Francis Dillon Bell 1822–1898


New Zealand Company and Government officer

Like many of Nelson's earliest European settlers, Francis Bell had a Quaker background.

JSir Francis Dillon BellSir Francis Dillon Bell The Nelson Provincial Museum, Bett Collection 1/4 276
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A cousin of the Wakefield family, he became secretary to the New Zealand Company in 1839. Bell arrived in Nelson in October 1843 and was soon engaged, on behalf of the Company, in transactions involving the expenditure of large sums of money. With a gift for languages, he became fluent in Maori and his tact and diplomacy made him an invaluable negotiator.

Bell was elected secretary of the Nelson Institute in 1845, served as a magistrate in Nelson in 1846, was resident agent in New Plymouth in 1847 and returned to Nelson as resident agent in 1848.

 In spite of a growing frustration with the New Zealand Company, he was devastated by the death of William Wakefield  in 1848. In October he wrote to Edward Stafford  (husband of Wakefield's daughter, Emily), that he increasingly missed Wakefield: " far as my own life is concerned there is a blank which no time, no new friends nor strange circumstances can entirely fill up." 

In April 1849, Francis Bell married Margaret Hort whose father was a leading member of the Jewish community in Wellington, although she later became an ardent Christian.

The Bells returned to Nelson that year and, in his first report as Nelson's resident agent, Bell reported signs of prosperity throughout the region with more than 72,000 head of stock in the province- a ten-fold increase from the 1844 figures. Nelson's income for the eight years to 1849 was £252,930 at an average of £31,616/annum; and the total value of imports into Nelson "since its foundation", was £115,332, with exports being £15,423.

On 26 December 1849, he wrote: " One thing struck more particularly in the crowd: the improved appearance of the labouring class. At the time of the great distress in 1844 and 1845 when...many families lived almost wholly on potatoes...for more than twelve months, the rural population, especially women and children looked wretched." 

He noted with satisfaction in his 1849 report, that Nelson was virtually crime-free with six people convicted by the Supreme Court between 1847 and 1849. He attributed this lack of crime to the climate: " I deny any man, unless he is superlatively cross, to be long out of temper in the perpetual sunshine....he can't but be cheerful and good humoured, when he and everybody else around him are in robust health and share together the bracing and delightful air that prevails nearly all the year around." 

While Bell acknowledged that the New Zealand Company ‘experiment' had been seriously flawed, he wrote: "A colony is truly the place for a poor man: and comparing a labourer's previous life in England with a new settlement, he has incomparably the best of it." 

In April 1851 Bell was appointed Commissioner of Crown Lands in Wellington and became involved in national politics. The Bells had six sons and one daughter, with son Francis, becoming a Prime Minister. A skilled report writer and with no strong political opinions, Bell was regarded as being " of the best public officers...New Zealand has ever known."

This article is paraphrased from a series of columns written by Joy Stephens and published in the Nelson Mail in 2007.


 Updated: April 09, 2020

Sources used in this story

  • Airey, E (1990) Francis Dillon Bell. The Journal of the Nelson & Marlborough Historical Societies, (2) 4
  • Bell, Francis Dillon (1844-1848) Letters from Nelson, volume 3. 1844-1848 [the Nelson Provincial Museum, qMS LET]
  • Bell, Francis Dillon (1849) Report and notes upon the Nelson settlement for 1849.[The Nelson Provincial Museum, MS BEL]
  • Bell, Sir Francis Dillon. In  An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, A. H. McLintock (Ed) (1966). Retrieved from Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 18-Sep-2007:
  • Stewart, W.D. (1937) Sir Francis Dillon Bell: his life and times. Wellington; Butterworth & Co

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Further sources - Francis Dillon Bell 1822–1898


    • Allan, R. (1965). Nelson: a history of early settlement. Wellington, Auckland, New Zealand: A.H. & A. W. Reed, p. 108
    • Dalziel, R. M. (1975) The origins of New Zealand diplomacy. Wellington : Price Milburn for Victoria University Press
    • Bell, Sir F. D. (1906). In Cyclopaedia of New Zealand: Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical, facts, figures, illustrations. 5. Nelson Marlborough and Westland Provincial Districts. Christchurch, New Zealand: Horace J. Weeks Ltd, p.108.
    • Lash, M. D. (1992) Nelson Notables 1840-1940: a dictionary of regional biography. Dawn Smith (Ed) .Nelson,  New Zealand: Nelson Historical Society. pp. 19-20.
    • McLintock, A. (1949). The history of Otago: the origins and growth of a Wakefield Class settlement. Dunedin, New Zealand: Whitcombe & Tombs for Otago Centennial Historical Publications, pp. 497-498. 
    • Morrell, W.P. (1964) The Provincial System in New Zealand. Christchurch [N.Z.] : Whitcombe and Tombs
    • Sewell, H. (1980) The journal of Henry Sewell, 1853--7.  W. D. McIntyre (Ed).  Christchurch : Whitcoulls
    • Stewart, W.D. (1937) Sir Francis Dillon Bell: his life and times. Wellington; Butterworth & Co



  • Airey, E. (1990). Francis Dillion Bell (sic): his early life. Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, 2 (4):p.12-16.
  • The good tempered diplomat (1971) New Zealand's heritage, v. 3. Sydney: Hamlyn Paul, pp.804-808
  • Scholefield, G. (1934, September 21).Notable New Zealanders/Figures of the past. X. Sir Francis Dillon Bell (1821-1898). Otago Daily Times.p.2.

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