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The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times


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Sir Francis Bell was often asked to put on record the story of his life, but on each occasion his reply was an abrupt refusal. Sometimes he would say that he was not so much interested in the past as in the marvels that science was unfolding as to the future of the world. At other times with gruff emphasis he declared that he would destroy all his papers because he had been confidential adviser to too many people-including various Governors-General-and that it would be indiscreet to leave such secret documents in existence. "My father," he said, "burned all his papers and I intend to do the same with mine."

On one occasion I urged him to leave his papers under seal, with instructions that they should not be opened for twenty years or more, so that at some future time they could be made available to historians. But he remained obstinate and all my efforts were fruitless. In 1929, at the request of some of his old friends in Christchurch, I made a further effort to persuade him to write his memoirs, but he replied:

"You ask the impossible. As Dido said: Vixi et quern dederat cursum fortuna peregi (I have had my life and have fulfilled such lines as Fortune has page viiiallotted me). I am not able to write of my memories without offensive egotism. The art of avoiding 'I' in speech or letter has always been unattainable. I cannot write of others or of events without saying why I know unless I adopt a style of oracular authority which is detestable … So that is why the leisure of this writer cannot be devoted to the work you propose. It is not idleness, but knowledge of defects that bars the project. I think with you that such records might well be useful as part of history but, unlike Dogberry, I am unwilling to write me down an ass …."

His refusal to write any personal record was all the more regrettable in view of the fact that during his long career he became closely acquainted with nearly all the great political figures of successive generations. His father began his active work in New Zealand as far back as 1843, and father and son between them covered practically the whole span of New Zealand history up to the death of Sir Francis in 1936.


Shortly after Asquith's death someone described him as the last of the Romans: "His background was that of the old order, with its respect for institutions, its sense of decorum in public life, with its dislike for advertisement and appeals to the crowd."

These remarks might be applied with equal truth to Sir Francis Bell. After his death a keen observer, in writing to me, said: "He reminded me of some old Roman patrician. He was a certain man in uncertain times." This comparison with Asquith is not fanciful if we consider the mental structure of the two men; page ixtheir mode of thought; the style and composition of their speeches; their taste in reading; and their general views on politics and the State. In fact, anyone who knew Bell personally will be reminded of him again and again in perusing the biography of Asquith. For although these two men played their part on such different stages (the one amid the complications of European and world affairs and the other for the most part in the simple setting of New Zealand politics), they had essentially the same outlook. Bell has indeed been described as the New Zealand Asquith, and after he had become a celebrity in Parliament a New Zealand journalist wrote: "This veteran lawyer is the most lucid man in either House … His coherence is almost Asquithian."

Bell had inherited or absorbed the characteristics of many of our early statesmen, with their love of the classics, their sincere patriotism, and their strong belief that the highest interests of the country depended on strict adherence to principles that should not be violated. In other respects he was entirely modern in his outlook, and complied with Burke's saying, that the ideal statesman is the man who best combines the old with the new. He was the author of several notable legislative reforms, each of which possessed this admirable quality that it was of permanent national value to the whole of the people of New Zealand. In other words these reforms bore no trace of what is called "class legislation," though that phrase is often used unfairly as a term of opprobrium. For legislation may well be designed to remedy the grievances of one section or class of the community, and yet be justified if it produces a better general welfare by removing causes of social conflict. On the other hand, it may be detrimental even page xto those it is designed to benefit. Each case must be judged on its merits. But Bell's reforms had the rare virtue of being so clearly beneficial to everyone that they met with universal approval.

It was not until some months after his death that I was requested to attempt this study of his career. Had such a plan been present in my mind while Bell was still alive I might have gathered much material of value. It would have been possible to play the part of an amateur Boswell, for I often enjoyed the hospitality of his home in addition to our almost daily contact in Cabinet and Parliament. I was indeed glad to regard myself as his political disciple, and to draw on his vast stores of knowledge in dealing with my own problems. Hence I was willing and anxious to help to pay a tribute to the memory of one to whom I owed so much, and whose confidence and friendship I had enjoyed for over twenty years.

But the case standing as it did, I had to compile this memoir from such material as was available. A certain number of letters and papers have survived, and, of course, his views on many subjects are fully recorded in the Parliamentary Debates. In some parts of the narrative it may appear that I have used too many of Bell's letters to myself, but the explanation is that we were both involved in the same political problems, and I have been unable to secure many of his letters to other colleagues on these subjects.

The narrative that follows is therefore an attempt to convey to the reader some knowledge of Bell's life, and the many valuable reforms that he effected, together with some impression of the powerful influence he exercised on New Zealand politics during many years.

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Indeed, no student of New Zealand public affairs can afford to overlook his pronouncements on many questions of national policy, and, more especially, on matters affecting our Imperial relations.

It is a common accusation against biographers that they tend to exaggerate the virtues of their subject and to suggest that his services were unique and indispensable. But it must be admitted that Bell's strong and original character and his pre-eminent mental equipment raised him above the rank of ordinary public men.

In his letters it often happens that Bell makes use of quotations from his favourite Latin authors, and where these occur I have added the English translation for the benefit of those who, like myself, have almost forgotten what Latin they learned in their school days. Bell was perhaps the last of our public men to carry on this practice of quoting the Classics, which was so common a feature of the correspondence of an earlier generation.

One further explanation is necessary; the similarity in names between Sir Francis Dillon Bell, the father, and Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell, the son, is liable to cause some confusion. I have therefore endeavoured to avoid this by designating the father as Sir Dillon and the son as Sir Francis. Sometimes in the earlier letters the son is referred to as Harry, and where this occurs the reader will understand that the reference is to Sir Francis.

I am indebted to the members of his family for access to such of his papers as are still in existence, and particularly to his brother Mr. Arthur Bell, of Melbourne, who furnished me with reminiscences of his page xiiearly life, and to his brother Mr. E. D. Bell, of Wellington, who read the manuscript.

I am glad, also, to acknowledge my debt to Captain MacIntosh Ellis, late Director of Forestry, who read the chapter dealing with Bell's Forestry Policy; Major-General Sir George Richardson, who sent me notes on Samoan Affairs; Dr. Guy Scholefield, Parliamentary Librarian, who furnished me with material relating to Sir Dillon Bell's career in New Zealand; Mr. Herbert Evans, Barrister, of Wellington; Mr. James Christie, C.M.G., Chief Law Draftsman; Mr. E. H. McCormick, of Wellington; Mr. Leicester Webb, of Christchurch, who allowed me to peruse his manuscript history of the rise of the Reform Party; Mr. Good, Comptroller of Customs; Mr. A. G. Harper, of the Internal Affairs Department; Mr. A. B. Campbell, Barrister, of Napier; Mr. John O'Shea, City Solicitor, Wellington; Dr. George E. Thompson, of Otago University; and Mr. J. W. Black, formerly Private Secretary to Sir Francis Bell. There are others who have helped me in various ways, but it is not possible to name them all personally-I hope they will accept my thanks without more detailed acknowledgment.

W. Downie Stewart.

August, 1937.