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Rt Hon Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell KC GCMG, 1851 - 1936

The longest-serving New Zealand Law Society President, Sir Francis was a renowned jurist, one of our first King's Counsel, Crown solicitor, Attorney-General and the first New Zealand-born prime minister.

WJ Gardner's profile in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography says he has been described as the outstanding lawyer in New Zealand history as well as holding high office in "an astonishing range of public and sporting organisations".

Born in Nelson on 31 March 1851, he was educated in Auckland and Dunedin before attending St John's College, Cambridge England, from 1869 to 1873 when he graduated BA in mathematics. He was called to the English bar in 1874 and returned to Wellington in 1875 where he became junior partner in the law practice of CB Izard.

Bell quickly made his mark in legal practice. He married Caroline Robinson in Christchurch on 24 April 1878 and the couple had four daughters and four sons, one of whom was killed in World War I. He became senior partner in his firm in 1886, which became Bell, Gully, MacKenzie and Evans.

Sir Francis was elected Mayor of Wellington in 1891, 1892 and 1896. He unsuccessfully stood for Parliament in 1890, but was elected in 1893. He returned to legal practice in 1896. In early 1901 he became President of the New Zealand Law Society, holding that office until 1918. He was appointed one of New Zealand's first King's Counsel in 1907, and was Crown Solicitor in Wellington from 1902 to 1910.

Appointed to lead the Legislative Council in 1912, he became a minister in the government, and was acting prime minister in 1921, 1923 to 1924 and 1925. On 14 May 1925 he took office as prime minister on the understanding that it was a temporary leadership and resigned on 30 May 1925. He led the Legislative Council until 1928 and was actively involved in politics until his death in Wellington on 13 March 1936. 

Sir Francis was appointed KCMG in 1915, a GCMG in 1923, and a privy councillor in 1926.

Supreme Court Judge Sir David Smith delivered the following speech at the Wellington District Law Society's Centennial Function at Old Saint Paul's in 1981. The speech was printed in the July 1983 issue of the Wellington District Law Society's monthly newsletter, Council Brief.

My knowledge of Bell began early in 1907 when I started work as a law clerk. My lasting impression of him is that he was about six feet tall and rather portly. He had a long head and greying hair and an affliction of one eye which did not seem to hamper him. He walked in a lumbering way, with his hands often clasped behind his back. He did not seem to care much about dress. I have seen him at a Parliamentary luncheon in a baggy suit with ill-adjusted collar and tie.  In an era when dress on a formal occasion did matter, he knew that his eminence would protect him. He had a deep, stentorian voice.

His manners varied. He could be charming, courteous and witty. He liked a good story. A short one like this pleased him: When Lord Chancellor Westbury was being driven in his coach through the streets, the horse boled. Cried the Lord Chancellor to his coachman - "Drive into something cheap, John". 

On the other hand, he could be, in order to get his own way, rough and rude. You could go into the office of Bell, Gully & Co in the first decade of this century and hear his deep-throated voice reverberating through the building, calling for some person who had not answered his bell promptly enough. 

Though he could quote Latin verse freely and aptly, he did not disdain swearing. When I was his junior  in a case before the Court of Appeal in 1912 I was surprised at the facility with which he could use the word "bloody" in private conversation: and that was two years before Eliza Doolittle  in  Shaw's "Pygmalion",  with  her  retort of "not bloody likely" raised the longest laugh a London theatre had known and started the process of civilising the  word  for use  by ladies and gentlemen. Bell's biographer, Downie Stewart, tells us that when someone complained of Bell's swearing Bell said he could not understand it because he swore only at his friends.

Mentally, Bell had a fine intellect of great analytical power. Morally, he had a passion to succeed and to serve, but only on his own terms. His instruments were speech and writing. In my view he was not an orator. I thought him too ponderous but he had a most lucid pen.

I would emphasise that he gave his service only on his own terms, undeflected by what other people might think or feel or do. He had immense self-confidence. Though essentially a conservative, he expressed advanced views about the leasing of land, the subdivision of large estates and the election of the Legislative Council by proportional representation.

He was a great believer in the British Empire and thought that the United Kingdom government, after taking counsel with the Dominions, should lay down the foreign policy of the whole Empire, or Commonwealth as it became. He opposed the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and the Statute of Westminster founded upon it. He did his best to stop New Zealand becoming an independent state.

Influenced perhaps by the Quaker side of his ancestry, he secured some consideration for conscientious objectors during World War I. Though he liked his liquor he was a prohibitionist, making it plain that if Prohibition were carried, he would have to hand in a well-stocked cellar. After World War I, some ex-university students, of whom I was one, in my less-experienced days, were to address a large meeting in the Wellington Town Hall in favour of Prohibition. I asked him if he would help us by taking the chair and he did.

Though he was out of ministerial office during the great economic depression of the 1930s, he exercised a decisive influence in preventing the reduction of Judges' salaries as paid to them, but applying to those salaries at the source a general withholding tax, though this method of taxation has long since been accepted by the Judges without apparently, in the least affecting their independence or producing any constitutional calamity.

His vast self-confidence was balanced by a surface modesty which is not unusual in well-bred men. They have a very clear idea of their own important achieve­ments but they make light of them or do not talk about them, at least in public. Bell was like that.

He died in 1936 at his beautiful home in Lowry Bay, where the tuis and the bellbirds sang. There was something stoical about his death. His son, Cheviot, told me that when he knew he was dying but was still in adequate possession of his faculties, he sent for each of his children and said farewell. Then, with none of them to witness his final weakness, he died, alone. But the memory of him should live as part of our legal and political heritage.

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Last updated on the 8th August 2019