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Bell, Hector Hercules (1876–1964)

by Janet McCalman

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

Hector Hercules Bell (1876-1964), contractor and tramways administrator, was born on 1 December 1876 at Richmond, Melbourne, seventh child of Frank Richborough Herbert Bell, railway guard (later inspector of railways), and his wife Emily, née Roberts. Having been 'educated privately', Hector ran away from home at the age of 14 rather than follow his father's footsteps into the Victorian Railways. After three difficult years as a bush itinerant, he returned home and became a blacksmith. He then tried his hand at contracting, but had no luck. In Melbourne on 1 June 1895 he married Emma Watson (d.1945) with Presbyterian forms. They went to Perth where for two years he worked on the construction of the causeway bridge over the Swan River.

Back again at Richmond, he battled to establish himself in turn as a confectioner, wood merchant and contractor. Emma kept the pot boiling by running a second-hand clothing shop, above which they lived. An impressive and tough operator, in 1911 Bell was elected to the Richmond City Council. For the next twenty-six years he applied himself to civic affairs as leader of the Labor group and chairman of the public works committee. Rewarding opportunities came with his appointment as Richmond's member on the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works and as a founding member (1915) of the Hawthorn Tramways Trust, of which he rose to be deputy-chairman. As his municipal career flourished, so did his contracting business, and in 1924 he moved with his wife and three children to a handsome home at Hawthorn. These were unsavoury years for Richmond council: as the Australian Labor Party took control of local politics, faction fights and family feuds occupied much of the councillors' time and energy.

Although he kept his distance from the wildest elements in the party, as Labor leader Bell was implicated in some electoral irregularities. An Anglican, who later claimed not to have tasted 'strong drink' until he was 45, he still incurred the wrath of local Protestant critics. Having suffered a savage attack by Rev. George Lamble from the pulpit of St Stephen's Church in May 1921, Bell declared himself 'ashamed to be an Anglican' and withdrew his youngest daughter from the Sunday School.

In July 1935 Bell was elected deputy-chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board, to which he had been appointed in 1919 by the Lawson Nationalist government. In 1936 he succeeded Alexander Cameron as chairman, on a salary of £1750—a sum that was to remain unchanged until he retired in 1949. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1950.

As chairman of the M.M.T.B., Bell gave distinguished service to the people of Melbourne. Within a year the board had posted its first surplus since 1927. The remaining conversions of cable to electric trams were completed, efficiency improved, fares went down and profits up. Bell worked tirelessly during the war as petrol rationing cut the use of private motorcars. Night services were extended to move shiftworkers around the city. The 1936 surplus had been £l410; by 1942 it had multiplied a thousandfold. Sadly for Melbourne's postwar reconstruction, those windfall profits were required under the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Act to be distributed to participating municipal councils. With peace came declining patronage, shortages of labour and materials, and union militancy. Bell had always 'talked tough' with communists in the 1930s; in 1948 he accused Clarrie O'Shea, State secretary of the Australian Tramway and Omnibus Employees' Association, and his followers (whom Bell believed comprised only 25 per cent of the workers) of 'always holding a pistol at our heads'. In retrospect, however, union officials were to remember Bell more fondly than his successor Robert Risson.

Bell's achievements as a transport boss were tarnished a little by his 'old Richmond habits'. His speech was salty; certain contractors were favoured for the board's tenders; at public expense, a large air-raid shelter was added to his house as a conference-room for board-members; and his retirement was marred by his none-too-subtle attempts to have his son promoted to a senior position for which he had little qualification. John Wren esteemed Bell enough to venture into land speculation with him on Melbourne's western fringe. When he died at his Hawthorn home on 12 November 1964 Bell left a realty of £21,080 and a personalty of £22,809, each being a one-third part of a family trust. Survived by his son and two daughters, he was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew.

Select Bibliography

  • J. McCalman, Struggletown (Melb, 1984)
  • Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board, Annual Report, 1936-42, 1947
  • Leader (Melbourne), 3 Aug 1901
  • Richmond Guardian, 28 May 1921, 6 Sept 1924, 28 Aug 1926, 3 Mar 1934
  • Richmond Weekly, 12 July 1929
  • Richmond Chronicle, 1 Sept 1933
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 7 May 1945
  • Argus (Melbourne), 19 Jan 1945, 8 Jan 1948
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 Oct 1947, 28 Sept 1949, 31 Oct 1951
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Janet McCalman, 'Bell, Hector Hercules (1876–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-hector-hercules-9481/text16681, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 26 September 2017.

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

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