the Waitohi purchase; presided over page 12the committee of settlers to adjust the differences between the Company and its purchasers, and did regular duty as a Magistrate."

Among other important duties he was Commissioner for confiscated titles, and appeared before the Land Claims Inquiry Commission. When the New Zealand Company surrendered its charter in 1851, he was appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands in Wellington.


In the midst of these unceasing activities he found time to get married in 1849 to Margaret Hort, whose father was a prosperous Jewish merchant in Wellington. Thomas Arnold (a brother of Matthew Arnold), who visited Nelson in 1849, found her " not less intelligent than she was amiable, and to talk to her was a real pleasure." He also remarks on Bell's charming and delightful manners, "for which I suppose he was greatly indebted to his French education." (Passages in a Wandering Life.)

During the next thirty years Bell was continuously engaged in New Zealand public life. It would weary the reader to examine even a brief list of the many offices he held during this period. Under the new Constitution of 1853 he represented Wairarapa and Hawke's Bay in the Wellington Provincial Council, and at later dates represented various constituencies in the Otago Provincial Council. He was the first Minister to have charge of Government business in the Legislative Council, where sixty years later his son held the same office for a record period. He assisted to form the first responsible Government under the name of the Bell-Sewell Ministry in 1856. No other public page 13man has had the unique record of being twice returned to represent a constituency whose electors had never seen him. But the far-south constituency of Wallace gave Bell this distinction. In 1862 he was a member of the Domett Ministry, and of the Fox Ministry in 1869. He was also Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1870 to 1875, and a member of the Legislative Council from 1877 to 1882.


But his chief service while he resided in New Zealand was in his dealing with Native Affairs. For many years he was one of Governor Grey's most valued advisers.

"There was nobody in New Zealand," says Gisborne, "with better qualifications and knowledge to act as Commissioner of Land Claims and to unravel the tangled thread of land claims than Bell. For six years, from 1856 to 1862, he devoted himself with patience, skill and industry to the intricate problem presented by the confused mass of claims."*

It was also on his advice that Grey disallowed the validity of the Waitara purchase, and Grey complimented Bell and his colleague on the zeal with which they had made this investigation. When war was on foot in 1863, Bell went to the Waikato to try to limit the scope of the fighting by exercising his influence with friendly or doubtful tribes. On another occasion he visited hostile tribes near Auckland, and by his eloquence and facility in Maori speech he so impressed the Maoris that they remained at peace. In 1863 he went to Australia with John E. Gorst (later Rt. Hon.

* Gisborne's Rulers and Statesmen of New Zealand.

page 14Sir John Gorst) to secure military settlers for the frontier lands in the Waikato.

His last public service in New Zealand was again in connection with Native affairs, for in 1880 Fox and Bell were constituted a Royal Commission to investigate the confiscation of Native lands and the trial of Native prisoners. Their long experience of Native questions and their shrewd common sense enabled these two veterans to render a signal service to New Zealand.

It will readily be seen that these frequent changes from place to place during the early days of settlement gave the members of his family a wide and useful knowledge of every aspect of New Zealand life. While he was living in Otago from 1863 onwards, Bell became part-owner of a pastoral property in Ida Valley, Central Otago, which was known as the "Ministerial Run" because of the fact that Stafford and Richmond were partners with him.


The reader may consider that this crowded record of a long public life should have been enough to satisfy most men, but Dillon Bell's energy was still far from exhausted, and in 1880 he was appointed New Zealand Agent-General in London and he held this office under various Ministries until 1891. In this post he was conspicuously successful, and soon took a leading position among the overseas representatives. During the early 'eighties friction arose between Britain and France over the activities of the latter in the Western Pacific. As the problems that arose concerned the welfare of Australia and New Zealand, the British Government relied chiefly on Bell to conduct the negotiations in Paris. Here his courtly manners and page break
Sir Francis Dillon Bell, K.C.M.G., C.B.1822-1898.

Sir Francis Dillon Bell, K.C.M.G., C.B.

page 15knowledge of French made him an invaluable leader in the diplomatic field, and his efforts met with remarkable success.

In the sphere of finance, instead of leaving matters to be arranged by the Crown agents as had hitherto been the rule, he made himself a complete master of the subject; reorganized our loans; effected large savings in interest charges, and raised the credit of New Zealand to a level that was the envy of all the other Dominions. His success was all the more remarkable in view of the prolonged depression that prevailed in the Dominion during these years. Although from time to time bitter political criticism was raised against him in the New Zealand Parliament, he was consoled by the fact that he held the complete confidence of the financial world in London. On several occasions he was pressed to become a director of leading London banks, but he rightly regarded it as improper for an Agent-General to accept such offers. His appearance at public functions was always welcomed, as he was a fluent and eloquent speaker.

