Francis Dillon Bell, usually called Dillon, is said to have been born in France on 8 October 1822. His father, Edward Bell, was a merchant and the British consul at Bordeaux. His mother, Frances, was the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, the Reverend J. Matthews. Dillon Bell was tutored at home in Latin, Greek, German, painting and music, and grew up speaking French as fluently as English. However, by the time he was 14 his family was in financial difficulties and he had no chance of further education or professional training. In 1839 his father's cousin, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, found him a clerical position in the London office of the New Zealand Company.
By 1841 Bell was acting secretary to the company. He was responsible for many of the arrangements for the settlement at Nelson, to which his brother, Angelo, sailed, as secretary to Arthur Wakefield. Within a year Angelo was dead from typhoid. When Bell unfortunately fell foul of the influential company director, Joseph Somes, Wakefield suggested that he might go to Nelson as an agent for absentee land purchasers and immigration agent for the company. Wakefield's suggestion that Bell could work up an income of £2,000 a year was enough to persuade him to emigrate.
Bell arrived in New Zealand on 12 September 1843 aboard the Ursula. William Wakefield sent him to Auckland to buy land for the company and then to Nelson. Bell based himself in Nelson but his income fell far short of expectations. He became involved in local organisations such as the Nelson Institute, attended meetings of landowners and occasionally went on missions for Wakefield, but he was frustrated by his lack of responsibility and promotion. In February 1847 he accepted a commission from Governor George Grey to negotiate with Wairarapa Māori for land purchases. He failed and returned to Nelson until August, when he took up a post as the company's resident agent at New Plymouth.
Bell's work at New Plymouth focused on land acquisition and on distributing to a group of fractious claimants a block previously purchased by Donald McLean. At the end of February 1848 Grey and Bell discussed Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke's proposal to return to Taranaki. They agreed that Kīngi's position on the northern bank of the Waitara River should be respected and that Bell should negotiate with Puketapu Māori for land south of the Waitara. Bell carried out these and other negotiations successfully in March and April 1848.
In the meantime William Fox, company agent at Nelson, had resigned and Bell was appointed in his place. On the way to Nelson Bell stopped at Wellington and found William Wakefield seriously affected by a stroke. He stayed to help with company affairs and Wakefield wrote to the London board recommending that Bell be his successor. However, on Wakefield's death Fox arrived in Wellington and, acting on a power of attorney, took over as principal agent. Bell, angry at being outwitted by Fox, attached himself to the governor. In December he accepted a seat on Grey's nominee Legislative Council for New Munster. Fox had rejected the same offer and was furious with his subordinate. Bell's action established his reputation for time serving. He regained some credibility when he resigned the seat in 1850.
Before Bell took up his Nelson post he revisited Wairarapa to see if he could persuade the Māori to sell their land. This time his negotiations seemed about to succeed when the news arrived that the Canterbury settlement would be sited at Banks Peninsula. With no immediate prospect of a body of settlers for Wairarapa the negotiations were broken off and Bell returned to Wellington. In December Grey and Bell negotiated the Waitohi (Picton) land purchase.
In Wellington Bell had met Margaret Joachim Hort, third daughter of the Jewish merchant Abraham Hort. They were married on 2 April 1849, although the refusal of the local Anglican minister, supported by his bishop, to conduct a marriage between partners of different religions, forced them to resort to a civil ceremony. They were to have six sons and one daughter.
After their marriage the Bells moved to Nelson, where again Bell's main business was sorting out company settlers' claims to land and compensation. He played a part in the constitutional agitation of 1849–50, but was not much concerned with constitutional principles, although he now frequently spoke against nomineeism.
When the New Zealand Company folded in 1850, Bell lost his position in Nelson and moved to the Hutt. Grey appointed him commissioner of Crown lands and he became an official member of the Legislative Council, reconstituted by Grey in 1851. In 1853 he was elected to the Wellington Provincial Council and in 1854 was appointed to the Legislative Council established by the Constitution Act 1852.
During the first session of the General Assembly the Legislative Council demanded that it have a member on the Executive Council, and Bell joined James FitzGerald, Frederick Weld and Henry Sewell in office. Sewell regarded him as a good man of business, with a 'plastic mind', and, although not weighty, unlikely to embarrass. Within a few days Bell resigned and returned to Wellington, worried about the health of his wife, Margaret Bell. In the 1855 general election he won a seat in the House of Representatives for the Hutt. During the session of 1856 he briefly held office as colonial treasurer under Sewell.
In November 1856 Bell, having resigned from the House in October, was appointed land claims commissioner. A couple of years later, with Edward Stafford and C. W. Richmond, he took up a large sheep station in Otago. In 1860 he was elected MHR for Wallace, and fought strongly for the creation of Southland as a separate province.
By the early 1860s Bell was one of the settlers most experienced in Māori affairs and land ownership; he had long spoken Māori fluently. He became one of Governor Thomas Gore Browne's chief advisers after the Waitara purchase, which he staunchly defended. When W. B. D. Mantell became native minister in July 1861, Bell took charge of the Native Office, seeming to see no conflict between his positions as an elected member of Parliament and as an administrator. In September he moved resolutions in Parliament which placed the administration of Māori affairs under the native minister and matters which affected imperial interests, chiefly defence, under the governor, a division of responsibility which would allow the colonists to escape financial liability for any war.
