Story: Bell, Allen

Page 1 - Bell, Allen

Bell, Allen

1870–1936

Farmer, soldier, land agent, newspaper editor, politician

This biography was written by J. A. B. Crawford and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996

Allen (Allan) Bell was born at Southbridge, Canterbury, New Zealand, on 14 February 1870. He was the son of Allen Bell, a farmer, and his wife, Mary Mathews. Allen senior was apparently forced off his land in the depression of the 1880s and the family moved to Taranaki. Young Allen attended Mr Gee's grammar school, then worked as a clerk for the Kaiapoi Woollen Manufacturing Company before moving north to join his family. After working as a bushman and farmer he travelled to southern Africa in 1895. Bell served with the British forces that in 1896 suppressed a rising by the Matabele (Ndebele) people. Later he saw active service with the Rhodesian Regiment during the opening months of the South African War.

Sometime after he was discharged on 31 January 1900 Allen Bell returned to Taranaki. On 29 January 1902 he married James Helen Shaw Lambie at Pihama. They took up land at Te Rapa, near Hamilton, where their daughter, Elaline, was born on 6 July 1904. In 1906 he established a land agency in Hamilton. Bell was a prominent figure in the farmers' union, and helped found the first co-operative dairy company in Waikato and two local trading companies. Between 1907 and 1909 he was a member of the Hamilton Borough Council, and in 1908–9 he was chairman of the Waikato Hospital and Charitable Aid Board.

Military affairs continued to play a prominent part in Bell's life. In April 1904 he was elected a lieutenant in No 1 Waikato Mounted Rifle Volunteers. Two months later he was promoted to captain and took command of the unit, and in February 1908 he was promoted to major. In August Bell was made a lieutenant colonel and placed in command of the 2nd Regiment, Auckland Mounted Rifle Volunteers. From 1906 until 1910 he played a key role in the campaign for compulsory military training.

Allen Bell was the opposition's candidate for the Waikato seat in the 1908 general election. He also unsuccessfully contested the Raglan electorate for Reform in the 1911 general election. During the campaign Bell caused a sensation when he advocated the abolition of the monarchy. The military authorities considered that Bell had broken his oath of allegiance; he was asked to resign his commission, which he reluctantly did in January 1912.

In 1914 Bell and his brothers, Leonard and Walter, moved to the Kaitaia area where they purchased a farm on which much of present-day Kaitaia township is sited. It appears that Bell and his wife had separated; Helen Bell remained in Hamilton with their daughter, and died there in 1962.

Bell was enthusiastic about the potential of North Auckland, which he wished to see renamed Northland. He threw himself into local affairs, quickly winning both friends and enemies. His catch-cry was 'Go north young man', and he and his supporters had ambitious plans for developing the district. They were opposed by a conservative group whom they derisively called the 'pull-backs'. Bell established a chamber of commerce, which he then used in campaigns for various initiatives, such as a programme to improve local roads, and for the transfer of essential services from Mangonui to Kaitaia. In 1918 Bell became the editor of the Northern Age.

Much of the land purchased by the Bell brothers was swampy. Between 1916 and the early 1920s, however, a government drainage scheme converted thousands of acres of land in the Kaitaia area into sections suitable for agricultural, commercial and residential development. Bell actively supported the drainage scheme, and as a landowner and land agent was one of its beneficiaries.

Early in 1917 the North Auckland Development Board, which Bell chaired, organised a tour of Northland by a large party of cabinet ministers, members of Parliament and farming and business leaders. The tour succeeded in raising awareness of the region's problems and considerable economic potential. Bell severed his links with the Northern Age after a disagreement with his associates and in 1922 founded a new weekly newspaper, the Northlander.

In the 1922 general election Bell successfully contested the Bay of Islands electorate as an independent. A 'roads and bridges' member of Parliament, he was principally concerned with the well-being and advancement of his constituency. Bell retained his seat in the 1925 general election in which he stood as a Reform candidate. Three years later he lost his seat to H. M. Rushworth, the leader of the Country Party.

The Northlander lost money, and in 1933 it ceased publication. At this time Bell's health was failing, and he retired to Paua on Parengarenga Harbour. Efforts by Bell to organise development schemes for local Maori were cut short by his death there on 15 October 1936. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered from an aircraft north of Cape Reinga.

Allen Bell was a tall, handsome man with considerable presence. A powerful orator, he liked to 'smother' his opponents with words. He was a strong willed, charismatic, rather restless individual, who spent most of his adult life and financial resources campaigning for a range of private or public schemes and proposals. He had – for a man who supported the Reform Party for much of his life – rather radical social and political beliefs, which centred on protecting the rights and advancing the interests of ordinary working people. Although he was a controversial figure in Northland, there is no doubt that Bell had a profound affection for the region and made a great contribution to the development of modern Kaitaia and its environs.