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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 XXX. — Conclusion. — Personal Characteristics And Private Life

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Chapter XXX.
Personal Characteristics And Private Life.

Popular opinion of Bell—His relations with Massey—with deputations, Civil Service, and fellow-members—As a Freemason—The Waitangi Trust—Tributes to his generosity—His home life—The end.


"This man is the uncrowned King of New Zealand," said a Labour member of Parliament in 1921, "he is one o£ the ablest men in the Southern Hemisphere." The statement referred to Bell, and represented a fairly general public opinion. When a Minister is known to exercise a powerful influence in Cabinet and in his Party, and at the same time his work does not call for frequent public speeches or platform oratory, the legend soon springs up of what has been aptly called " autocratic rule based on invisibility." Such a Minister comes to be regarded as all-powerful. He is usually described as "a sinister figure behind the scenes," who dictates the policy of the Government and directs even the Prime Minister. There have been various political leaders in New Zealand (even in the House of Repre-page 290sentatives) to whom this role has been attributed. A notable instance was Sir Frederick Whitaker, who seemed to prefer not to hold the highest office. On one occasion he took the Attorney-Generalship with precedence over the Prime Minister, whereupon a political wag declared that Whitaker declined the Premiership, but insisted on being served with soup at Government House before the Prime Minister! Be that as it may, we find the popular belief about Bell summarized by a cartoonist who pictured him as a burly old John Bull type with an authoritative face and portly figure. Underneath the cartoon, which is reproduced on the opposite page, appeared the following jingle:

Well, well, well, here's Dillon Bell,
A good old crusted Tory swell,
Who doesn't blether very much,
He leaves that to old Bill and such.
Content is he to pull the string,
Which makes the puppets dance and sing.
They have their day and come and go,
But Dillon, he still runs the show.

The "Old Bill" was the Prime Minister, familiarly called Bill Massey.

But great as Bell's influence was, it was never the case that he dominated Massey. He recognized that on all questions of political strategy and tactics Massey had a flair for knowing the trend of public opinion and what measures he could induce Parliament to adopt. This instinctive, practical, empirical knowledge of what the man in the street thought, Massey had gained by long years of arduous fighting and constant direct con-page 291
Sir Dillon Bell, K.C.(Leader of the Uppah. Haouse.)

Sir Dillon Bell, K.C.
(Leader of the Uppah. Haouse.)

page 292tact
with all classes of electors, both in town and country. So also within the wails of the House Massey was a great Parliamentarian—perhaps the last we shall see. He could sense every mood of the House with amazing adroitness. He would say:

"The House is a strange animal. You must learn to know that sometimes when it appears most dangerous it is really only mischievous, and will give way if you stand firm. At other times a slight squall may be the forerunner of a raging storm, and in that case you must be ready to compromise."

When someone spoke slightingly of Massey in his absence, Bell said indignantly:

"He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus."

On the other hand, when it came to a question of finding a solution to some difficult problem, or of drafting an intricate Bill, or of giving advice on legal and constitutional problems, Massey realized that Bell was a consummate master. Indeed, the qualities of these two men—the practical sagacity of the one and the profound learning and skill of the other—made an admirable political combination.


To the public Bell was never a familiar figure in the same sense as was Seddon or Massey. To be sure, the Hon. Mr. Samuel, a Legislative Councillor, declared on one occasion that Bell had the almost universal respect and admiration of the people of New Zealand. But he never studied the art of popular appeal. His speeches were masterpieces of logic and sound reasoning, but as Carlyle says of one of his characters, page 293"His talent for stump oratory may be considered the minimum conceivable, or practically noted as zero. He went about suppressing platitudes."

Sir Walter Carncross (Speaker of the Legislative Council) compared Bell's method of treating deputations to that of the British statesman who "kicked them downstairs with so charming a grace that they thought he was handing them up," and added that he delivered his opinion in so courteous and straightforward a manner that the interviewers went away satisfied. One paper declared that this expressed the public view, and that "the report of every deputation's reception increased the general public confidence in Bell." Nevertheless, those who appeared before him with long, carefully prepared speeches were sometimes hurt by his brusque and uncanny anticipation of all they intended to say. This procedure undoubtedly saved time, but was not always politic; for deputations which have come long distances like to air their views and to be able to report back to their districts a full account of their efforts, even if unsuccessful. I have heard men say with a touch of paradox that they would rather be granted a patient hearing followed by a refusal than be summarily dismissed with their petition granted.

