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John Bell (1790–1841)

by A. Rand

This article was published:

John Bell (1790-1841), merchant, was born on 30 November 1790 at Middlebie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland. After early training at sea, Bell took command of the Minerva, carrying convicts to New South Wales. He first arrived at Port Jackson in April 1818, and after coastal voyages returned there in December 1819 to find himself the subject of obloquy for having allegedly failed to supply full rations to convicts in the Minerva. He appealed successfully for a full inquiry and was completely exonerated. In February 1820 he sailed for Bengal in the Minerva and returned to Sydney two years later. In 1824 he again arrived at Port Jackson in the Minerva, this time from the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1825 he applied by letter for land in New South Wales and was granted 1200 acres (486 ha) by Governor Sir Thomas Makdougall Brisbane. Expensive cattle were bought and left with an agent who was to choose the land. In England Bell, who had done well as a trader, bought the brig Caledonia and brought out his wife, an overseer and farm hands when he sailed for New South Wales in 1826. In a severe storm the ship was nearly wrecked and three lives were lost. Bell put in to Hobart Town in February 1827 where extensive repairs were found necessary. He altered his plans and exchanged the disabled Caledonia with Captain J. G. Briggs for his wharf store, shipping agencies and fine house at New Town. Bell soon held the agencies of many ships trading with Mauritius and the Far East, entered a trading partnership in 1827 with Captain Cooling of the Admiral Cockburn and arranged an agency in Launceston for the export of colonial wool and wheat. In the same year he took a foremost part in establishing a commercial club. In 1830-32 he was a director of the Bank of Van Diemen's Land and in 1832 was associated with the first attempt to establish a life assurance association in the colony. Bell was a director of the Hobart Town and Launceston Marine Insurance Co., established in 1836. He held a similar position in the Tasmanian Fire and Life Insurance Co.; it declared no dividends in its first three years, but in 1839, when Bell was managing director of both insurance companies, it paid a 50 per cent dividend and thereafter continued to prosper.

Bell applied for a second grant in Van Diemen's Land and was awarded 2000 acres (809 ha) which he located at Green Lagoon. He failed, however, to claim his New South Wales land before January 1828 when another application for it displaced his. His costly cattle were turned loose and soon became wild, but his protests, although continued throughout the 1830s, failed to win him any compensation. His Tasmanian property, Annandale, was increased by further grants on the strength of his imported capital, which he claimed amounted to over £11,000 by 1830. Some of this had gone into importing pure merinos of which by 1840 he had built up a large stud flock, as well as 7000 improved sheep. High prices for his wool in London had induced him to join the quest for land in Port Phillip in 1836. In 1832 he had acquired Betsy's Island then stocked with silver-haired rabbits for the fur trade with China, and in 1835 further allotments on the wharf in Hobart. Another attempt to contravene the land regulations when he bought an order for 800 acres (324 ha) after grants had ceased proved unsuccessful. In 1840 Bell retired from active life through ill health; his midland estates of nearly 12,000 acres (4856 ha) then extended from the Clyde to the Blackman River. He died on 12 December 1841 at Belle Vue, his New Town home, survived by his second wife, Louisa, daughter of George Meredith and Sarah Westall, née Hicks. Bell's first wife had died childless, of toad-fish poisoning, in March 1831, and he had remarried in June 1832. There were three children by his second marriage.

Two relatives had followed him to the colony. John Calvert (1807-1869) had managed Bell's properties for him before settling at Port Phillip, and John Bell (1821-1876), nephew of Bell and Calvert and a trained surveyor, joined him after surveying for some time in Van Diemen's Land. Together they owned Irrewarra of 68,000 acres (27,519 ha), later divided between them into Watch Hill and Lake Colac. Bell finally built Bell Park, Geelong, and John Calvert, Morongo.

Select Bibliography

  • P. L. Brown (ed) Clyde Company Papers, vol 3, (Lond, 1958)
  • manuscript catalogue under J. Bell (State Library of New South Wales)
  • correspondence file under Bell (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

A. Rand, 'Bell, John (1790–1841)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 13 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 November, 1790
Middlebie, Dumfriesshire, Scotland


12 December, 1841 (aged 51)
New Town, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Cause of Death


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