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Bell, Sir Joshua Peter (1827–1881)

by A. A. Morrison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Joshua Bell, from Australasian Sketcher, 1881

Joshua Bell, from Australasian Sketcher, 1881

State Library of Victoria, 49352674

Sir Joshua Peter Bell (1827-1881), squatter and politician, was born on 19 January 1827 in Kildare, Ireland, the eldest son of Thomas Bell and his wife Sarah, née Alexander. When he was about 3 his parents migrated to Australia. He went to the Sydney College and to The King's School, Parramatta, and then entered the office of a Sydney solicitor. In 1843 his father took over from Richard Todd Scougall the pastoral lease of Gimba (Jimbour) on the Darling Downs, near Dalby. For four years the station was managed by Richard Dennis but in 1847 the Bell family took charge, the leasehold being registered in the name of Bell & Sons. At first Joshua ran it with his brother Alexander but soon had the entire management. His mother died at Parramatta on 12 June 1853 aged 50, and his father died at Waterstown, near Ipswich, on 5 September 1872 aged 74.

Although only 21 when he took control Joshua built successfully on the foundations of earlier managers and Jimbour soon won fame as one of the best conducted stations on the Darling Downs. Jimbour was good sheep country and its wool gained high repute; at one intercolonial exhibition it took the champion sheep prize and topped the English market several times. Bell also took great care with his own appearance; off the property he was always something of a dandy, always immaculate and never dressed in anything but the best.

By the time Queensland was separated in 1859 Bell had become an identity in the northern part of the Darling Downs and before long was invited to stand for West Moreton. In December 1862 he was returned with a large majority, especially in the squatter centre of Ipswich. In June 1863 after the dissolution of the first parliament he was triumphantly returned for the same electorate. Because of the lack of experienced parliamentarians Bell, with his standing, his natural dignity and the respect in which men held him, had not long to wait for promotion, and in December 1864 he became treasurer in the Herbert ministry; perhaps the somewhat aristocratic premier welcomed a kindred type. On Herbert's temporary retirement in 1865 Bell retained office in the Macalister ministry, with the result that he was still treasurer when the financial crisis of 1866 struck the colony. On the advice of a visiting Dutch merchant and with support from Treasury officials Bell proposed an issue of inconvertible government bank-notes; they were commonly called 'Bell's Greenbacks'. This proposal aroused much discussion, with William Coote prominent among those who opposed it. Governor Sir George Bowen finally disallowed the measure as an infringement of the royal prerogative.

In 1866 Bell became acting minister for lands and in 1867 acting minister for works. In 1868 he was returned for Northern Downs (Dalby), a constituency including his own property, and held the seat until he was appointed president of the Legislative Council in 1879. In 1871-74 he was treasurer in the Palmer cabinet which was faced with a constitutional crisis through strong Liberal pressure on Governor Samuel Blackall. Although an uninspiring orator in parliament, Bell was always heard with respect. From 19 March to 20 December 1880 he acted as administrator of the colony when Governor Sir Arthur Kennedy was on leave. In 1881 he was appointed K.C.M.G. On 20 December 1881, while returning from a business appointment in Brisbane in a cab, he died suddenly. He was buried in the Toowong cemetery and sincerely mourned by 'the whole colony'. On 19 February 1861 at Ipswich he had married Margaret Miller, daughter of Dr William Dorsey; they had four sons and two daughters, of whom one daughter died young. His eldest son Joshua Thomas (Joey) later became prominent in Queensland politics.

Essentially patrician, Bell built at Jimbour one of the few grand squatter homes in Queensland. The sandstone and lime came from his own property, and the cedar and other timbers from the Bunya Mountains not far away, some two hundred men being employed on stone cutting, timber getting and carrying, while slate for the roof was imported from Wales. Ten stonemasons, nine carpenters and a number of labourers were employed on the house itself; it was built in 1874-76 but not completely finished, and cost £30,000. He and his family moved into the house in 1877. Gas was laid on from coal mined on the property and water was also piped into the building.

Bell took a keen interest in horse-racing, not in betting but in breeding some of his own stock at the Grange stud near Ipswich. He won every important race in the Queensland calendar, including the Derby four times. He was president of the Queensland Turf Club for many years. He patronized all local race meetings, driving himself in his four-in-hand, now preserved at Newstead, Brisbane. He was widely respected in the district and few seem to have resented his assumption of a squirarchical position. Always mindful of his workers' welfare, he also did much to help smaller settlers, and only once was he known to utter publicly the usual squatter opinions about land control. He was always ready to support worthwhile public activities. In 1879, though not a fervid protectionist, he accepted the presidency of the National Protectionist Association to try to ensure that its views received a fair hearing. In 1872 he became a founder, original shareholder and director of the Queensland National Bank. By 1881 financial difficulties forced him to combine his pastoral interests with those of Thomas McIlwraith and Smyth in the Darling Downs and Western Land Co. With A. H. Palmer as general manager, the new venture did not prosper and soon after Bell died the company failed. In 1884 Jimbour was taken over by the bank.

Select Bibliography

  • Queensland Times, 7 Sept 1872
  • Bulletin, 10, 24 Dec 1881.

Additional Resources

Citation details

A. A. Morrison, 'Bell, Sir Joshua Peter (1827–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-sir-joshua-peter-2969/text4325, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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