Australian Dictionary of Biography

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George Renison Bell (1840–1915)

by Kerry Pink

This article was published:

George Renison Bell (1840-1915), prospector and mine-manager, was born on 21 November 1840 at Bothwell, Van Diemen's Land, youngest of three children of George Bell (d.1852), a schoolmaster from Scotland, and his English-born wife Sarah, née Danby. Young Bell was educated at the Society of Friends' (Quaker) school in Hobart. In 1857 he joined his mother and sister at Dunedin, New Zealand, where he worked on a station, then joined the rush to the South Island gold diggings in 1861, beginning his lifelong passion for prospecting and mining.

Bell visited Tasmania for six months in 1864 and trekked around the island, including the unmapped west coast. Returning again in 1866 he prospected and panned for gold in the Mathinna area for three years. After consulting James 'Philosopher' Smith at Mount Bischoff, in 1874 Bell discovered payable alluvial tin at Boobyalla, which led to the tin-mining industry around Derby, Gladstone and Weldborough.

A student at the Ballarat School of Mines, Victoria, in 1876-77, he prospected on Wilsons Promontory in 1880, returning in 1882 to north-eastern Tasmania where he assisted with the development of several mines. In 1890 Bell was employed by a Launceston syndicate to prospect in western Tasmania. During six months of lone exploration he found and pegged a half square mile (1.3 sq km) mineralized zone north of Zeehan, which later became the Renison Bell tin-field. By 1893 he was in Queensland where he developed and managed the Tate River tin-mine west of the Atherton Tablelands, and he managed gold leases in Western Australia in 1895-98 before returning to Tasmania to prepare a comprehensive report on the Renison Bell tin-field.

On 13 June 1877 Bell had married Phoebe Cox, daughter of a pardoned convict; both staunch Quakers, George and Phoebe exchanged vows at the monthly meeting of the Society of Friends in Hobart. According to descendants, Bell was a domineering father and not always a good provider. During his long absences, the quiet but resourceful Phoebe often relied on support from fellow Quakers.

Bell had self-doubts. An 1893 diary entry reads: 'I wish to be more humble and contented, and not aspiring in all things to be better than others'. In 1898 he wrote: 'I see no improvement in my spiritual nature for it is still dominated by carnal desire and came very near to leading me into some serious scrapes'. He eventually left the Society of Friends but remained a devout Christian.

From 1900 Bell prospected for the Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd, retiring in 1908. In 1907 the State government had belatedly granted him an annual pension of £100 in recognition of his mineral deposits discovery. He was a handsome, neatly bearded man, nicknamed 'Little' because of his short stature. Bell died on 2 September 1915 at Devonport and was buried in Mersey Bluff cemetery. Two daughters and five sons, including John Renison Bell, survived him.

A number of companies and syndicates worked leases on the Renison Bell tin-field in the early years, but profitable recovery of metal from the complex low-grade ores was almost impossible with the metallurgical technology of those times. It was not until 1965, when multi-national Consolidated Goldfields Australia Ltd acquired the Renison field, that deep drilling proved an immense ore reserve. With multi-million dollar investment on underground mining and surface treatment mills, Renison Ltd became Australia's biggest tin producer. Bell's headstone was re-erected at the Renison Bell mine in 1973.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Pink and P. Crawford, Renison (Zeehan, Tas, 1996)
  • Advocate (Burnie), 29 Dec 1973, p 10
  • 5 Jan 1974, p 10, 12 Jan 1974, p 10
  • Bell’s diaries (privately held).

Citation details

Kerry Pink, 'Bell, George Renison (1840–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 November, 1840
Bothwell, Tasmania, Australia


2 September, 1915 (aged 74)
Devonport, Tasmania, Australia

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