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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

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BELL, Sir Francis Dillon


Runholder, statesman and public servant.

A new biography of Bell, Francis Dillon appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Francis Dillon Bell was born in France on 8 October 1822. His father, Edward Bell, of Hornsey, London, a member of a North Country Quaker family (originally from Cockermouth, Cumberland), had made a runaway marriage with Fanny, daughter of the Rev. J. Matthews of Cirencester, and carried on business, as a merchant at Bordeaux, where he was British Consul. Bell was educated in France by tutors and learned to speak the language like a Frenchman. At the age of 17, through the influence of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, a first cousin of his father, he entered the service of the New Zealand Company and was for a time assistant Secretary. He arrived in Wellington in September 1843 and was soon sent to Auckland to select lands for the Company; but Governor Robert FitzRoy objected to certain selections and the mission was eventually fruitless. While he was in the north war broke out and he served in the Auckland Militia as a Lieutenant until it was disbanded. He made an ascent of Mount Egmont in 1846 and discovered the Bell Falls. His aptitude for languages had soon given him command of Maori and, early in 1847, he was sent to the Wairarapa to buy a large tract from the Maoris, but was foiled by the influence of the squatters who were illegally leasing it. In June 1847 he was appointed resident agent for the company at New Plymouth. After Donald McLean had made some purchases, Governor G. Grey came up to press on the negotiations, but all Bell was able to purchase was the “Bell block” of about 1,500 acres. He was soon afterwards appointed to relieve Fox in Nelson. Later in the year Fox, who had been appointed principal agent of the Company in Wellington on the death of Colonel W. Wakefield, prevailed on him to make one more attempt on a purchase in the Wairarapa, which home instructions had suggested as first choice for the Canterbury settlement. Bell's persuasiveness had an effect both on the squatters and on the Maoris, but the news of Captain Thomas's proceedings on the plains behind Port Cooper (Lyttelton) spoiled his chances of success. Fox, however, was inclined to blame Bell. He was also annoyed at Bell's acceptance, during his absence in the South Island, of a seat on the newly formed Provincial Council of New Munster, which he considered prejudicial to the interests of the Company. In April 1849 Bell married Margaret Hort. Her father was a leading member of the Jewish community in Wellington, but she became an ardent Christian. Thomas Arnold, who met her later in the year, found her “not less intelligent than she was amiable”. Bell now returned to his post in Nelson, completed the Waitohi (Picton) purchase, and employed himself in straightening out the tangle of Nelson land claims. In August 1850 he, with two others, resigned his seat in the New Munster Provincial Council, having mistakenly interpreted a dispatch of Earl Grey (Secretary of State) to mean that as a nominee he was bound to support the Government. In April 1851 he was appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands in Wellington and as such, he took part in the sessions of the Legislative Council of New Zealand in June 1851 and December 1852.

When the new constitution was brought into operation Bell was elected, in Novermber 1853, to the Wellington Provincial council as member for Wairarapa and hawke's Bay. He was not elected to the House of Representatives, but was nominated to the Legislative Council and, on 30 June 1854, to the Executive Council, though on 11 July he retired from the latter in favour of T. H. Bartley, of Auckland. He sat in the Legislative Council in the short session of 1855, but at the general election at the end of the year was returned to the House of Representatives for the Hutt. He was a member of the short-lived Ministry of Sewell, the first under responsible government and, for part of the time, Colonial Treasurer. But he resigned from the House after the session and accepted an appointment as Commissioner under the recently passed Land Claims Settlement Act. Towards the end of 1859 he was elected unopposed for the newly created constituency of Wallace. He had not yet visited the district (though he had taken up with Stafford, C. W. Richmond, and F. G. Steward the Ida Valley run) but he favoured separation from Otago which was the great object of Murihiku (Southland) settlers and was achieved on 1 April 1861. He was the Southland representative on the commission appointed to adjust the debt between Southland and Otago.

Bell enjoyed Governor Gore Browne's confidence and (according to Domett) wrote some of his dispatches. Sir George Grey also had confidence in him and, on his return to New Zealand, appointed him Native Secretary, at the same time placing the Department under ministerial management. When the Domett Ministry was formed in August 1862 Grey persuaded Bell, against his inclination, to become Native Minister. He thus became Grey's chief instrument in the renunciation of the Waitara purchase. We may accept the statement (made by Domett in a letter to Stafford) that the facts given by Teira to Bell were new to him; but Grey had condemned the purchase when he heard of it in South Africa. Bell failed to appease the Maoris north of the Waikato River who were removed from their lands just before the outbreak of war in July 1863. He was more successful in a mission to Australia, in August, to raise a force of military settlers to fight the Maoris and settle on lands to be confiscated from them in the Waikato. But the Ministry fell in October and Bell, whose eyesight was failing, came south to settle in Dunedin. He added to his pastoral holdings as opportunity offered and, by 1874, had over 226,000 acres and nearly 80,000 sheep: he was not really interested in sheep, however, though he was a keen gardener, and left the management to others, eventually to his second son, Alfred. He remained a member of the House and, in 1865, he entered Otago provincial politics. He was defeated for the gold-fields constituency of Manuherikia, where run-holders were unpopular; but in April he was returned to the Provincial Council for Matau. He was defeated for Dunedin early in 1867, when the tide was running strongly in favour of Macandrew, who had just been re-elected Superintendent, but succeeded Vogel who had resigned from the Provincial Council, in May 1869.