His administration of Māori affairs was not particularly efficient or vigorous. He was half-hearted about the 'peace policy' adopted by Grey and Fox after Grey's return to New Zealand in August, and gave little support to the new rūnanga system which the governor proposed to introduce. When Mantell resigned his portfolio in December, Bell refused to take over the ministerial position, although he continued to administer native affairs until May 1862, when Fox relieved him of the duty.
When Alfred Domett became premier in August 1862, Bell took office as minister of native affairs. He continued to regard himself as an administrator, holding a political post which no one else was willing to hold, and agreed with Domett's policy that the governor should retain responsibility for Māori affairs. In the ministry Bell was easily led by Thomas Russell, who persuaded him to pass the Native Lands Act, later used as a mechanism for the easier purchase of land by the Europeans. He was with Grey when the Tataraimaka block was reoccupied, an action leading to the renewal of the war in Taranaki. He also advised Grey to return the disputed Waitara block to Kīngi. Bell acquiesced in Grey's invasion of Waikato and in August 1863 visited Australia to recruit military settlers. He lost office in October, when Domett resigned, and Fox, with a policy of ministerial responsibility for Māori affairs, regained the premiership.
For the next few years Bell played a less active role in national politics. He moved to Dunedin, entered provincial politics, and spent time on his sheep station. He suffered a great deal from eye trouble and tried such remedies as having his eyes bled.
In July 1869 Fox invited Bell to join his ministry without a portfolio. Later in the year Bell and Isaac Featherston were sent to London to plead for the retention of British soldiers and to secure a Treasury guarantee for a loan of £2 million to be spent on immigration and public works. Negotiations concerning the troops were unsuccessful; as a concession the British government gave its guarantee to a £1 million loan.
Bell returned to New Zealand in time for the 1871 general election. He was returned for the seat of Mataura, which he had held since 1866. When Parliament met, the government put him forward as speaker, a position he held until 1875. As a man who had never held strong opinions on anything and was used to adjudicating claims, he made a competent speaker. Bell was created KB in 1873. After deciding to re-contest his seat in the general election at the end of 1875, he then changed his mind and, anticipating that he would be appointed to the Legislative Council, withdrew. The government, however, made a policy decision not to make any new appointments to the council and Bell, to his annoyance, was left out in the cold. In 1877 Harry Atkinson finally made the appointment. He served on the council until 1882.
In 1880 John Hall appointed Bell and Fox to investigate disputed claims arising from the confiscation of Māori land on the west coast of the North Island. They recommended that a considerable amount of land should be returned, but also made it clear that no policy was 'worth a thought' that did not provide for the continued settlement of the country as well as for justice to the Māori.
In October 1880 Hall offered Bell the post of agent general in London. The appointment removed Bell from colonial politics to an environment he found more congenial. He was called on to represent New Zealand at a number of international conferences and exhibitions as well as at the 1887 Colonial Conference. He helped raise loans, interviewed applicants for top New Zealand positions, negotiated steam ship services and administered immigration policies. He had important and delicate diplomatic discussions on French intervention in the Pacific, dealing with the problem of French penal colonies and the future division of the New Hebrides. In these matters Bell's knowledge of French enabled him to play a more significant role in British diplomacy than was usually permitted to colonial representatives. His services saw him created KCMG in 1881 and CB in 1886.
Bell and his family returned to New Zealand in November 1891. The stay was brief. In June the next year, back in London, Margaret Bell died. Bell remained in London until 1896 when he retired to New Zealand and died at his Shag Valley station, near Palmerston, Otago, on 15 July 1898.
Although Bell belonged to a group of early settlers who were undeniably distinguished, appraisals of his personality were always qualified. He was regarded as quick, clever and hard-working, but also as shallow and unstable. He was a good-looking man, tall, with a high forehead and an interesting face marred by drooping eyelids that gave him a rather supercilious appearance. He was, by all accounts, vain. As a young man he was regarded as a great social asset and played hard with the bachelor set and officers of the imperial forces stationed in New Zealand. By his own admission he had a number of pre-marital sexual liaisons with both Māori and European women, which caused gossip and scandal. After his marriage he seems to have settled down and become devoted to his wife and family.
The unsettled circumstances of Bell's youth may have prevented him from attaining a secure identity. Always anxious to please, always charming and witty, he always said yes. People were never quite sure what he meant; they found that he shifted his position, talked around a subject, never came to a decision. He left a remarkable record of reports, dispatches and letters, all in beautiful, clear handwriting, which his father rewarded with payment when he was a child. These are testimony to his inability to say anything concisely. His cast of mind was that of the nineteenth century administrator rather than that of the politician. Although his friends repeatedly turned to him for administrative assistance, they rarely trusted him as a colleague in government and he rarely desired such trust.