BELL, Sir Francis Henry Dillon, P.C., G.C.M.C., K.C.
Statesman, Prime Minister, and eminent lawyer.
A new biography of Bell, Francis Henry Dillon appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
F. H. D. Bell was born at Nelson on 31 March 1851, the eldest son of Sir Francis Dillon Bell. Bell was educated at Auckland Grammar School and Otago Boys' High School. He graduated B.A. from St. John's College, Cambridge, in 1872, and was called to the English Bar in 1874. In the British general election of 1874 Bell had his introduction to politics, campaigning for the Conservative Party. He returned to practise law in Wellington, eventually becoming senior partner in the firm of Bell, Gully, Mackenzie, and Evans. Bell rose quickly in his profession. He was Crown Solicitor in Wellington (1878–1911), president of the New Zealand Law Society (1908–18), and (according to Scholefield) the acknowledged leader of the Bar after Sir Robert Stout became Chief Justice in 1898. His leading cases included appearances at the Bar of the House, a large number of appeals to the Privy Council, and many suits in Maori land law. He refused a judgeship from Atkinson. Bell was one of the trustees of the Cheviot Hills estate, and claimed that he had forced the purchase of 1892 on the Liberal Government.
Bell's family background and legal reputation made it almost inevitable that he would be drawn into politics. His first successful venture was for the Wellington mayoralty in November 1891. Bell's opponents objected to his being described as “an advanced sort of Radical”, and claimed that the newly enfranchised women had put him in. The following year Bell won a hard fight with the popular George Fisher. He did not come forward again until November 1896, when Fisher was once more his unsuccessful opponent. His great work as Mayor was the establishment of Wellington's first modern drainage system. Though approached to contest a parliamentary election, in 1881, Bell did not come forward till 1890 – not an auspicious year for one who gave support (however qualified) to Atkinson. Like most city opponents of the Liberals, Bell styled himself an “Independent”. He offered an individual mixture of free trade, perpetual lease, and cessation of Crown land sales, but failed to win a seat in the three-member Wellington constituency. In 1892 he contested a by-election without success. The following year, Wellington ran counter to the general Liberal swing, and Bell was returned for Wellington city, second to Sir Robert Stout. Bell was not a success as an elected politician on the platform or in the House. As legal expert and critic of badly drafted Bills, he was without superior in Parliament, but he was not a “good” party man, nor did he score in exchanges across the floor. Seddon objected to his “lecturing and hectoring”; McKenzie to his “high-toned falutin' way”. Bell became exasperated with the intrigues and low debating standards in the House, and did not stand again in 1896. For part of the 1894–96 Parliament, his bench mate was W. F. Massey, and the two men formed a strong mutual regard, in spite of their differing backgrounds. Thereafter, Bell returned to his fine legal practice, and apparantly took no significant part in the Opposition campaign which finally brought Massey to power in 1912. Though there must have been several active politicians with claims on him, the new Prime Minister called Bell to lead the Legislative Council, one of the wisest political appointments in our history. Bell took his seat as the only non Liberal nominee in 21 years, but soon gained a unique ascendancy by force of personality and incisive intellect. He had long advocated an elective Council, and claimed that this was the first plank of Reform as an anti-socialist party. Though a Reform Bill had been passed by 1914, largely due to his efforts, it became, in the event, a dead letter. Bell was by rank a junior Minister, but he became in effect Massey's alter ego in administration and legislation. When Massey negotiated with Ward for a National Government in 1915, Bell offered to stand down, but was retained in the Ministry of 1915–19. Many historians have emphasised the faults of war administration, but have overlooked the great measure of success achieved in adjusting a civilian democracy to a world war. Much of this success must be credited to Bell, who, with Sir John Salmond, took the chief part in drafting Bills and regulations to meet the unprecedented crisis. Bell took a high view of New Zealand's responsibilities as a partner in the Empire. At a critical juncture, in July 1917, he made a powerful and effective speech against those who claimed that the country could spare no more men for the trenches. On the other hand, it was actually Bell who took the initiative in the celebrated ultimatum to Britain for an adequate naval convoy in October 1914. When Western Samoa came under New Zealand's mandate, in 1919, he drafted the legislation setting up the new government there.