And so, while normally Bell was urbane, polite, and charming, it ought to be added that at other times he sought, not only to dominate, but to domineer—and to gain his way by bluster and violent objurgative methods. Such an attitude wounded the sensibilities of strangers who considered him overbearing and truculent. At the same time, if they had the wisdom to stand up to him and pay him back in his own coin, Bell soon became rea-page 294sonable and even jocular, for in this mood He resembled the man described by Dante:

That plays the dragon after him that flees
But unto such as turn and show the teeth
Is gentle as a lamb.

Like Asquith, "he employed a code of something between grunts and growls, signifying assent, dissent, interrogation, or silence, that served him equally well." Nobody ever regarded his language as profane; it was merely his way of expressing himself.

On one occasion the Prime Minister, Mr. Massey, promised the House that he would consult Bell as Attorney-General. At the next sitting Massey said:

"Yes, I have consulted the Attorney-General. I will tell the House what my colleague advised, but (amid shouts of laughter) I cannot repeat to this House what he said."

In truth there was something naive and child-like in Bell's occasional outbursts. Once when someone was in the act of complaining to Massey that Bell had sworn at him, Bell entered the room and, in reply to Massey's inquiry, said with a disarming air of puzzled simplicity:

"That's strange, I cannot understand the complaint. I never swear except at my friends."

Often when he was thwarted by his colleagues in Cabinet and failed to get his way, he would threaten to resign. In this respect he resembled Lord Morley rather than Asquith, as the latter tells us he had a desk full of Morley's resignations which he wisely ignored and Morley remained at work.

Bell prided himself on his indifference to public opinion, and most people came to appreciate his down-page 295right answers to deputations, which were frank, and free from all political evasion, He was in fact a new and refreshing type in political life. On one occasion, his brother Arthur sent a newspaper containing an attack on Bell, who replied:

"Thanks for sending the paper extracts, but they pass by me like the winter wind, whether they do what Balaam intended when he set out or what that gent. did after his adventures with the donkey. The greatest compliment I ever had was from the editor of a rag here, who complained to me that it was no good attacking me because I never read the attack, and if anyone read it to me I only laughed."

One day a reporter put before me a violent attack on the Government finance written by his editor, and asked for some comment. I said that as Bell had only handed over the portfolio to me that day the reporter should interview him, to which the reporter ruefully replied:

" I have already seen Bell and he said, 'Does your editor think I am going to sit here all day to add up figures for him. Tell him to go to the devil'."


Bell's work in Cabinet revealed his great qualities as an administrator, and his astonishing grasp of the problems that arose in all departments. Just as photographs taken by an infra-red lens penetrate the fog and show up the distant landscape with absolute clearness, so Bell's mind saw all aspects of a question in high relief and with objective clarity. There were no ragged edges or shadows, and his mind concentrated page 296like a powerful searchlight on whatever question was under discussion. Everyone went to him for advice and assistance, and he was always prepared to lay aside his immediate task to help a colleague. Problems that seemed to them insoluble, dissolved in a remarkably short time under his powerful scrutiny, and no one ever left his room without clear and definite guidance as to what should be done; or if on rare occasions he took time to consider the problem it was not long before he dictated and despatched a masterly precis and explanation as to the best course to pursue.

When he was pondering a problem or listening to someone who sought his advice, his features became absolutely grave and immobile, as if he wore a mask, and he remained so silent that no one could guess what was passing in his mind. "When a man is thinking," says the writer George Moore, "his countenance empties itself, losing all expression." This may not be true in all cases, but it describes Bell accurately. When he had made up his mind he began to speak in slow and measured tones almost as if in a trance, unless he was smoking, in which case he was so constantly relighting his pipe that, as the saying goes, "he smoked matches."

All Government Departments were delighted when they found themselves with Bell as their Minister. He treated his officers with absolute courtesy, and, though his language was strong, he never bullied or blamed those under him. Indeed he was almost quixotic in the degree to which he took full responsibility for their errors of judgment, and he praised them publicly for any constructive proposals they submitted for his page 297adoption. For example, dealing with the Immigration Restriction Law, he said:

"The suggestion of this method of controlling the immigration of foreigners was due to the genius, the work, and the wisdom of the then Chief of Customs, Mr. Montgomery."

He was punctilious in his practice of never consulting the officers of any other Minister without first securing permission from his colleague to do so. When files of papers were submitted to him for consideration, they came back promptly with his decision clearly expressed, and often with a touch of dry humour that was not lost on the office staff. Nor did he repress any signs of the same quality on the part of his departmental chiefs, as may be illustrated by the following incident. We have already seen that, for many years, Bell on behalf of the Cabinet drew up the Governor's speech to be delivered at the opening of each Parliament. The speech always ends with a formula to this effect:

"I trust that you may be guided by Divine Providence in your consideration of these matters for the well-being and happiness of the people of this Dominion."

