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Bell, Archibald (1773–1837)

by J. D. Heydon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Archibald Bell (1773-1837), soldier and magistrate, was the son of Archibald Bell, a Nonconformist minister and schoolmaster of Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, England. He worked for a time as a schoolteacher, and in 1794 married Maria Kitching of Cheshunt. He served in the Hertford Southern Yeomanry as a lieutenant, and was commissioned an ensign in the New South Wales Corps in December 1806. He arrived in Sydney on 12 July 1807 in the Young William with his wife and nine children, and property worth more than £500; unfortunately the transport commissioners had felt it 'totally impracticable' also to convey his Alderney cow. He was recommended by 'persons of great respectability', notably Sir Abraham Hume, as leaving the country 'not from distress, unfortunate antecedents, or any circumstance affecting his conduct or character', but in hope that the colony might offer him better prospects. He received a town allotment and 500 acres (202 ha) near Richmond, which Major George Johnston confirmed when he seized power. Another child was born soon after his arrival, and his colonial life was characterized by a continual effort to provide for his large family.

He lost little time in entering the public life of the colony in spectacular fashion. He was the officer to whom William Bligh complained when his daughter was insulted in church on 28 September 1807. Bell was in charge of the guard at Government House when Bligh was arrested on 26 January 1808 and was deeply implicated in this incident, in spite of later denials. Johnston appointed him a magistrate on 27 January and Bell added his signature to the letter thankfully accepting Johnston as the deliverer of the colony; in April, however, he refused Johnston's request to him and seventeen other officers to sign a resolution praising John Macarthur. After Bligh's arrest, Bell served as military commandant at the Hawkesbury, where he had to combat two destructive floods, receiving 1000 acres (405 ha) from Lieutenant-Governor William Paterson for his meritorious service. Before he left for England as a witness at Johnston's trial, Bell had built a comfortable home on his property Belmont, near Richmond, where Lachlan Macquarie visited him in November 1810.

In November 1812 Macquarie confirmed his two grants, a grace he did not extend to other rebels except for good reason, but Bell had performed valuable service and had a large family to care for. Macquarie's confirmation refutes the charges against him by Michael Mason that he was guilty of corrupt and illicit trading at the Hawkesbury. In 1811 he was appointed a lieutenant in the New South Wales Veterans Company and permitted to return to New South Wales, and in 1812-18 he commanded a detachment of the 73rd Regiment at Windsor. In 1818 he acted as barracks master and helped to found the Hawkesbury Benevolent Society.

His greatest colonial activity began with his appointment in 1820 as chief police magistrate in the Windsor area, where he was the first paid magistrate and occupied a government house valued at £1000, as well as his own Belmont. Although an exclusive he supported Macquarie in his evidence to Commissioner John Thomas Bigge. He took his judicial duties as seriously as other aspects of public life. He was on the committee of the 'native institution' from 1819. A devout but broadminded Anglican, he was closely interested in all religious observances in his area. In 1820 he noted with approval that 'several churches in the district are well filled, and almost every respectable family are pretty general in attendance'. In 1822 he signed a recommendation that government aid be given for building a Roman Catholic chapel, and in 1828-29 he chaired meetings of the Wesleyan Society.

His personal and judicial character were controversial. Old men, to whom Samuel Boughton later spoke, thought him a hard master, but Boughton thought this 'exaggerated', and it can be countered by the emphasis others placed on Bell's popularity and the respect in which he was generally held. Certainly he had a harsh law to administer to an unruly frontier society and, as with other benches, the punishments imposed at Windsor were sometimes irregular. The extent to which his social conscience as well as his economic needs motivated him can be seen in the variety of public committees on which he served and of the petitions he signed. He loved performing marriages which his office gave him power to do. He once arranged a union between two quarrelsome convicts; it soon failed and its partners sought a divorce, which Bell agreed to sanction only if they both recited the Lord's Prayer backwards. The marriage continued.

Like his whole class he tried to influence the government's economic policy to his advantage. In 1822 he signed memorials against dollar payments and for the repeal of duties on wool, and in 1831 both he and his son Archibald signed a memorial to Darling protesting about the impossibility of collecting rent on crown grants without ruin to the settlers on them.

On 30 January 1829 a royal warrant for the Legislative Council nominated Bell as the seventh of nine men to fill any vacancy. On 29 September 1832 he was appointed to the council, and held the seat until his death. He generally supported the policies of Governor Sir Richard Bourke, who frequently praised his services. His most notable role was in advocating jury reforms. As a magistrate he had reported favourably on the limited jury system in 1825, and later signed petitions to parliament for the introduction of trial by jury in the English form into New South Wales. With John Blaxland and Robert Campbell junior, he was one of those with 'the largest property and highest respectability' whom Bourke saw as the staunchest supporters in the council of the 1833 Jury Act. He also served on various sub-committees of the council, chiefly those on the administration of justice. He died on 23 April 1837, in Bourke's words, 'an ancient and estimable colonist', both wealthy and respected.

Members of his large family also achieved distinction. Some of his daughters married men who became the first settlers of Queensland. One son, William Sims, explored part of the Hunter valley in 1820 and later settled near Singleton; another, James Thomas, was a local magistrate at Windsor from 1839 to 1844.

His most distinguished son was Archibald Bell (1804-1883), who first achieved prominence at 19 by his discovery of a new route across the Blue Mountains, although George Bowen later claimed that he had previously crossed the mountains on Bell's route on a private trip. Bell noticed that an Aboriginal woman, captured near Belmont by a tribe from the west of the Blue Mountains, escaped and returned by a route different from that taken by the tribe. He followed her directions from Richmond to Mount Tomah on 1-5 August 1823; he was then unable to find a safe descent to the west, but next month returned and found a safe way into the Hartley valley. A road was surveyed by Robert Hoddle and built along his route by convict labour, though according to Mrs Felton Mathews's Journal, this route was found so arduous by 1834 that it was little used until several deviations from Bell's Line were made later. Its advantage then was in avoiding the steep Mount York descent of Wentworth's route and in providing more resting places for stock. The township Bell, Mount Bell and the route itself were named after the explorer.

Immediately after this success, Bell left Belmont for the Hunter valley, following the route of John Howe and Benjamin Singleton, whom he found dying of starvation at Patrick's Plains. This expedition won him a grant of 1000 acres (405 ha) near Singleton. He named his estate Corinda, built a handsome two-storey stone house on it, and was one of the earliest settlers in the area. He was one of the first to introduce cattle there, and the first to bring in horse teams. On Corinda he specialized in breeding 'coachers' and hackney horses, with which he monopolized the Sydney market for some years. He explored some of the main tributaries of the Hunter, thereby obtaining various estates in the Hunter valley, and in 1849 moved from Corinda to Milgarra because of the droughts and depression. In 1859 he bought Pickering on the Hunter River, a fertile freehold estate of 8000 acres (3237 ha), where he lived until his death on 9 August 1883.

After 1826 he had followed his father's interest in public affairs. His name appeared on several petitions for reforms and in 1842 he was a member of the association for seeking permission to import coolies from India. In the same year he was appointed a magistrate at Patrick's Plains. In 1868 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the Upper Hunter. He retired in 1872 but in 1879 was appointed to the Legislative Council. Advancing years made his attendance irregular, and he played little part in either House beyond voting at the sessions he did attend.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vols 6, 7
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17
  • WO 31/218, 316 (PRO)
  • G. R. Nichols, ‘Historical Notes on the Hawkesbury, 1904-18’, newspaper cuttings (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under A. Bell (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. D. Heydon, 'Bell, Archibald (1773–1837)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-archibald-1762/text1967, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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