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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Bell, Thomas (1782–1866)

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

Thomas Bell (1782-1866), military officer and engineer, was born on 14 December 1782 at Dunse, Berwickshire, Scotland, the son of William Bell and his wife Janet, née Corsnip. At 17 he joined the 48th Regiment as an ensign and saw service at the blockade of Malta. He was promoted lieutenant in January 1801 and captain in September 1805. In the Peninsular war he was wounded at Albuera in 1811 and, for commanding the regiment at Salamanca, the Pyrenees, Nivelle and Orthos in 1813 he was promoted major, appointed C.B. and awarded four medals and the gold cross. In August 1817 he arrived in Sydney in the Lloyds in command of a detachment of the 48th Regiment. Governor Lachlan Macquarie passed him over for commandant at Port Dalrymple, but after ten months sent him with a detachment in the Lady Castlereagh to take charge of the military garrison at Hobart Town in succession to Major William Nairn. On arrival he was also appointed a justice of the peace, engineer and inspector of public works.

For most of Lieutenant-Governor William Sorell's administration, Bell had great executive influence, though the turbulent Anthony Fenn Kemp claimed that Mrs Bell disapproved Sorell's domestic menage and did not call at Government House. As a magistrate he was often nominated to sit on the Lieutenant-Governor's Court and, according to Kemp, was alleged to be unduly influenced by Sorell. Bell appears to have supported Sorell's policy of helping country settlers. His civil duties included the management and victualling of newly arrived convicts, and, although he selected the best mechanics and labourers for government service, he always assigned those with farming experience to settlers. Under Sorell's direction he left a permanent mark on the colony with his public buildings in Hobart, his country roads at Macquarie Plains and at Constitution Hill and Spring Hill between Hobart and Launceston, which Sorell put in hand in 1820, and his stone bridge at Richmond, the oldest still standing in Australia; for all this, Governor Macquarie praised his 'zeal, activity and skill'. While supervising public works he never ordered a convict to be flogged or permitted his overseers to strike men in their gangs, though they could be brought before the magistrates for punishment.

Critics later complained that Bell lacked technical talent, knew little of the colony, left road surveys to his officers and neglected to improve his own land grant, 'elegantly and classically' named Four Square Gallows, near Oatlands. Even Sorell complained in 1822 that Bell failed to repair the walls of the Hobart Battery and delegated too many duties to subordinates. Nevertheless he earned the gratitude of southern settlers for directing his troops against Matthew Brady and other bushrangers, and when he left with his regiment for Madras in 1824, was farewelled by Sorell with warm testimonials for his exemplary zeal and excellent discipline. He was promoted lieutenant-colonel in September 1827, served at Madras until 1829 and retired from the army in 1843. He died at Shaldon, Devon, on 10 June 1866.

On 19 January 1806 at Hints, Staffordshire, he had married Mary Caroline Bourne. They had two sons and five daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vols 2-4
  • R. W. Giblin, The Early History of Tasmania, vol 2 (Melb, 1939).

Citation details

'Bell, Thomas (1782–1866)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 7 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 1

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