"I was selected," he writes on July 15, 1886, "to return thanks with Lord Lorne at the Mansion House the other night, and received quite an ovation—heaps of people talking to me of what I had said, and the Prince of Wales, when the exhibition folk were at Windsor, was kind enough to say before the whole court as he shook hands with me, 'Thank you very much for that speech the other night'."

But, in spite of his success, his life in London (or Babylon, as he sometimes called it) was overclouded by constant and harassing private worries, for the pastoral runs in which he was interested in Otago were page 16not paying; indeed they involved him in heavy annual losses and he struggled bravely against the nightmare of a threatened collapse of his private finances. It was not till the eve of his retirement that signs of improvement began to appear on the horizon.

Another vexation was the failure of Atkinson to keep him advised on important changes in politics and public finance in New Zealand. He writes on November 18, 1887:

"Every Premier except Atkinson has always written to me since I came to England, but I never had a line from him when he was in office, nor do I in the least expect that he will write now."

This did not imply any personal hostility to Bell, for Atkinson was the worst correspondent in the world and hardly ever wrote a letter to any one. Hence Bell was forced to rely to a great extent on letters from his son to know what was going on behind the scenes in New Zealand politics.

To add to all these worries, his wife, to whom he was passionately devoted, was often seriously ill, and at times every moment that he could spare from his official duties was spent in seeking to recuperate her health by visits to the country or to Switzerland.

"The position of a public man," as Sir George Grey truly said in 1851, "is often much misunderstood in the world. He is expected at all times, and under all circumstances, to keep an easy temper and a cool judgment, and have no imperfections of any kind. Rarely is allowance made for private misfortunes, for domestic sorrows, for difficulties and obstacles, and for a hundred things which try men most and make their tasks most difficult and irksome."

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The fact that these private financial worries and domestic sorrows so sorely hampered Dillon Bell make his success the more creditable. For he was unable to exercise hospitality, and he was an experienced enough diplomat to know that an Englishman never likes to settle any business without discussing it over the dinnertable. On this point he writes on March 30, 1888:

"There is not the slightest reason why a new Agent-General should not do the Colony far more good than I by going into society and spending money on entertaining. 'Tenez bonne table et soignez les femmes,' was Napoleon's simple instruction to his ambassadors, and no one can tell what good might be done by a man who had the means to accept the 'open sesame' of great houses which over and over again has been pressed on me. At the same time, immense as would be the advantage to the Colony of having a rich man as Agent-General, there is one thing that is growing every day to counteract it— the departmental work is very hard and requires incessant care. A 'society man' simply could not do it. In my case it is the fact that I have not had a single week's continuous rest for five years. I literally ran away last July, but hardly was my back turned, when heaps of work kept pouring in till there was nothing for it but to give it best, and come back to the treadmill."

Dillon Bell frequently expressed the opinion that the Agent-General should have no fixed tenure of office, but should be liable for recall at any time in the same way as an ambassador.

"March 30, 1888.

"I retract nothing of what I said in the despatch page 18which was laid before Parliament in 1885 as to the inexpediency of an Agent-General being an officer with any permanent tenure. The Ministry must always have power to recall an Agent-General so long as it is not done for party purposes. But the tendency of things is to make the Agents-General sort of envoys and to assimilate their position here to that of diplomatists, An absurd proposal has even been made, Rosebery auctor, to put them into the Lords. I need not tell you I have ever treated it with derision. At any rate, saving the right of Ministers to recall him, an Agent-General might remain at his post as long as Lord Lyons, and nobody be the worse, if he could be depended on for three things; first, to keep in touch with his colony; second, to manage finance properly; and third, to keep his hands from temptation about directorships and so forth … Supposing Atkinson to speak to you about the Agent-Generalship, you may tell him that I would stay if he offered me another term of four years, but what I should myself think the best plan would be for him to ask Parliament whether there is a necessity for naming a term at all. The Ministry should be free to, recall the Agent-General just as the Ministry in England is free to recall an ambassador. But the recall should not be an act done for party objects, or to subserve a party intrigue, or even the patty interests of the moment. It should be done for reasonable cause and in the face of the public."*

* Dillon Bell's view that an Agent-General or High Commissioner should be liable to recall in the same way as an ambassador would avoid one of the objections to the raising of the status of the office advanced by Professor Berriedale Keith. That learned authority argues that to elevate the status of High Commissioners would offend against a fundamental constitutional principle, for they hold office for fixed tenures and changes of Ministry require the power to recall. (Imperial Unity and the Dominions, p. 536 et seq.).

