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Thomas Hugh Bell (1844-1931)




Sir Hugh Bell, second baronet, of Rounton Grange, whose death at the age of 87, is announced on another page, was a notable figure in the industrial and public life of the North of England. He had come to be recognized as a great authority on all questions connected with the coal and iron trades, but his activities were by no means limited to business. He was particularly interested in secondary education, and Armstrong College found in him a generous and enthusiastic supporter. For more than half a century he threw himself whole-heartedly into the public life around him, first on Tees-side and later in Durham and Yorkshire; he had been Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding since 1906.

Hugh Bell was a man who made one think highly of the Victorians. For a lifetime he had been immersed in the technicalities of coal, steel, and industrial chemistry and had helped to build up the great industries of the country; but, in spite of the multiplicity of his business engagements, he maintained a vivid interest in the progress of contemporary thought, dispensed a generous hospitality, and displayed to a slipshod generation the polished manners of a more ceremonious age. At Rounton Grange or Mount Grace he received his guests with an old-world courtesy which was the more attractive because they knew that their host was a doughty fighter who, when his blood was up, could be mercilessly blunt.

The resolute courage which carried his daughter Gertrude gaily over Alpine glaciers and Arabian deserts was no less characteristic of Sir Hugh himself. Old age could not make him timid ; when he was over 80 he walked out on to a girder of the new Tyne Bridge then in course of construction and inspected the work from a dizzy height above the river; in recent years he undertook voyages to Palestine and Australia with the unconcern of a man in the prime of life. And this physical intrepidity was of a piece with his valiant attitude towards life in general; "obstacles are made to be overcome", he was fond of saying, and to him at least they were always a challenge to action.

He had a wide range of intellectual sympathies, and he would enter with vivacious interest into a conversation upon almost any topic; the stories he would tell in French and German as well as in English revealed the width of his reading. He was fond of a mot and would sometimes polish up the good things that had come to him in conversation; he would amuse his guests by bringing down, to breakfast a half-sheet of paper on which he had elaborated a paradox or put edge to a satire of which they had had the first hint overnight.

His latter years were clouded by the deaths of his son, Hugh, and his daughter, Gertrude, which he bore with silent fortitude. The death of his wife in May, 1930, came as a final blow. Superficially he gave the impression of polished steel, brilliant and incisive, but beneath this mask were affections so strong that he dared not reveal them, and of which we can only guess from the published letters of Gertrude Bell.

Thomas Hugh Bell was the elder son of Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, Bt., formerly M.P. for North Durham, and was born at Walker-on-Tyne on February 10, 1844. His paternal and maternal grandfathers, Thomas Bell and Hugh Lee Pattinson, both came of Cumbrian stock and were men of some scientific and commercial distinction. Hugh Lee Pattinson, who migrated to Newcastle-on-Tyne from Alston in the early part of the nineteenth century, revolutionized the lead industry by the invention of a new and cheaper process of desilverization. Thomas Bell came to Newcastle from Carlisle, being attracted to the Tyne by a merchant adventurer named Losh, who laid the foundations of the great alkali trade on Tyneside, which continued to flourish down to the introduction of the ammonia-soda process by Messrs. Brunner, Mond about 1870. Thomas Bell was associated with Losh in the establishment of the famous firm of Losh, Walker, and Bell, ironfounders, of Walker-on-Tyne, of which undertaking Isaac Lowthian Bell became manager when his son was two years old.

Four years later Isaac Lowthian Bell joined his father-in-law and two brothers-in-law in founding the Washington Chemical Works, which he carried on until the early seventies, when he sold his interest to his partners. In 1852, however, Isaac Lowthian Bell also turned his attention to the Cleveland iron trade, the Port Clarence Works being started in that year. Isaac Lowthian Bell's home was at this time at Washington, and it was from here that Hugh Bell first went to school. In 1855 he passed on to Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh. At the age of 15 he was sent to Paris for a year. Here he studied chemistry at the Sorbonne under St. Clair Deville, and then went to Göttingen, where he had for his instructors Deville's brilliant collaborator, Vohler, the founder of modern organic chemistry, and Stein, a mathematician scarcely less famous.

In the autumn of 1802 he entered, reluctantly enough, on his long business career. The course of his formal education had been modelled on that which had proved successful in his father's case, but Sir Hugh Bell used to say in afterlife that of education in any real sense ho received practically none during this period. He was, however, all through life an unwearying reader, and he gave the impression, in his later years at any rate, of being a man of the widest culture and the readiest intellectual equipment.

After a thorough grounding at the head office of the business, which was in those days at Newcastle, he removed to Billingham, to direct the Port Clarence Iron Works. Some time after Mr. Bell came to the Tees the head office of his father's business was transferred to Middlesbrough. Extensive developments followed, the salt industry being added, which in turn was followed by the establishment of soda works on the Tees. In 1872, for family reasons, the business was converted into a limited company, and Mr John Bell's interests, on his death in 1888, were acquired by Isaac Lowthian Bell and his family. In 1899 Bell Brothers, Limited, was floated as a public company in conjunction with Dorman, Long and Co., Limited, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell's family undertaking to provide a moiety of £300,000 for the erection of steel works at Port Clarence, Messrs. Dorman, Long and Co., Limited, engaging to provide the remainder. Later Dorman, Long and Co. purchased the North-Eastern Steel Company. On the formation of Bell Brothers as a limited company Hugh Bell became a director and ultimately was practically managing director, and on the formation of the public company in 1899 ho was formally appointed managing director, to which was added the chairmanship on the death of his father.

