One of the World War One memorial brasses in Old St Paul’s is for MP William Henry Dillon Bell. He was an MP when World War One was declared. He immediately resigned from parliament, and was part of New Zealand’s Samoa Expeditionary Force, which invaded German Samoa to take control of the German wireless station there. He was killed in action in Belgium after serving for three years. This story was written by Geoff Adlam for the New Zealand Law Society, which has kindly given us permission to reproduce it.
William Bell was killed in action during the Third Battle of Ypres in Belgium on 31 July 1917. He was aged 33. His name is on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial at Ieper in Belgium, which lists over 54,000 soldiers whose graves are not known.
Hal, as he was known, was born in Wellington on 1 March 1884. His parents were Lady Caroline and Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell. Sir Francis was a prominent lawyer. He was Crown Solicitor in Wellington from 1878 to 1890, appointed a King’s Counsel in 1907, and (longest-serving) President of the New Zealand Law Society from 1901 to 1918. He was also actively involved in politics, being Mayor of Wellington in 1891, 1892 and 1896, and an MP from 1893 to 1896. As a member of the Legislative Council from 1912 he was a Cabinet Minister from 1915, becoming Prime Minister briefly in 1925.
William Henry Dillon Bell, 1910. Ref: 1/2-041409-F; ATL.
Hal went to school at Wellington College. On completion of his schooling he went to England and studied at Cambridge University. From Cambridge he read for the bar at the Inner Temple and was admitted as a barrister in 1908. While in England he got married, to Gladys on 8 March 1907. He also held a temporary commission in the King Edward’s Horse Regiment. Bell and his wife returned to New Zealand in late March 1908.
Bell returned to work in his father’s firm, the Wellington part of what is now Bell Gully. He was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand in October 1908. On 1 April 1909, aged 24, he became the fifth partner in the firm Bell Gully Bell and Myers.
Over the next few years Bell made regular appearances in the courts in Wellington. He was appearing in the Magistrate’s Court by December 1908. As the solicitor for the Wellington Racing Club and as a Crown prosecutor he appeared in many racing-related cases, mainly involving bookmaking.
Outside the law Bell and his wife led an active social life. He was a member of the Wellington Golf Club and a keen racehorse owner and belonged to the Wellington Racing Club. In May 1909 he was appointed Consul for Denmark, holding this role until he resigned in May 1914 and attending many official functions in that capacity.
Following in his father’s footsteps Bell began a political career in 1911 when he successfully stood for election in the General Assembly as MP for Wellington Suburbs and Counties. During an election meeting he outlined why he was standing: ‘Firstly, he thought it was the duty of young men who could make their business fit in with political life to do so. It was only out of young men the people would get the youthful vigour they should have. The second reason was his objection to the present Government… He was announced as an Opposition candidate. He was in opposition not so much to the policy the Government professed as to the policy it carried out.’
He served in Parliament over the next three years until war was declared in August 1914. Bell immediately resigned and was granted a commission with the Samoan Advance party which invaded German Samoa at the end of the month. He embarked with the party from Wellington on 15 August 1914.
After landing he was involved in adminstration and was appointed an orderly officer to the Commander, Colonel Robert Logan. A letter from Logan to the Minister of Defence requested Bell’s promotion to Captain ‘so that his military rank might be more in keeping with the work he now does.’ On 1 October Defence Minister James Allen advised the Governor to approve the temporary rank of Captain for Bell “while employed with the Expeditionary Force (Samoa) 1914”. This was approved.
Bell returned to New Zealand from Samoa on 10 November. He was not in Wellington long. Bell Gully Bell and Myers drew up a new partnership agreement which stated that Bell was ‘desirous of resigning from the partnership as from 26 November 1914’ and would proceed to England to join up. The firm gave him a horse as a parting gift. He took it overseas with him.
The commission in the King Edward Horse which he had held while a student was confirmed, and Bell set off for England via Vancouver early in December 1914. Over the next three years he was involved in a number of campaigns and was Mentioned in Dispatches. He was also promoted to Captain. On 31 July 1917 he was killed in action at the Third Battle of Ypres.
The death of a former MP, prominent lawyer and the son of Legislative Council leader Sir Francis Dillon Bell meant there were many tributes paid to Bell. Flags over shipping, commercial, consular and government offices in Wellington flew at half-mast on 8 August 1917. The Prime Minister, William Massey said Bell was ‘one of the most popular men in the House; if he had lived he would have made his mark in the public life of the country.’ The House passed a motion of condolence and adjourned early as a mark of respect.
A special sitting of the Supreme Court in Wellington on 10 August 1917 also saw many tributes paid. Charles Skerrett KC, on behalf of members of the Bar, said Bell’s character and upbringing imbued him with a respect for the high traditions of the great profession to which he belonged. Chief Justice Sir Robert Stout said he had been greatly impressed with the ability of Bell, who had appeared before him in several cases. He was not only a very able lawyer, but an able counsel – ‘honourable and upright’. ‘I thought then that one day he would be one of the foremost men in New Zealand and I have no doubt he would have been so had he been spared.’
Bell is included among the names on the memorial bronze tablet to lawyers and law clerks in the Wellington library of the New Zealand Law Society, as well as at Menin Gate, and at Old St Paul’s.
The opening of Menin’s Gate, Belgium, in 1927
By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society. Further information is welcomed: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sources: Evening Post, 15 December 1899, p6; 2 December 1908, p15; 7 May 1909, p8; 14 May 1909, p7; 18 April 1910, p8; 29 July 1911, p3; 22 May 1914, p7; 11 November 1914, p6; 8 August 1917, p7; 9 August 1917, p10; 10 August 1917, p7; New Zealand Truth, 27 February 1909, p6; Dominion, 21 October 1911, p3; 15 August 1914, p6; 9 August 1917, p5; New Zealand Gazette, 24 September 1914; Otago Daily Times, 9 November 1914, page 3; Star, 5 December 1914, page 9; Julia Millen, The Story of Bell Gully Buddle Weir 1840-1990, (Bell Gully, 1990); Auckland War Memorial Museum Online Cenotaph soldier profile.
Bell was not the only son of a Prime Minister who has a memorial in the church – Richard John Seddon’s son also died in World War One and has a memorial there too.