Dillon Bell

For his son see Rt. Hon. Francis Bell (New Zealand Prime Minister)

Sir Francis Dillon Bell, KCMG CB MLC (8 October 1822 - 15 July 1898) was a New Zealand politician of the late 19th century. He served as New Zealand's first Minister of Finance, and later as its third Speaker of the House. His son, Francis Henry Dillon Bell, became the first New-Zealand born Prime Minister in 1925.

Early life

Bell is believed to have been born in Bordeaux, France, where his father was the British consul. He grew up speaking both English and French fluently. When his family ran into financial problems, Bell's relative, Edward Gibbon Wakefield, managaged to secure Bell a position as a clerk in the New Zealand Company's head office in London. As a result of office politics, however, it eventually became expedient for Bell to go to New Zealand in person, acting as an agent for the Company.

New Zealand Company

Bell arrived in New Zealand in 1843. He moved around New Zealand considerably, visiting Auckland, Nelson, and the Wairarapa before finally becoming the New Zealand Company's resident agent in New Plymouth. While there, he successfully negotiated land deals with local Māori.

Later, following the resignation of William Fox as the company's agent in Nelson, Bell was appointed to this position. Passing through Wellington on his way to take up the post, however, Bell found the company's director in New Zealand, William Wakefield, to be in ill health. Bell postponed his journey to Nelson in order to help manage the company's affairs, and Wakefield consequently recommended Bell as his successor before he died. In the end, however, Bell was outmaneuvered by William Fox, who Bell was replacing as the Company's agent in Nelson.

Bell was very bitter at Fox's victory, and it was possibly as a result of this bitterness that Bell became a strong supporter of Fox's enemy, Governor George Grey. Grey appointed Bell to the Legislative Council of the Province of New Munster. Bell's reputation suffered considerably from his association with the Governor, however, and many thought of him as a time-server and a sycophant. Bell eventually returned to his company post in Nelson, although the New Zealand Company did not survive long after Wakefield's death.

Political career

In 1851, Grey appointed Bell to the Legislative Council. When the Legislative Council was reformed, becoming merely the upper house of the new General Assembly (now called Parliament), Bell's appointment was reconfirmed. In 1854, the Legislative Council demanded that one of its members should be appointed to the Executive Council (roughly corresponding to Cabinet). Bell was selected to join the four members of the lower house who had already been appointed, and took his place on 30 June. On 11 July, however, he was forced to resign due to the ill health of his wife.

In the 1855 elections, Bell stood for the lower house in the Hutt electorate, and was successful. When Henry Sewell became New Zealand's first Premier, Bell was appointed Colonial Treasurer (the office from which the modern post of Minister of Finance is descended). Sewell's premiership lasted only two weeks, however, and Bell lost his position. He resigned from Parliament on 10 October 1856 and moved to Otago. In 1859, he contested a by-election for the seat of Wallace, and was elected on 30 November. He was re-elected in the 1860 elections, and elected as MP for Mataura in the following two elections. As an MP, he was highly active in campaigning for Southland to become an independent province, a goal which came to fruition on 1 April 1861.

When Alfred Domett became Premier in 1862, Bell became Colonial Treasurer once again, and also Minister of Native Affairs. Bell was relatively experienced in negotiating with Māori, and spoke the Māori language fluently. Bell was not particularly active in his Native Affairs role, however, as he believed that the Governor - not Parliament - should have primary responsibility for Māori relations. When Domett was ousted as Premier by William Fox, Bell lost both roles. From 1869 to 1871, Bell was a minister without portfolio.

After the 1871 elections, Bell was appointed Speaker of the House. He is generally regarded to have been a competent speaker, having few strong views that might have biased him. He was knighted in 1873.

Later life

Although Bell initially intended to contest the 1875 elections, he later decided to withdraw, expecting an appointment to the Legislative Council. A new government policy meant that this did not eventuate until 1877, however.

In late 1879 Bell, a pastoralist who who by then had amassed a holding of 226,000 acres, joined Fox as the other member of the West Coast Commission to inquire into Māori grievances with confiscated lands in Taranaki. The commission'e hearings, which had been prompted by friction between the Government and Te Whiti over plans to survey and sell previously confiscated land in central and south Taranaki, were closely connected with events at Parihaka, a settlement that became the centre of a passive resistance campaign against European encroachment on Māori land.

In 1880, Bell was offered a position as Agent-General in London. He served there until 1891. In London, Bell was involved in a large number of activities to promote New Zealand's interests, including discussions with the French regarding their territories in the Pacific – his fluency in French was a considerable asset in this regard.

He was awarded the KCMG in 1881 and a CB in 1886.

Apart from one brief visit in 1891, Bell did not return to New Zealand until 1896, when he retired to a farm in Otago. He died on his Shag Valley homestead in 1898.


He married Margaret Hort in 1849. Her father Abraham Hort was a leading member of the Wellington Jewish community, but she became an ardent Christian. Their son, Francis Henry Dillon Bell became the first New Zealand born Prime Minister of New Zealand. Their second son Alfred managed their pastoral holdings; by 1874 he had over and nearly 80,000 sheep.


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