Francis Henry Dillon Bell, known to his friends and family as Harry, was born at Nelson, New Zealand, on 31 March 1851, the eldest son of the former New Zealand Company agent Francis Dillon Bell and his wife, Margaret Hort. Bell was educated at the Church of England Grammar School in Auckland and the High School of Otago (later Otago Boys' High School), Dunedin, where he was head boy and dux. He entered St John's College, Cambridge, England, in 1869 graduating BA in mathematics in 1873, and was called to the English Bar in 1874. He worked in the chambers of Sir John Gorst, a family friend, and it was presumably as a result of this connection that he came to campaign for the Conservative party in the 1874 election. Bell rejected an offer to remain in England, and returned to Wellington in 1875 to take up a legal practice as junior partner to C. B. Izard.
Bell quickly made his mark in his profession, particularly as an advocate in the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal. He was Crown solicitor in Wellington from 1878 to 1890, and twice refused to accept appointment as a judge in the 1880s. In 1875 he and four other barristers began the Colonial Law Journal, which saw the beginning of law reporting in New Zealand. Bell was also partly responsible for collecting arguments and decisions of the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal into The New Zealand law reports, the chief reference work for reports of that period. Bell made a special study of the law relating to Māori, and was often engaged in important cases dealing with land and with access to fisheries and lake beds. He married Caroline Robinson at Christchurch on 24 April 1878; they were to have four daughters and four sons. In 1886 Bell became senior partner in the firm which went through various combinations in his lifetime, the last being Bell, Gully, MacKenzie and Evans.
Between 1889 and 1893 Bell was heavily involved as leading trustee in the disposal of the great Cheviot Hills estate of his late father-in-law, William Robinson. In order to resolve family disputes, Bell sold the estate to the Ballance government under the Land and Income Assessment Act 1891, thus unexpectedly paving the way for a new era in state land settlement.
As a rising lawyer and son of a former minister, Bell was soon under pressure to enter politics. He was elected mayor of Wellington in 1891, 1892 and 1896. In response to two typhoid epidemics in the early 1890s he took a determined initiative in giving Wellington its first modern drainage system. He also left the city a free public library and other amenities.
Bell had declined to stand for Parliament in 1881, but came forward unsuccessfully as an independent with a liberal land policy in 1890. In 1892 he contested a crucial Wellington by-election, which was widely regarded as the first major test of the new Liberal government's popularity. Bell as local notable was pitted against an array of ministers. His connection with large landholders was used against him and the government gained a narrow victory.
In 1893 Bell stood successfully as an oppositionist. He had disposed of Cheviot Hills, and had substantial support from prohibitionists and from women voters organised by his wife. He was an improbable politician, being dogmatic and prosaic in style and impatient with questioners; he is said to have been inclined to lose his temper under the raillery of opponents. He proclaimed himself a radical and socialist, agreeing with most Liberal legislation while resenting Premier Richard Seddon's methods of administration. Following the election, the journal Fair Play accused him of having been 'exhilarated by something other than his victory' during a celebration party. Bell sued for £501 damages; he proved to be a poor witness in his own defence and was awarded only £1.
Although Bell showed skill as a constructive critic of bills, his inability to make the transition from courtroom to debating chamber was soon painfully obvious. He could not refrain from addressing the House as he would a not-very-intelligent jury – indeed, he had treated juries in the same way. The House soon had enough of him, and he of the House. The main benefit of this brief essay into politics was Bell's friendship with his benchmate, William Massey.
Bell retired from politics in 1896 and returned to his busy legal practice. Following Robert Stout's appointment as chief justice in 1899, he was soon widely regarded as leader of the New Zealand Bar. He appeared in appeal cases before the Privy Council between 1900 and 1909, when his cogent and meticulous arguments impressed British jurists. Bell was appointed one of New Zealand's first king's counsels in 1907. From 1902 to 1910 he again served as Crown solicitor for Wellington, and from 1901 to 1918 was president of the New Zealand Law Society.
Bell seems to have taken no active part in politics in these years. Following Massey's becoming prime minister in 1912 he was appointed to lead the Legislative Council, the only non-Liberal nominee in 21 years. He soon gained a unique ascendancy by force of personality and incisive intellect. Bell was the leading advocate of an elective Council, based on proportional representation; he apparently regarded this as a bulwark against the possibility of the power of appointment falling into the hands of a radical government. With Massey's support he managed to pass the Legislative Council Act 1914 over the objections of the existing Council. It was to take effect at the first general election after 1 January 1916, but Liberal leader Joseph Ward made its non-operation a condition of his joining the National government in 1915. The act became a dead letter after the First World War.
