Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Bell (1836–1908)

by A. C. Dobbie

This article was published:

James Bell (1836-1908), businessman and politician, was born at Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, son of James Bell, store-keeper, and his wife Ann, née Turnbull. He entered a Glasgow mercantile house and later began business on his own. Apparently persuaded by a relation in Victoria, he and his wife migrated in 1857. Bell became a store-keeper in the young gold-mining town of Dunolly; by 1862 he had another store in St Arnaud and for a while the post office store at Burnt Creek. He became a member of the town council in 1862 and in 1862-65 was the first mayor. Altogether he spent fifteen years as a member of the Dunolly Municipal Council and was five times mayor. In 1866 Bell branched into grain buying, established a large business in St Arnaud and was one of the chief shareholders in Malcolm & Co.'s flour-mills there. He had sold his two stores by 1881 but was then one of four directors in the Belgium Reserve Quartz Mining Co. at Goldsborough, besides owning 4435 (1795 ha) acres in the Dunolly area.

The Legislative Council Act of 1881 gave the North-Western Province three of the twelve new members; as the Dunolly district could now be represented, Bell sought election. He stood as a 'moderate' with a policy that favoured free, compulsory and secular education, protection, Federation, more equitable taxation, and promotion of agricultural interests by such measures as government-assisted schemes of water conservation. Bell was elected in November 1882 by a great majority. In 1886 he moved to Elsternwick and became minister without portfolio in the Duncan Gillies-Alfred Deakin coalition government. At various times in the next three years he acted briefly as minister for mines, defence and water supply, and when Sir James Lorimer died in September 1889, Bell was made minister for defence; he held this post until the ministry's defeat in November 1890. Meanwhile he had become a Melbourne businessman, chairman of Swallow & Ariell Ltd, a major shareholder in the City Newspaper Co. and a director of the Mercantile Bank which collapsed in 1892 because of its land speculations. In 1893 Bell and other directors of the bank were charged with conspiracy to issue 'a false and fraudulent balance sheet'; he was defended before the magistrates by Alfred Deakin and acquitted. He did not have to contest an election after 1882, and remained in the council until 1904 when he did not seek re-election. He was now one of Victoria's chief grain exporters, with branches in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney and business connexions with South Africa, three-quarters of the grain being exported to Britain and Europe. He died on 24 February 1908 and was buried at Brighton cemetery. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth, née Riddell, and nine of their eleven children. His eldest son, George, carried on the business.

Apart from his local prominence James Bell's main contribution to Victoria was his assistance to agricultural enterprise both in the council and in the early days of selection, when, through his position, he was able to help selectors over hard times.

Select Bibliography

  • Y. S. Palmer, Track of the Years: The Story of St Arnaud (Melb, 1955)
  • J. Flett, Dunolly (Glen Waverley, 1956)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Dunolly Express, 1862-66, Nov 1882, Feb 1908
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 23 Mar 1895
  • Punch (Melbourne), June 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Feb 1908.

Citation details

A. C. Dobbie, 'Bell, James (1836–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Bell (1836-1908), by unknown engraver, 1893

James Bell (1836-1908), by unknown engraver, 1893

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/02/93/16 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire, Scotland


24 February, 1908 (aged ~ 72)
Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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