In sending the draft speech to the Treasury to check the details, Bell had by accident marked for comment this passage among others. When the draft was returned Bell appreciated the humour of a Treasury Official who had written opposite the formula:

"The doings of Providence are outside the scope of our jurisdiction, and accordingly we have no comment to make on this paragraph!"

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The reader will have seen from earlier chapters that as a correspondent Bell displayed delightful qualities of whimsical humour, and that nearly every letter ended with some apt quotation. He was extremely prompt in replying to correspondents, and usually answered a letter on the day of its receipt. His handwriting was beautifully regular, and though he himself described it as illegible it was only rarely that a word was difficult to decipher. Here are two more examples of his happy gift of quotation.

When Mr. T. E. Y. Seddon (son of the late Liberal Prime Minister) became engaged to be married in 1921 to Miss Wood, Bell wrote:

"Please accept the hearty good wishes of an old man for the young couple's future. You Liberals manage to cement your Party allegiance by marriages—the Woods thus allied with the Seddons and the Wards, ought to be a fundamental factor in the recovery of Canterbury from its late lapse into virtue. The Liberal Party is like Austria in that Bella gerant alii: tu, felix Austria, nube. (Let others make war—you, fortunate Austria, make marriage alliances.)"

The second example occurred when a legal practitioner who belonged to the Roman Catholic faith asked for Bell's friendly ruling on a point of legal etiquette. Bell sent him his decision and ended:

"These from my apostolic seat as Senior King's Counsel of the Dominion, urbi et orbi

F. H. D. Bell."

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This witty variation of the formula used by His Holiness the Pope delighted his correspondent who declared that no lawyer but Bell would have known of it.


It has not been possible within the limits of this book to deal with all Bell's many-sided life. But he was a Freemason for over sixty years and became Grand Master in 1894, and was re-elected in 1895. At that period there were grave differences and conflicts reflecting adversely upon the Craft, but Bell applied himself with untiring zeal as peacemaker. In 1895 he visited England and, with the assistance of other high Masonic officers, brought about harmony and union and the recognition desired by the New Zealand Lodges. His brethren declared that he had done more for the good and benefit of the Craft in New Zealand than any other brother.

There were also many legislative reforms carried by Bell which I have not sought to chronicle in detail. But mention should be made of the Aged and Infirm Persons Protection Act, 1912, which provided that the Court could appoint a manager of the affairs of people who through illness or senile decay were unable to manage them for themselves. "It is a favourite child of my own," said Bell, and it affords a good example of his human sympathy.


In 1932, the Governor-General, Lord Bledisloe, made a noble gift to the nation of the old British Residency at Waitangi where the Treaty of Waitangi was page 300signed, with 1,000 adjoining acres as an historic monument. He asked Bell to be one of the first Trustees as representing the Edward Gibbon Wakefield family, to whom, as he said, the Dominion owed an immense debt.

Lord Bledisloe to Sir Francis Bell, May 5, 1932:

"I was delighted to receive your letter consenting to be one of the first members of the Waitangi Trust Board as representing the Edward Gibbon Wakefield family. I was also glad to be reminded by your `family tree' of your exact relationship with that colonizing genius, although I had made myself acquainted with the degree of kinship several months ago. Although, as you now remind me, you are not a blood relation of the Wakefield family, your personal eminence in the Dominion and your known collateral relationship will undoubtedly render you in the public eye the most fitting person to represent the Wakefield family on the Board. The fact (which you mention) that the Wakefields and the New Zealand Company were hostile to the Missionaries of the North and opposed at the outset to the Treaty is the very fact which convinced me of the desirability of their representation upon the Board of Trustees if the transfer of this property to the nation were to be an opportunity of emphasizing the nationhood and national solidarity of the Dominion and of healing for all time the ancient controversies of those who in different ways contributed so materially to the country's welfare."

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Bell had a great capacity for enjoying life. He obeyed to the full the Apostle's injunction that we must be lovers of hospitality, and he was never happier than when surrounded by guests at his own home at Lowry Bay. This hospitality was rendered complete by the charm and graciousness of Lady Bell, who was admired and loved by all who knew her. At the close of every session he entertained the members of both branches of the Legislature, and on his visits to his old home in Shag Valley he rejoiced to be accompanied by a few of his fellow-members, among whom some of his favourites belonged to the Labour Party. On such occasions he drew freely on the rich treasures of his well-stored mind, and would talk about early politics or modern science with equal facility.

One of his favourite recreations was to travel on any large overseas vessel which happened to be visiting the coastal ports, and so renew his contact with the scenes of his earlier life both in the North and in the South Island.

