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Bell, Joshua Thomas (1863–1911)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Joshua Bell, by Poul C. Poulsen, n.d.

Joshua Bell, by Poul C. Poulsen, n.d.

State Library of Queensland, 31328

Joshua Thomas Bell (1863-1911), barrister and politician, was born on 13 March 1863 at Ipswich, Queensland, eldest son of Sir Joshua Peter Bell and his wife Margaret Miller, née Dorsey. He was educated privately and at Ipswich and Brisbane Grammar schools; in 1881-85 he attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where as president of the Union he debated with such luminaries as Austen Chamberlain. He was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple and in 1888 was a marshal on the Northern Assizes circuit.

Returning in 1889 Bell became a director of the Darling Downs and Western Lands Company whose head-station Jimbour was the family seat. He was Sir Samuel Griffith's private secretary in 1890-92 and then, when the company collapsed, became member for Dalby in the Legislative Assembly in 1893-1911. In 1901 (Sir) Littleton Groom beat him for the Federal seat of Darling Downs.

After membership of the royal commission on land settlement in 1897, Bell became chairman of committees in 1902 and subsequently secretary for public lands in the Morgan and two Kidston ministries between 1903 and 1908. Home secretary for eight months during 1908-09, he was elected Speaker in 1909, a post which he held with distinction until his death.

'Joey' Bell's appearance, attitudes and 'somewhat pompous' bearing, inherited from his father, were apparently contradicted by his liberal views. Fashionably dressed, he was something of an aloof poseur with a superior air which, although it concealed shyness and insecurity, irritated Labor and conservative opponents alike. 'Smitth' of the Worker not altogether unfairly parodied Bell's manner in 1901:

But I'd like to—haw—to dwah
Your attention, Sir, to—haw—
To the way our time is wasted;
Sir, its weally quite a cwime;
While the Labah membahs theh,
talk of “Strikes” I do declah
that this horwid pwickly peah keeps on
gwoing all the time.

Nevertheless, he was able enough to represent the government in important Land Court cases and was a parliamentarian with an astonishing fluency, an unerring instinct for the correct word, and a mastery of polished, if stylized rhetoric, seldom found among Australian politicians.

Bell's contemporaries considered that his tenure of the Lands Department, during which he encouraged closer settlement, improved public amenities and acquired private estates for small farming, was his main contribution to Queensland's history. His pioneering National Forests Act—perhaps his most important single legacy—and his alleviation of technical difficulties hampering farmers were impressive. His conciliatory role, when the rise of Labor had confused liberals and conservatives, is even more important.

Bell was a skilful electioneer. Hard pressed by Labor in 1893, 1896 and 1902 (when a family scandal temporarily lost him the Roman Catholic vote), his 'pocket-borough' was saved by his local appeal as a superb horseman and native pastoralist, and by provision of three branch railways for the Dalby area and assiduous favours for other constituents. A liberal without a coherent policy, he helped organize the Darling Downs members, then slowly stepped towards more radical attitudes. His liberalism was partly fuelled by his financial collapse: the Bells became virtual grace and favour residents at Jimbour, and he was dependent on his ministerial salary and his wife's income; he then sold Jimbour to the State for agricultural settlement. He could neither bring himself to join organized labour nor stomach the political and social stonewalling of the conservative establishment.

A keen rower and rifle-shot and patron of the arts (he secured the first grant in Queensland for a cultural society), Bell represented an increasingly anachronistic social group—the 'independent Australian Briton'. He combined in his person the manners and education of an English gentleman and the earthy political skills of the native-born, but his failure to attain the heights of brilliant contemporaries like Deakin and to really enjoy the rough-and-tumble of State politics suggested more an Indian summer than a springtime harvest.

On 25 July 1903 Bell had married Catherine Jane, widow of Sydney Jones, a Rockhampton solicitor, and daughter of John Ferguson; they had one son and one daughter. Between July 1910 and his death from septicaemia with peritonitis at Graceville, Brisbane, on 10 March 1911, Bell suffered agony from surgical treatment. A member of the Brisbane Synod of the Church of England, he was accorded a state funeral and buried in Toowong cemetery, high on the hill next to his father. His estate was sworn for probate at £4567.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years (Brisb, 1919)
  • C. P. Trevelyan, Letters from North America and the Pacific, 1898 (Lond, 1969)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1970)
  • Worker (Brisbane), 21 Aug 1901
  • Brisbane Courier, 1 Apr 1907, 11 Mar 1911
  • Daily Mail (Brisbane) and Darling Downs Gazette, 11 Mar 1911
  • Truth (Brisbane), 12 Mar 1911
  • Queenslander, 18 Mar 1911.

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Bell, Joshua Thomas (1863–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-joshua-thomas-5196/text8739, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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