On 2 July 1869, at the request of the Otago members, Bell joined the Fox Ministry. He held no portfolio, but at the end of the session he and Featherston were sent to England to secure, if possible, continued Imperial military assistance and a guaranteed loan. They failed in the first, but succeeded in the second and more important task. They were a good team: Featherston was the stronger character, but Bell was the better diplomat. This mission was perhaps the most important of Bell's many services to New Zealand: it checked the marked deterioration in relations between Great Britain and the colony, which seemed to be drifting towards separation.

Bell returned to New Zealand in 1870. He had resigned from the Otago Provincial Council (though he re-entered it as member for Oteramika in March 1871) but not from the House of Representatives, and was returned for Mataura in the general election early the following year. When the new House met on 14 August 1871 he was elected Speaker. He filled the post with distinction throughout that Parliament, but then retired. He had been knighted in 1873. Just before the session of 1877 he was nominated to the Legislative Council. Early in 1880 he was appointed, with Fox, a member of a Royal Commission to investigate the question of the confiscated lands on the west coast, to which attention had been drawn by the passive resistance of Te Whiti to the advance of settlement. The Commission held that the Maoris had not been ungenerously treated, but insisted that the reserves promised them must be marked out. The working out of the recommendations in detail had to be left to Fox, for on 7 December 1880 Bell was appointed to succeed Vogel as Agent General in London.

Only two men (W. P. Reeves and Sir William Jordan) have served longer terms than Bell as New Zealand representative in London. The post was admirably suited to his talents. Though the decline of the pastoral industry, owing to rabbits and low wool prices, made the mortgages on his properties an embarrassment and prevented him from entertaining on a lavish scale, he could fully hold his own in London society. The confidence he enjoyed in the financial world was an asset at a time when New Zealand's finances were severely strained and loans had to be raised on the London market. Instead of leaving matters to be arranged by the Crown Agents for the Colonies, he took charge of the management of the loans and made large savings in interest charges. Above all, the imperial ambitions of France and Germany in the Pacific called for all his diplomatic skill when New Zealand (and the Australian colonies) believed that their aspirations in Samoa, the New Hebrides, and New Guinea were being sacrificed to British interests in other parts of the world (Egypt in particular). Bell's services were of special value in connection with the French proposal to send relapsed criminals to New Caledonia and, perhaps, to settle liberated convicts in the New Hebrides. He went to Paris in 1883 to watch proceedings on the Relapsed Criminals Bill on behalf of all the Australasian governments. The Bill eventually passed the Chambers, though not until 1885; but later in that year the French Government offered to send no more convicts to the Pacific if Great Britain would leave France “full liberty of action in the New Hebrides”. Bell was in favour of this solution, especially if the island of Rapa (thought to be valuable as a coaling station if the Panama Canal should be completed) was ceded to Great Britain as part of the bargain. Stout, then Premier, also seemed favourable at first, but pressure from the Presbyterian Church, which had a mission in the New Hebrides, and lack of support from the Australian colonies, caused the project to fall through. Bell had been made K.C.M.G. in 1881. In 1886 he was an Executive Commissioner of the very successful Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London and received the further honour of C.B. Next year, with Fitzherbert, he represented New Zealand at the first Colonial Conference. When he retired in 1891 his services were acknowledged by votes of thanks in both Houses of Parliament.

Bell visited New Zealand at the end of 1891, but after a few months returned to London, where Lady Bell, whose health had been failing for some years, died on 12 June 1892. In 1896 he was persuaded by his family to come back to New Zealand. He died at Shag Valley homestead, Otago, on 15 July 1898.

Bell was a man of slightly over middle height and wore the sidewhiskers fashionable in his generation. Many of his contemporaries speak of his charming, courtly manners and Sir George Grey (no easy man to work with) in the House after his death praised his “imperturbable good temper”. He was never a strong party man: he had no fixed political opinions and was accused of speaking on both sides and voting in the middle. He did his best work as an adviser of others and as a public servant. Gisborne called him “one of the best public officers … New Zealand has ever known”. His indefatigable industry, patience, and skill in marshalling facts and arguments gave him a great reputation as a writer of offical reports. These qualities were particularly valuable in dealing with the mass of land claims which encumbered early New Zealand politics. He was also a ready, persuasive, and occasionally eloquent, if sometimes diffuse, speaker. Though hardly an artist of the calibre of J. C. Richmond or Fox, he had some talent as a water colourist.

by William Parker Morrell, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professorial Fellow, History and Political Science Department, University of Otago.

  • New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen, Gisborne, W. (1886)
  • The Provincial System in New Zealand, Morrell, W. P. (1932)
  • Sir Francis H. D. Bell – his Life and Times, Downie Stewart, W. (1937)
  • Northern Approaches, Moore, C. W. S. (1958)
  • Sir George Grey, Rutherford, J. (1961).


William Parker Morrell, M.A.(N.Z.), D.PHIL.(OXON.), Professorial Fellow, History and Political Science Department, University of Otago.