While he loved to banter enthusiasts in social reform, " who want to regenerate the human race in a week," this did not prevent him from exercising the most practical help and sympathy to individuals who had met with misfortune in the battle of life. He seemed more interested in personal and practical philanthropy than in abstract causes or social theories. One day he said he had never read Karl Marx, and when I told him that even leading Socialists admit that they have only read digests and summaries of Marx's monumental volumes, page 302Bell replied, " If I read him at all I will read what he said himself and not what other people say he said."

A few illustrations of practical kindness are worthy of record. A Civil Servant confided to me the fact that his health had broken down and that he could no longer carry on his work. As he had a large family and could not afford to retire. he was in great distress of mind. I consulted Bell, who was then Acting Prime Minister, and he not only showed the deepest concern, but insisted on the officer taking a long sea voyage, which fortunately restored him to normal health and duty.

Another Civil Servant told me that, being laid aside with illness, he was surprised one day to get a letter from Bell enclosing a cheque for £50 as a gift.

The Hon. Mr. Isitt relates a still more striking instance of Bell's generosity. Mr. Isitt had overworked himself in his campaign for prohibition, and his supporters had promised him a trip to England for a two years' rest. But money was scarce.

" One day I received a letter signed by Sir Francis," he says, " which I read with absolute amazement. It contained an order for a two years' voyage to England and back in a reserve cabin in one of the finest boats then running. What that voyage cost the donor I can only imagine, but I know it was the turning point m my life … I was struck by the fact that in helping people he always insisted on the closest secrecy—he never advertised his own generosity."

When the Rent Restriction Bill was before the Council in 1932, Bell said:

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" There is no one with a greater respect for the rights of property than myself, but I have more sense of the duty of property than some honourable members. We are not only protectors of property, but we are also protectors of distress, or we ought to be."

"If the tenant can pay nothing," asked one member, " is the landlord to get nothing?"

Bell: "Yes."

It is pleasant to read the many genuine tributes paid by his political opponents to Bell's concern for the poor, and the Hon. Mr. Peter Fraser, the present Minister for Education, said:

" There was no one whose heart beat more truly for those who were most unfortunate particularly in the matter of housing and unemployment," and added that he never appealed in vain to Bell if legislation were needed to prevent exploitation by landlords.

Similar instances of his generous help to the unemployed were recorded by the Hon. Mr. Nash (Minister of Finance), who said:

" To me Sir Francis Bell represented the best type of political mind. He did not see things in the way I or my colleagues see them, but there was no misunder-standing how he saw things. He was one of the ablest and clearest thinkers I have ever been in contact with. He was one of the finest characters I have known."

When men of all schools of political thought join in praise of Bell's generosity one can see that his lack of interest in spectacular schemes for " the regeneration of the human race " is of little importance; indeed, may we not say that if every citizen exercised the great page 304Christian virtues of charity, benevolence, and neighbourly goodwill to the same extent as Bell did, Communism and other schemes to rebuild society would find little scope or standing ground?

The late Sir George Harper, who knew him from boyhood, says he was not a man to make friends easily, and had strong likes and dislikes, " but fortunately," he added, "we remained the best of friends and it was only a few weeks before his death that we had a long talk at the Club."


In the inner circle of politics—in the lobbies of the House where members met in friendly talk—it is no exaggeration to say that Bell was not only admired but loved by members of all parties. There his familiar figure was to be seen surrounded by a group of members, listening eagerly to his genial flow of conversation. At one moment a member would ask him how to draw a clause for insertion in a Bill. At another time he would remind a Labour member that some years before they had met in a prison camp which Bell was visiting as Minister of Justice:

" When I shook hands with you," said Bell, " and started a friendly talk, the warder reprimanded me for a breach of the regulations in speaking to a prisoner. Mind you, he was right and I congratulated him on doing his duty."

A member of Parliament who was also a laypreacher appealed to Bell for a solution of the old problem of how society is to maintain order at a time when religious sanctions are dying out—in other words page 305what is to restrain men if morality is cut adrift from theology? His questioner had been alarmed at witnessing the outburst of an angry crowd. In reply Bell said:

" In your religion do you still believe in Hell?"

" Oh no !" replied the member, " my religion is one of love."

" Then you must expect what you fear," said Bell, " for Hell was a most useful institution, and you have abandoned the only weapon you had as a sanction restraining people from misconduct."