Sir Hugh Bell was also a director of Messrs. Brunner, Mond and Co., Limited. This firm, with a view to facilitating the export of alkali and soda crystals to the Continent, were desirous of acquiring a footing on the Tees, and in consequence they took over the soda works of Bell Brothers and purchased an interest in the salt mines, Sir Hugh Bell joining the directorate of the Northwich firm in 1893. He was also elected a director of the North Eastern Railway in 1903, when his father was also a member of the board, and after the amalgamations he became chairman of the London and North Eastern. Among other companies with which he was identified mention must also be made of the Horden Collieries, Limited, of which he had been chairman.

In 1869 he was elected to the Middlesbrough Town Council, and, applying himself to the furtherance of education, was virtually the founder of the Middlesbrough High School. He was chairman of the Free Library Committee during the whole of his long membership of the council, and was also for many years chairman of the School Board. After the passing of the Education Act of 1902 he was pressed by his colleagues on the town council to take in hand the task of organizing the new education authority, and he remained chairman of the Education Committee until he left the council in 1907. He was three times Mayor of Middlesbrough. His first tenure was marked by the acquisition of the Stockton and Middlesbrough Water Company's undertaking, now known as the Tees Valley Water Board, of which he was the first chairman, and over which he continued to preside for 31 years. He was Mayor again in 1883, and for two months on an emergency in 1911. Ho was an original member, and later an alderman, of the North Riding County Council.

Not the least of his services to the community was the part he played in the development of the River Tees as a member of the Tees Conservancy Commissioners since 1875 and as chairman of the board on the retirement of Sir J. W. Pease in 1903. A year ago he was made hon. D.C.L. of Oxford. He was a member of the Senate of the University of Durham, which gave him its hon. D.C.L., and he was hon. LL.D. of Leeds and Sheffield. In 1911 he was elected chairman of the council of Armstrong College in succession to the late Dr. R. Spence Watson. He had been a magistrate for the North Riding since 1875, was a J.P. and a D.L. for the county of Durham and the county borough of Middlesbrough, and served as High Sheriff of Durham in 1895. In 1906 he was appointed Lord Lieutenant for the North Riding of Yorkshire. He was a Past President of the Iron and Steel Institute, and a member of the employers' panel for the Court of Arbitration, an original member of the Board of Trade Advisory Committee, and an employers' representative on the Board of Trade Industrial Council. In 1906 he was appointed a member of the Committee on Special Training for Army Staff. During the great coal strike of 1912 he was a member of the coal-owners' committee, and acted in conjunction with the late Sir Thomas Ratcliffe-Ellis as a sub-committee of two to confer with the Government on behalf of the owners during the framing of the Minimum Wage Act.

In politics he was an advanced Liberal, and — as he himself would put it on occasions — a "bitter" free-trader. He was, however, a hardly less "bitter" supporter of the Union, and his inability to compromise in regard to Home Rule on the one hand or Tariff Reform on the other caused him to sit loose to party ties. His opposition to Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule proposals in 1885 led to his compulsory retirement from the Cleveland Liberal Association in that year. Becoming a Liberal Unionist, he attached himself to the late Duke of Devonshire. In 1903, when Mr. Joseph Chamberlain went to Newcastle to give a lead to the North of England on Tariff Reform, Bell helped to organize an emphatic protest against the attempt to commit the Liberal Unionist Party in the North-Eastern Counties to Mr. Chamberlain's propaganda. Acting in concert with his father and the late Hon. Arthur Elliot and Lord Durham, he publicly cut himself adrift from the Unionist Party. Twice ho stood for Parliament, but his failure on both occasions is not believed to have caused him any chagrin. In 1892 he contested Middlesbrough as a Liberal Unionist; and in January, 1910, he fought a hopeless battle as a Liberal free trader in the City of London against the late Lord Balfour and Lord Banbury. Of late years he was moved to proclaim his strong faith in individualism and his opposition to the growth of bureaucracy. Last month he uttered a warning against the Labour aim of redistributing wealth by taxation.

Sir Hugh Bell — he succeeded to his father's baronetcy in December, 1904 — married, first, in 1867, Maria, daughter of John Shield, of Ashburn, Isle of Bute. She died in 1871, leaving a son and a daughter. The son, Lieutenant-Colonel Maurice Hugh Lowthian Bell, C.M.G., who succeeds to the title, served with distinction in the South African War and the Great War, and is a director of Bell Brothers, Limited, and Dorman, Long, Limited. The daughter, Miss Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell, the distinguished traveller and archaeologist, Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner of Iraq at Baghdad, died in July, 1926, a few months after her half-brother, the Rev. Hugh Lowthian Bell.

In 1876 Sir Hugh married Florence Eveleen Eleanore, daughter of the late Sir Joseph Olliffe, M.D., who was the creator, with the Count de Morny, of Deauville, and was for many years a figure in the social and professional life of Paris. Lady Bell, who died on May 16, 1930, was a lady of great charm and accomplishment. She was well known as a hostess, and also as a writer of plays, several of which were produced in London, and of novels. She had two daughters — Lady Richmond, wife of Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond, and Lady Trevelyan, wife of Sir C. P. Trevelyan, M.P., lately Minister of Education in the present Government. The funeral will be at Rounton, Northallerton, on Thursday at 3.15. There will be a memorial service in London.

[The Times, Obituary, 30 Jun 1931]

Owner of originalThe Times
Date30 Jun 1931
Linked toThomas Hugh Bell

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