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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 III. — Sir Francis Bell. — His Birth and Early Days

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Chapter III.
Sir Francis Bell.
His Birth and Early Days.

Birth in Nelson—The family moves to Wellington—The earthquake of 1855—Romance of an earlier earthquakeThe Bell Block.

Sir Francis Bell was born in Nelson at the residency of the New Zealand Company on March 31, 1851. Nelson had then been in existence as a settlement for about ten years, and had a population of about five thousand. It is famous for the number of able public men it has nurtured, and in the course of its history it has produced five Prime Ministers for New Zealand, the last of whom was Sir Francis Bell. At the time when Sir Francis was born his father was the Resident Agent of the New Zealand Company at Nelson, after having carried out over a number of years special and responsible duties for the Company in Auckland, New Plymouth, Wairarapa, and various other places.

But, early in 1851, the New Zealand Company, after a stormy and chequered career, surrendered its charter, and in April of the same year, the month after the birth of Sir Francis, his father was appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands in Wellington, which at that time had with its near-by settlements a population of page 24about seven thousand four hundred. By June the family had established itself at the Lower Hutt, near Wellington.

Many years later, when the Hutt Borough Council set aside part of what is known as the "Bell Block" in the Hutt Valley as a reserve to be called the "Bell Park," Sir Francis Bell wrote to the Borough Council:

"Your letter has given great pleasure to my family and myself, and I thank the Reserve Committee most sincerely for their proposal to name the 'Bell Block' 'Bell Park.' My father, after the dissolution of the New Zealand Company, came from Nelson, where he had been the Company's Resident Agent, to live at the Hutt in 1850 or 1851. We lived at the Hutt on what was known I think as 'Taine's Acres' until 1855 when we moved to Auckland, the then seat of Government.

My father, who had been a member of the Legislative Council in the first session of Parliament in 1854, resigned that seat to stand for the Hutt Constituency in the House of Representatives, was elected, and with Mr. Sewell formed the first Government under the Constitution known as the Bell-Sewell Ministry in 1856. He was also a member of the first Provincial Council, but whether he represented the Hutt in that Council I am not sure…. The more famous 'Bell Block,' known still by that name, is in Taranaki, being the land purchased from the Natives by my father for the New Zealand Company in the early' forties."

While the family was still living at the Hutt there occurred the great earthquake convulsion of February 23, 1855. This caused alarming havoc in the small page 25settlement which then constituted the future City of Wellington. Many buildings were completely ruined, including the Government Offices, the Union Bank, and hotels.

"Government House, had it been occupied, must have destroyed its inmates, for in every room was a pile of brickwork and the chandeliers were utterly destroyed. The guard had a wonderful escape from the guard-room, and the gun at the flag-staff turned over.

"For eight hours subsequent to the first great shock the tide approached and receded from the shore every twenty minutes, rising from eight to ten feet and receding four feet lower than at spring tides."*

Bell was then a small boy of about four years of age, and retained all his life a vivid recollection of the catastrophe. Indeed, when he must have been close on eighty years of age, he astonished me one day by stating that he had just been out to the Hutt to visit his old nurse who as a young girl had carried him out to the garden for safety when the earthquake shock occurred.

Perhaps Bell never knew that another great earthquake of an earlier period may have been possibly the direct cause of his father's romantic marriage. In 1848 there was a violent shock of earthquake which killed three people in Wellington, and was so severely felt in Nelson that a number of settlers left for the new and attractive gold-fields of California; and this exodus, we are told, greatly retarded the future progress of New Zealand, But if we are to believe an old Nelson diary the earthquake had a contrary effect on the fortunes of Bell's father.

* Saunders, Vol. I, p. 258.

Saunders, Vol. I, p. 313.

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"January 5,1849. Mr. Poynter came and invited me to dine with Mr. Sweet and Captain Luke of the 'Fly.' We had fish and fennel sauce, mutton, pears, &c. Captain Luke said that the earthquake (in Wellington) disturbed him in the night by tossing the ewer out of the basin on to the floor. From the window he saw the chimneys down and thought the other end of the town destroyed. There was a general run out into the streets. On this occasion here were some scares. Miss Hort and Dillon Bell met in the terror. He recognized her with 'What! Is that you Margaret?' and she sank into his arms with 'Oh Francis' and so the marriage was settled there."*

Lest the foregoing narrative should lend colour to the belief too commonly held in countries overseas that earthquakes are a constant feature of New Zealand life, it should be added that no further serious earthquakes have since occurred except those at Murchison in 1929 and Napier in 1931.

* Extract from a diary in the possession of Dr. Bett of Nelson.