Although by rank a junior minister Bell became Massey's right-hand man in administration and legislation; in these respects it was a Massey–Bell ministry. He offered to stand down to allow the formation of the National government, but was retained as attorney general. The task of framing bills and regulations to meet the demands of an unprecedented war was primarily undertaken by Bell, in conjunction with John Salmond.
Bell had firm views on New Zealand's responsibilities as partner in the British Empire, supporting conscription and steady overseas reinforcements. Yet he initiated the ultimatum to Britain for an adequate naval convoy in October 1914, threatening to resign if the request was not granted. He was also responsible for inserting into the Military Service Act 1916 a clause allowing exemption on religious grounds. When New Zealand was awarded a mandate over Western Samoa in 1919, Bell drafted the legislation setting up the new government.
In the post-war Reform cabinet, Massey looked more and more to Bell's advice, and Bell held a wide variety of portfolios. Massey's shrewd management of men was complemented by Bell's sage advice on legislation, although the two strong-willed men sometimes clashed in spectacular argument. Bell was acting prime minister in 1921, from 1923 to 1924 and in 1925. In 1922 Bell visited England and represented New Zealand at the League of Nations and at conferences at The Hague and Geneva. Unlike Massey, Bell's devotion to the British Empire co-existed with strong support for the League of Nations. He was also responsible in 1923 for completing the long-overdue reform of New Zealand's system of conveyancing and land transfer. In these years Bell was actively involved in the affairs of Western Samoa, campaigning to preserve the health of Samoans and to extend education with a view to eventual self-government. He brought improvements to the marketing of copra in an effort to strengthen the territory's financial base.
The climax of Bell's political career came on the death of Massey on 10 May 1925. Parliament was not in session, and the Reform Party was without a clearly designated successor to its late chief. In the circumstances, Bell was ideally suited to undertake temporary leadership: he stood apart from party organisation, he had been for some months de facto prime minister and he was known to have no political ambitions. Massey had probably advised the governor general, Lord Jellicoe, to send for Bell, who took office on 14 May, thus becoming the first New Zealand-born prime minister. However, he scrupulously refrained from any activity not of a stop-gap nature, and left the parliamentary Reform Party completely free to choose between the two main contenders, W. Downie Stewart and J. G. Coates. Immediately on Coates's election on 30 May, Bell resigned to make way for him.
The inexperienced Coates was glad to retain Bell as attorney general and minister of external affairs, and at his request Bell accompanied Coates to the Imperial Conference of 1926. Bell opposed the Balfour Report, which was later embodied in the Statute of Westminster 1931. He did not favour the dominions being placed on a level of equality with Great Britain, and hoped that the statute would never become operational in New Zealand. Bell continued to lead the Legislative Council until 1928. He was much consulted during the negotiations which led to the United and Reform parties forming a coalition government in 1931, although he himself opposed the move. He continued his involvement in politics until his death at Lowry Bay, Wellington, on 13 March 1936. Caroline Bell had predeceased him on 8 September 1935.
Bell's aloofness from party strife, his Roman sense of responsibility and his magnanimous approach to public issues – qualities which may have owed something to the Jewish and Quaker elements in his background – entitle him to the rank of statesman. He was appointed a KCMG in 1915, a GCMG in 1923 and a privy counsellor in 1926. He may also be regarded as the supreme example of a tory radical in New Zealand politics. He placed the state above sectional interest and groups advocating its violent overthrow. Yet, on questions involving individual liberty and welfare, he was often found on the left; he was on good terms with Labour MPs and enjoyed arguing with them.
Bell has been described as the outstanding lawyer in New Zealand history, yet he also held high office in an astonishing range of public and sporting organisations. He was at various times president of the Wellington Rugby Football Union and the Wellington Racing Club, and was president of the Wellington Cricket Association from 1893 to 1936. A Freemason for over 60 years, he was grand master in 1894 and 1895. Bell was endowed with remarkable powers of concentration, and could move quickly from one concern to another with apparent ease. He impressed his contemporaries with his powerful, indeed overmastering, personality; he usually ended up by holding the floor at any informal gathering. He could not suffer fools (or sometimes even opposition) gladly, and possessed fearsome powers of invective. Some victims and opponents considered him an arrogant bully. On the other hand, he was renowned as a generous mentor of young colleagues, a genial host and an open-hearted philanthropist. It is difficult to find a parallel to so many-sided a man in New Zealand public life.