Bernard Charles Beale was born in London, England, probably on 10 September 1830, the son of Thomas Beale, a surgeon, and his wife, Sophia Lewis. Following his father's profession, he trained at London Hospital between 1849 and 1852 while working as dispenser of medicine and assistant surgeon at the workhouse run by the City of London Union. He qualified MRCS in 1852, and gained his LSA. After duty as a ship's surgeon in 1852–53, he served as medical officer to various boards of health administering the Poor Law. In Shropshire he met Catherine Griffiths Cooke, whom he married at London on 9 March 1861. They left London in April 1861 aboard the Sir George Pollock, on which Beale was surgeon, and arrived at Nelson, New Zealand, at the end of August.
Seeking to augment the uncertain returns from private medical practice, Beale applied unsuccessfully for a militia surgeon's post, but was appointed to Nelson Hospital in September 1862. Here he displayed the uncompromisingly principled behaviour which made him an uncomfortable colleague in many situations. Appalled by poor standards of hygiene and treatment at the hospital, he called for an official inquiry; and although an informal investigation largely upheld his complaints, his criticisms and intervention in the regimen of other surgeons' patients led to his discharge from the institution in October 1863. By then the invasion of Waikato by imperial and colonial troops had increased the demand for medical officers, and Beale was eventually commissioned assistant surgeon in the 4th Regiment of the Waikato Militia in April 1864. He spent several months treating militia families in barracks at Howick and Onehunga, and did not arrive at Hamilton, the regimental headquarters, until March 1865. Within five weeks he had been allocated his militia lands and struck off pay. Petitions to a parsimonious government by distressed settlers who required medical attention were to no avail. However, Beale did serve on half-pay as surgeon to the 3rd Regiment of the Waikato Militia in the Cambridge district for some months in 1866.
His precarious financial position was somewhat improved in 1868 when he was appointed local registrar of births, deaths and marriages and also coroner. The fees from such posts, together with income derived as medical officer to various provident and friendly societies, supplemented what his private patients were able to pay. Even so, with a steadily increasing family – Catherine Beale gave birth to nine children between 1863 and 1885 – he remained in straitened circumstances.
Financial difficulties may have impelled Beale to sue many patients over non-payment for treatment but his litigious inclinations were evident on other occasions. In 1881 he laid information against a man for pulling his son's ears during a lively election meeting. The court termed the episode trifling and fined the ear-puller a derisory sum. Beale himself had been charged with forcible entry in 1878: during a dispute with a chemist over a lease, Beale and a companion took possession of the premises and when the chemist approached, Beale 'put his fist up' in what a witness called 'a threatening manner'. Since he sometimes sat on the bench with other local justices of the peace, Beale's appearances in court in one role or another were fairly frequent.
As coroner, Beale was judged 'earnest, painstaking, and conscientious'. His medical work ranged from the treatment of accidents and illness, in country districts as well as the town, to encouragement of vaccination programmes, attendance at complicated confinements, and participation in surgical operations: as a physician, he was highly regarded, both by grateful patients and by other doctors who were pleased to call on his surgical expertise.
Beale topped the poll in the inaugural elections for the Hamilton Borough Council in February 1878. But his municipal career was brief and punctuated by controversy. For example, he objected to placing the borough's accounts with the Bank of New Zealand when one councillor was the local branch manager and others had close connections with the bank. The majority either ignored or did not understand Beale's principled stand, and on this as on so many matters he was in the minority. On another occasion he refused to withdraw 'certain words' used in attacking several councillors, and was censured from the chair. When he filed for bankruptcy in March 1879, there were public demands for his resignation, which he discounted, and in December of that year he stood unsuccessfully for the mayoralty.
In March 1880 factional strife on the council, in which Beale was a not unwilling participant, led to the resignation of the mayor and three other councillors. Despite his council record, there seems to have been a widespread belief that Beale's eloquence and learning would make him a successful mayor, and he was elected unopposed. He quickly dissipated this goodwill with his impatience and his quirky and arbitrary procedural rulings during council meetings. He did not stand again for municipal office after completing his mayoral term in December 1880, and indeed provoked indignation when he failed to attend the installation of his successor.
His excursions into the wider political scene also proved disruptive. At a meeting of Waikato electors in 1884, one critic complained that Beale was 'always ready to promote discord where good feeling prevailed'. A few days later it was reported that Beale had been supplied with an electoral roll on the understanding that he would canvass the town of Ngaruawahia in the cause of Edward Lake, the member for Waipa, but that he had instead canvassed for Lake's opponent.
Perhaps partly as a consequence of a parliamentary resolution in 1884 that coroners should not also be physicians in private practice, Beale resigned as coroner (and also as registrar) early in 1886, and moved to Ponsonby, Auckland, where he established a medical practice. Until 1888 he was also a physician at Auckland Hospital. He revived his military connections, and from 1887 until his transfer to the Retired List in 1905 was brigade surgeon to the Auckland Volunteer Militia. By then he was living at Avondale, where he died on 16 January 1910, survived by his wife, five sons and three daughters.
Beale Cottage, in Beale Street, Hamilton, built probably to Beale's own specifications in 1872, and used as a surgery as well as the family home, is celebrated as the oldest surviving house in the city. It serves as a local reminder of the tall London doctor with a spade-beard who for 20 years was a prominent early resident. From a less parochial perspective, Beale is an example of the host of surgeons who took their concerns with soldiering, health and administration to all corners of the British Empire.