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His high opinion of Atkinson is worth recording.

December 28, 1889.

"Your account of Atkinson's health is more alarming than any before, and points to a far graver state than I had imagined, and with every word you say about him I agree. A rugged nature, but transparently faithful and sincere, with unrivalled administrative power and knowledge. He has been shamefully abused by his enemies, and still more shamefully betrayed by his friends. Who is there now in the House at all fit to take his place except Hall? And I cannot think Hall would be idiotic enough to take the reins.

"It only remains now to see who will be chosen to succeed me. A rumour states that Stout will come, but I can hardly think it would pay him to throw up his profession, and I am still inclined to bet on Vogel as the man … After all, I often think of what you said to me long ago, that no one attaches importance in the Colony to the way in which he is represented in England, and that people only think of the Agent-General as an ordinary civil servant. Meantime I have been treating Ballance since he came into office exactly in the same way as all his predecessors, just as if he had not from the first shown even ten years ago, animosity of a bitter kind against me … Ballance and I keep exchanging cables constantly on various subjects, and I imagine he is well in the saddle. I agree with you entirely as to his being likely to stay in for his three years. Why not? Atkinson's party is demoralized by his secession. I do not think it will unite itself quickly under another chief. In vain will the men urge either page 20the election of Rolleston or Bryce; neither of these is made of the stuff to form a competent party, and neither of them has anything that can be called a real personal following. I shall be greatly surprised if the Atkinson party will as a party be content to crystallize itself under either of them during, at any rate, this session. It seems early even to conjecture what policy Ballance and his side will bring out, yet they will really be governed by Stout, always supposing Stout remains in the Colony and he will not let them run amok against property. In vain the Socialist leaders will cry out that they pledge themselves to do this and do that. Stout has been before, and will be again, a moderating power against mere confiscation schemes. Long ago I felt sure the Labour Party would run candidates for every seat they could, but the property classes, apathetic and indolent wherever they were not eaten up by pure selfishness, would take no warning from the grave symptoms around them, and having complacently sat down supposing they had gained a real victory, were astounded at the Unionists revenge."

On the rare occasions when he was free from worry his letters are full of delightful humour and anecdote. For example, writing about the Lord Mayor's banquet, at which the order was for decorations to be worn, he says:

"In France it is such a matter of course for everyone to be decorated (you remember the bon mot 'Who is Monsieur? Français non décoré de la Légion d'honneur') that on any official paper or form after your name there is your decoration to be stated, and a printed column is left for it. At C. M.'s marriage page 21all the 'témoins' were 'décorés' and much curiosity was expressed about the proper way to translate on the printed form for M. Le Maire du IX eme arrondissement—what was a Knight Commander. I went in state (you know that is allus done at Johnnie Crapaud's functions) and the women cried out 'Bon Dieu' v'là—v'là l'Ambassadeur de Rome'."

On his retirement in 1891 Dillon Bell was paid the unusual compliment of having his services acknowledged by votes of thanks passed by both Houses of the New Zealand Parliament. As an administrator, Gisborne considered him one of the best officials New Zealand ever had:

"He has a mind remarkable for its perceptive faculties and for its analytical powers. His industry is indefatigable. His fondness for work grows by what it feeds on, and in fact he often makes work for his own enjoyment."

He visited New Zealand in 1891, but after his return to England his wife died there in 1892. His son urged him to return to New Zealand, but he wrote:

"I have passed out of the scenes in which I bore a part, both here and in my own country, which will ever be very dear to me, and nothing could ever make me re-enter them or revive the companionships of the time when I was a free man. And when you tell me you hope I may be persuaded to stay, my answer must always be as it is to-day, that I must come back to the spot where my love lies buried. Even now, though Spring has not yet come, early blossoms are showing over her quiet grave."

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But in 1896 he was persuaded to return to New Zealand, and he died on July 15, 1898, at his home at Shag Valley, Otago.


Thirty years later, Sir Francis Bell received from a relative in England an oil-painting of his father. Writing to his brother Arthur on November 18, 1928, he said:

"I gave it to the Legislative Council of which he was an original member in 1854, and they have taken out a panel of the wood lining of the Chamber and inserted it there—and I have arranged to put his decorations (K.C.M.G., Légion of Honour and Bath) in glass under it. So we have his name and these insignia of office preserved from the pawnbroker—I am sure this will interest you."