James Bell was born at Sanquhar,
Dumfriesshire, Scotland in 1836 the son of James Bell, store-keeper and Anne
née Turnbull; before he migrated to Victoria in 1857 he had already
established a business on his own. At Dunolly it did not take long for Bell
to become a successful store-keeper with Melbourne Punch noting years
later that he “quickly evinced that characteristic desire peculiar to the
Scot to be at the top of the tree” and by 1862 he had another store at St.
Arnaud. He later went on to become first mayor (1862-65) in the local
Dunolly Municipal Council (1862-77). In state politics, Bell stood for the
Legislative Council seat of North West Province (1882-1904) as a ‘moderate’
favouring free and compulsory secular education, trade protection,
Federation and equitable taxation; such was his popularity that until his
retirement, he never had to recontest again. Described as one of the “best
tempered of men, genial and kind”, Bell served as Minister without portfolio
(1886-89) and Minister for Defence (1889-90) after the death of Sir James
Lorimer (St. Kilda Cemetery); in 1889 he was president of the Royal
Commission on gold mining. As a grain merchant, his company “James Bell &
Co” became one of Victoria's largest exporters of wheat with branches in
and South Africa. Bell was caught up with the wicked ways of the notorious
land speculator (Sir) Matthew Davies (Old Cheltenham Cemetery) as a
fellow director of the “Mercantile Bank” (333 Collins Street, Melbourne)
that collapsed during the depression. Bell was charged on 4 January 1893
along with other co-directors with “conspiring to issue a false and fraudulent balance sheet” in
1892 when an emergency loan of
was improperly used to strengthen
the balance sheet; defended by Alfred Deakin (St. Kilda Cemetery) before
Magistrate Joseph Panton (St. Kilda Cemetery) and seven J.P's he was
acquitted. Having moved to Melbourne in 1886, Bell resided at
- McMillan Street, Elsternwick where he died on 24 February 1908; his wife
Elizabeth née Riddell and nine of their eleven children survived
him. The Argus wrote “Mr Bell brought to politics knowledge of the
requirements of his district, and a personal acquaintance with country
interests generally, and the conditions of commercial life. He was…always
on the side of those who endeavoured to adapt politics to the conditions of
the country as against those who try to subordinate the conditions to
(above) James Bell
(Reproduced with kind permission of the
Victorian Parliament Library)
ADB Volume 3 1851-90 (A-C).
The Age 26 & 27 February 1908.
The Argus 26 & 27 February 1908.
The Herald 25 February 1908.
Melbourne Punch 23 June 1904.
The Dunolly Progress and Bealiba Advocate 27
Dunolly and Betbetshire Express 28 February
The Weekly Times 23 March 1895.
Thomson, K & Serle, G., “A Biographical
Register of the Victorian Legislature 1851-1900” (1972).
Cannon, M., “The Land Boomers” (1966).
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