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Bell, William Montgomerie (1813–1867)

by P. L. Brown

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

William Montgomerie Bell (1813-1867), merchant, churchman and civic leader, was born on 29 January 1813, probably in Scotland. He reached Melbourne from Greenock on 12 January 1841 with Isaac Buchanan. His brother Henrie (b.17 August 1817) had arrived the previous November, and the three young men, all 'bred to business … active, enterprizing, & prudent', at once began trading as Bells & Buchanan, Church Square, agents for Messrs J. & A. Dennistoun, Glasgow.

Henrie Bell sealed a shipboard romance by marrying Jane, daughter of Major James Fraser of Mordialloc, on 8 September 1841. Buchanan married Catherine, daughter of the late George Turnbull, on 20 December 1844: she died in February 1849, but he was still living in 1868. After steering through an economic depression that yielded only experience and potential, W. M. Bell returned early in 1845 from a visit to Scotland, with his bride, Barbara Wilson. The firm's intelligent industry won it much squatting business, and it quickly climbed the rising wave of prosperity.

In 1847-48 Buchanan apparently joined Turnbull Brothers, merchants, with whom he had been associated since his marriage. The resultant partnership of W. & H. Bell was itself overset by Henrie's death on 25 November 1849. Thereafter W. M. Bell operated in his own name, with the continued help of an assistant, George Houston, who took charge as a partner in November 1852, when Bell sailed for London with his family, a month before James McCulloch and Robert Sellar left Glasgow to open a branch for J. & A. Dennistoun at Melbourne. Bell, whose firm had its own large bluestone quarters at the corner of Little Collins Street and Church Street, and opened a Geelong branch late in 1853, evidently declined partnership with the newcomers. But by 1855 he was back, and, having sold his Avoca estate, South Yarra, for £25,000, he leased at £800 a year, with 25 acres (10 ha), Trivolia (Tivoli), a stone house above the river, built by George Augustus Robinson. 'On Sundays in summer time', recorded one of Bell's daughters, 'we usually travelled to Melbourne in our double-handled paddle boat, to attend service at John Knox Church, Swanston Street.'

W. M. Bell died at Tivoli on 16 September 1867, and was buried near the monument to Rev. James Forbes and his brother Henrie, whom he supported when they left Scots Church together, as minister and elder, to found the Free Presbyterian Church of Australia Felix, and whom he survived to become 'senior elder of John Knox Church for 20 years'. Edmund Finn stated that latterly 'commercial reverses beset him'; but he was remembered as an able, public-spirited man, with legal training, honest and straightforward, self-sufficient, whose 'moderation, high principle, firmness, and common sense … did yeoman's service' during the Randolph crisis, when he was mayor of Melbourne. His stand in this matter, following his work as secretary of the Irish and Scotch Destitution Relief Fund, and as chairman of the Port Phillip Immigration and Anti-Shipwreck Society, made him a leader in the Australasian League, although he had formerly endorsed transportation as planned by Gladstone in 1846. He represented the district of Evelyn in the Legislative Assembly from January to March 1860. Some 700 people, including the city councillors, attended his funeral.

Bell's business range and quality may be judged from the 200 letters that his firm wrote to George Russell before 1851. His wife, still in that year 'the leader of the Ton—lively and pleasant as ever', survived him until 1898, dying at 81, 'a colonist of 53 years, sanctified by faith', three years after a son, Lorraine Wilson Bell, aged 44. There were at least two married daughters, Elliot Margaret (Mrs J. A. Bonar, New Zealand), who was born about 1848, and Jessie M. (Mrs Eddington) who was born at Avoca, South Yarra, on 8 April 1852.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Hamilton, A Jubilee History of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria (Melb, 1888)
  • E. M. Robb, Early Toorak and District (Melb, 1934)
  • P. L. Brown (ed), Clyde Company Papers, vols 2-5 (Lond, 1952-63)
  • Illustrated Australian Magazine, vol 2, 1851, p 91, vol 3, 1851, pp 17, 228
  • F. R. Chapman, 'South Suburban Melbourne 1854-1864', Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 5, no 4, June 1917, pp 171-88
  • J. A. Allan, 'The History of the John Knox Glebe in Swanston Street', Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 20, no 1, June 1943, pp 85-101
  • Port Phillip Patriot, 14 Jan 1841, 23 Dec 1844, 14 Feb, 14 May 1845
  • Port Phillip Herald, 10 Sept 1841, 16 Apr 1846, 8 June 1847
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 July, 8 Oct, 1847, 27 Oct, 27 Nov 1849, 12 Apr, 15 Nov 1852, 17, 20 Sept 1867
  • Melbourne general cemetery, Presbyterian G, Grave No 391a.

Citation details

P. L. Brown, 'Bell, William Montgomerie (1813–1867)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bell-william-montgomerie-1765/text1973, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 November 2017.

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

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