In short, wherever a circle of members gathered he was always the centre of interest. An old Civil Servant writes:

"As a member of the Public Service I did not interest myself in Party politics. What did interest me as a citizen was the maintenance in the Government of the country of fundamental ethical principles, and it was in supporting these that Sir Francis in my opinion was a great intellectual force to the end of his life. His store of vitality must have been very great, for there was nothing which suggested advancing years or waning powers. His intellect seemed as robust and his character as resolute as ever."

In spite of the fact that Bell spent so much of his life at his office desk and took no regular physical exercise, his interest in outdoor life and many forms of sport was maintained throughout his long career.

As a young man he had been a keen yachtsman and cricketer. When he himself gave up playing cricket page 306his greatest pleasure was to watch the game, and on his visits to England he always tried to arrange his time-table so that he could see the big cricket matches at Lords and the Oval. He did a great deal to encourage young cricketers and always entertained Test teams at his beautiful home at Lowry Bay. Even the small street urchins who played cricket on the public streets fronting the Petone Esplanade had to be considered, and rather than interrupt their game he would instruct the chauffeur to make a detour through other streets.

Writing about cricket to his old friend Mr. A. B. Campbell of Napier in 1934, Bell said:

" In Auckland when I was at the Church of England Grammar School I played in the second eleven of which Jim (now Sir James) Coates was captain. At the Otago Boys' High School I played sometimes only in the first eleven. At Cambridge I played only in the Long Vacation eleven of St. Johns. I was never any d — d good either at bat or ball but loved the game. After I returned to New Zealand I had little time for cricket. I did play with the lawyers as skipper and occasionally in the Wellington Club team."

It would be difficult to record all his sporting interests, but how wide they were may be gathered from the fact that he was at various times President of the New Zealand Rugby Union, the Cricket Association, the Rowing Association, the Wellington Racing Club, and many other associations and social clubs.

" In fact," wrote Bell, " my place in all games was like Horace's in religious observance—he said of him-page break
"Taumamu," Bell's Home, Lowry Bay.

"Taumamu," Bell's Home, Lowry Bay.

page 307self
that he was Parcus deorum cultor et infrequeris."

(My prayers were rare and scant.)

He was devoted to children and never tired of giving parties or planning treats for his own grand-children and other people's children. In his own library he kept a box of toys so that his small grand-children could come and play there while he worked at his papers. For all young people, no matter what their ages, he showed a deep personal interest, and their plans and their hopes would be gravely considered, however trifling they might seem to others. It was this interest in youth which kept him young. It was no effort on his part to enter into their point of view, and he never suggested that things had been better in his young days.

He took great pains to preserve the native trees and native birds, and when time permitted his favourite relaxation was to sit on the verandah whence he could look at the hillsides covered with bush, and listen to the tuis and other native birds. To provide them with food he planted kowhai and flax trees all about the garden and was delighted at the successful result.

I have said that in later life he took no exercise, but in spite of this when occasion required he was able to do the most strenuous things, and could walk a long distance or climb steep hills or ride over rough country even at the age of eighty-one.

What astonished most people was his remarkable memory, which he had trained carefully as a young man, and this proved to him a great joy in later life. He could remember most of what he had read, and he could read all day long without any sign of weariness. It is said that he could quote nearly all the Bible, Shakes-page 308peare, Tennyson, and whole books of the classics. Sir James Allen says, " He knew his Bible as well as anyone I know."

One of his favourite hobbies was modern science, and he was unusually familiar with the work of Einstein. On his library table were to be found current scientific publications; and Lord Bledisloe in writing to him said:

" I am particularly interested to note that you take in such a publication as Nature and thereby keep au courant with scientific discovery."

On another occasion Lord Bledisloe wrote:

" I suspect you of being a far better classical scholar than your modesty permits you to acknowledge."

And indeed, his most intimate friends were the classics, for he loved the sound of Latin and Greek and would often recite from a Latin author while sitting at meals. His brother, Alfred, was also a keen classical scholar, with the same interest in scientific discoveries and theories, and their letters to each other were full of passages in Latin and Greek, which in their view expressed things better than modern English.

" The poet Horace," said his old colleague, Sir Heaton Rhodes, " loved his Sabine farm among the hills—he longed for a garden with a stream of ever-running water—for a patch of woodland at the back; for shade and shelter and for books of great men. Does that not answer to the life of Sir Francis Bell? There at Lowry Bay was his country home among the hills—his garden—the running stream— the bush at the back—and his library containing the page 309books of great old men. No wonder he loved to quote from Horace."

Sir Francis Bell died at his home in Lowry Bay on March 13, 1936. I will refrain from quoting the many tributes paid to his memory in Parliament, in the Law Courts, and in the many organizations of which he was a member.

" He was the prop and pillar of a state. He took great burdens and he bore them well."