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Bell, David (1902–1973)

by Pamela Statham

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

David Bell (1902-1973), businessman, was born on 9 February 1902 at Langbank, Renfrewshire, Scotland, eldest son of William John Bell, ploughman, and his wife Agnes, née Heggie. William migrated to Western Australia, leaving his wife, five sons and daughter in Scotland until he could become established. For three years he worked as a farm labourer in the York district where his family joined him in 1911. David attended the local school and at the age of 14 went to work in the cartage business at Guildford which his father bought for £100 and which comprised two horses and two drays. The Bells moved to Guildford in 1917; on leaving school, William's sons Robert and Alexander joined the family firm.

At St Hilda's Anglican Church, North Perth, on 7 March 1936 David married Eleanor Vera Moss, a shop-assistant. Next year the brothers endeavoured to persuade their father to modernize and expand the business. They wanted to hire trucks and an excavator, but William was loathe to deviate from horse power (which he continued to use until his death in 1952). David, Robert and Alexander set up as Bell Bros in 1937. During World War II their company provided essential services by upgrading airfields in various parts of the State. From 1945 the brothers shifted the emphasis of their activities back to cartage and in 1949 obtained proprietary limited status for their company. Dave was appointed chairman and managing director.

As the firm grew rapidly, especially in its trucking operations, Bell Bros Pty Ltd purchased sixty-three acres (26 ha) on the outskirts of Guildford. A major employer in the region, a justice of the peace and a councillor of five years standing, in December 1954 Dave was elected mayor of the Guildford Town Council. He held office for almost five years until the council was subsumed into the Swan shire, a move which he had advocated.

By 1959 Bell Bros dominated transport and heavy haulage in Western Australia, including the cartage of raw materials from the Fremantle docks. Experience in this field led to Bell's five-year appointment (from 1 October 1960) on the Australian Coastal Shipping Commission. He was also a longstanding member and sometime president of the Swan District Rotary Club, a faithful supporter of the Swan District Football Club, an organizer of the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, and president (1962) of the Western Australian Institute and Industrial School for the Blind. The year 1965 marked a milestone in his life: he was appointed O.B.E. and his company went public, becoming incorporated as Bell Bros Holdings Ltd on 21 May with the issue of 1.5 million shares at five shillings premium, and 8 per cent debentures. Listed on the Sydney, Melbourne and Perth stock exchanges on 25 June, the shares provided the company with the necessary capital to take advantage of the boom years that followed.

Having basically grown by expansion, the company then began a series of takeovers in related areas, its first acquisition being Swan Quarries Pty Ltd which it converted to Bellcrete. Bell Bros Holdings hired out its equipment on a larger scale, moved into road-making and mining ventures in the north of the State, and acquired aircraft. Significant restructuring occurred during the late 1960s. Major areas of activity were given independent divisional status (namely, contracting, quarrying, concrete and special products), but were responsible to a central holding company, of which Bell remained managing director and chairman until his death. In 1970, when he was appointed to the Commonwealth Transport Advisory Committee, his companies employed over 2600 people and constituted one of the largest firms in Western Australia. Expanding off-shore in 1971, Bell Bros Holdings took over the Canadian firm SPIR-L-OK Industries Ltd (a culvert manufacturer) and merged its operations with the special products division.

Known for being as tough as nails, Dave also had an enviable reputation for fairness. His personal philosophy was very much 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you' and compromise rather than conflict was his byword. One of his longtime employees summed him up as 'a hard man but a good bloke'. Bell died on 29 November 1973 at Subiaco and was cremated; he was survived by his wife, two daughters, and son Graham who had joined the company in 1954. A portrait of David Bell hangs in the Guildford Library.

Select Bibliography

  • Bell Bros Holdings Pty Ltd, Prospectus, no 1, 9 July 1965
  • Swan Express, 8, 22 Dec 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Sept 1960
  • West Australian, 17 Sept 1960, 12 June 1965, 30 Nov 1973
  • W. L. Bremmell, The History of Bell Bros Holdings Ltd (typescript, 1970, State Library of Western Australia)
  • Perth Stock Exchange Archives, file no 25, box 18, 10 May-1 July 1965 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • interview with Mr G. Bell, Belmont, Perth, 4 June 1991 (tape held by author).

Citation details

Pamela Statham, 'Bell, David (1902–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-david-9479/text16677, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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