In the post-war period, Bell achieved even greater influence in the Cabinet. When Allen took the High Commissionership (1920), Bell became virtually Massey's deputy, and was three times (1921, 1923, and 1925) Acting Prime Minister. The climax of his career came on the death of Massey on 10 May 1925, when Parliament was not in session, and the Reform Party was without a clearly designated successor to its late chief. Bell had worked with Massey as head of government, not as party leader; indeed, it was probably the wish of both men that Bell should stand apart from party organisation and manoeuvre. In 1925, therefore, he was ideally placed to hold temporary leadership as the “Nestor of the party”. He had for some months been de facto Prime Minister, and it was almost certainly Massey's wish that moved Lord Jellicoe to send for Bell to form a Ministry on 14 May. The most recent precedent for a Prime Minister in the Legislative Council had been Whitaker in 1882–83, hence it could only be a question of Bell's holding office till the Reform Party chose a leader from the House. Bell thus became the first New Zealand born Prime Minister. He did not grasp at the great political opportunities placed in his hands, regarding his Ministry as purely a stopgap one. He held the ring scrupulously for the two principal claimants, Downie Stewart and Coates, and refused the suggestion, put forward publicly by G. W. Russell, that he should take Massey's seat and lead the party in the House and the country. He would not even accept the invitation to remain in office till the general election, and abstained from making any new Cabinet or Legislative Council appointments. On Coates' election, Bell at once resigned (30 May), making it clear that he would relinquish all his old influence in government. He took leave of the Council in 1926 as if his political career was ended. At the request of Coates, he joined him at the Imperial Conference of 1926, the younger man being glad to have the benefit of his advice and experience. Bell opposed the Balfour Declaration, which was later embodied in the Statute of Westminster (1931). Bell, like Massey, came to fear every loosening of the Imperial ties. He expressed the hope that New Zealand would never adopt the Statute in full.
Bell returned to lead the Council in 1927–28, and continued a member until his death in 1936. He lived to see the disintegration of the Reform Party, and Labour's coming into power, an event which Bell both feared and resisted with half his mind, yet regarded as inevitable with the other. During the depression years, he took an independent, non-party line on many issues, such as the suspension of compulsory arbitration and mortgage relief, demonstrating to the last his incisive grasp, and the mixture of radical and conservative in him. Bell's statesmanship is so much woven into New Zealand history of the Reform Party period, that it is difficult to remember that his very holding of high power depended on the political judgment of Massey. Yet given the appointment of 1912, the two men developed into a unique political combination, producing far more than they could have done separately. Massey's shrewd judgment of men was complemented by Bell's judgment of measures. In all constitutional essentials, Bell was strictly correct in his relations with Massey, though this did not preclude spectacular private clashes between two strong-willed men. No more talented and many-sided man than Bell has figured in the first rank of New Zealand politics. Besides his political and professional activities, the catholicity of his tastes and interests in social, academic, and sporting life was remarkable. He held a great variety of high offices in all spheres, but it was the man, not the office-holder, who impressed his contemporaries. Classical scholar, witty raconteur, and genial host, he attracted men of other opinions and a younger generation. H. E. Holland, D. G. Sullivan, and many other Labour members valued his hospitality, advice, and intelligent consideration of their views, which he strongly and cogently opposed. Bell was often found on the “Left” in questions of individual liberty, notably in his defence of religious objection to war service. He placed the State above sectional interest, and was willing to see it step in if private enterprise proved selfish or inefficient, but he believed that such State activity should be free of political control. In other matters, including the right of associations (particularly those advocating force) to challenge the supremacy of the State, he sternly set his face against what he regarded as subversion. Perhaps his greatest work in government was done on the Statutes Revision Committee, where his lucid mind successfully wrestled with problems of growing complexity in legislation. His work here set a standard in New Zealand, and was copied overseas. Other activities of Bell that should be mentioned include his work on New Zealand citizenship, his establishment of our first adequate forest service, and his advocacy of the League of Nations. On the latter point, he was at odds with the sceptical Massey. As Stewart points out, there was a less attractive side to Bell. He could not suffer fools gladly, and possessed quite devastating powers of personal abuse. Some sensitive men, after a torrid interview, regarded him as a blustering bully. Bell's anger quickly subsided, especially when the victim stood up to him. He was essentially a just man; indeed, there was in him a streak of scepticism expressed frequently in deprecatory references to himself, and finally in his determination to burn all his political papers, a tragic loss to New Zealand history.
by William James Gardner, M.A., Senior Lecturer, History Department, University of Canterbury.
- N.Z.P.D., Vol. 244 (1936), (Obit)
- Sir Francis Bell, His Life and Times, Stewart, W. D. (1937)
- Rise of the Reform Party, Webb, L. C. (1928)
- Newsletter, (Reform Party), 27 Feb 1926.