Select Bell Miscellany

Here are some Bell stories and accounts over the years:

Robert Bell of Beaupre

Robert Bell’s emergence from obscurity during the reign of Elizabeth stemmed from a fortunate third marriage, to Dorothy the daughter and co-heiress of Edmund Beaupre.  This brought him a large estate in Norfolk, the status and local offices that went with it, and progress in his profession. 

He rose to become MP for King’s Lynn, a town some twelve miles from his wife’s estate.  After making a thorough nuisance of himself to the Government in the 1563 and 1571 Parliaments, Bell became Speaker in 1572, and, finally, poacher turned gamekeeper, “a sage and grave man, and famous for his knowledge in the law.” 

In 1577 Queen Elizabeth conferred a knighthood on him.  However, he was not to enjoy that honor long.  Later that year, while visiting a prison during the trial of a bookseller who had slandered the Queen, he caught jail fever from the stench and soon died. 

Robert Bell came from obscurity but left descendants who prospered and they included emigrants to both Virginia and New England

The Bell Family of Dumfriesshire

A book which covers the Scottish Border family of Bell is The Bell Family in Dumfriesshire by James Steuart.  The author’s original intent was to record the pedigree of his maternal ancestors, the Bells of Crurie who were offshoots of the Bells of Crowdieknowe. 

However, the gathering of data expanded the project and James Steuart was invited to submit a paper on the Bell family to the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This paper overflowed its confines and, from the length of the notes, it was resolved to publish them in book form. 

Although Steuart regarded his work to be only a "draft" of what a book should be, it is in reality the only work which characterizes the Bells of Middlebie.  In the early 1600’s Middlebie parish encompassed some 40,000 acres and was said to be populated by thirty one major Bell families. 

The Murder of John Bell

According to Daniel Defoe:

“A wretched gang led by Robert Grierson of Lag, coming to a house where they had been informed a field preacher was harbored, rushed violently into the house.  But they found not the man they sought, neither indeed was he there.  They did find five men together with the women and children of the family all on their knees at prayers.

Whereupon without examining any farther, they said it was a seditious meeting which was forbidden by the Council and thereupon instantly dragged out the men and shot them to death before the door.”

The Covenanter John Bell was believed to have been among those murdered.  A monument was erected to his memory which bore the following inscription:

“Here lies John Bell, of Whiteside who was barbarously shot to death in the parish of Tongland in Dumfries at the command of the Grier of Lag, anno 1685.

This monument shall tell posterity
That blessed Bell of Whiteside here does lie,
Who, at command of bloody Lag, was shot,
A murder strange which should not be forgot.
Douglas of Morton did him quarters give,
Yet cruel Lag would not let him survive.
This martyr sought some time to recommend
His soul to God before his days should end;
The tyrant said, What, devil you've prayed enough,
This seven long years on mountain and in cleuch;
And instantly caused him, with other four,
Be shot to death upon Kirkconnel Moor;
So thus did end the lives of these dear saints,
For their adherence to the covenants."

Bells in Inverary, Argyllshire

The old parish registers of Inverary in Argyllshire showed a remarkable fading of the MacIlemhaoil or McIlvoyle clan name in the 1700’s.   Indeed, after two entries in the 1760’s, the name disappeared altogether.  The records also revealed, however, an equally extraordinary blooming of Bells at exactly the same time, a name hitherto unknown in this parish register. 

The explanation is not far to find. The first of these Bell entries is the baptism in 1743 of a daughter Mary to Archibald and Christian Bell, a couple whose marriage can be found fourteen years before under the name of
McIlvoyle.  The sudden nature of this name change suggests an arbitrary decision by the Minister or Session Clerk to do away with the old Gaelic name in the church records. 

But the old name was not forgotten.  Angus Bell who died in Inverary in 1897 at the age of 96 had the ancient clan name of MacIlemhaoil engraved on his tombstone.

The Bells of Stamford, Connecticut

Francis Bell with his wife Rebecca was among the first settlers of Stamford in 1640 and their son Jonathan, born a year later, the first European child born there.  He grew up to be one of the leading men of Stamford, as selectman, representative, lieutenant and captain.  The line then ran to Jonathan, James, and to Isaac, a Loyalist at the time of the Revolutionary War. 

Isaac owned several mills in Stamford and was also a large shipping merchant in New York.  However, his adherence to the British cause at the time of the Revolution meant that he lost most of his possessions. Leaving Connecticut, he came within the British lines in New York and, when the British abandoned the city in 1783, he took his family to St. Johns, New Brunswick where they were to remain for the next five years or so. 

One of his sons Henry was accidentally killed in New York in 1773 and was buried in Trinity churchyard.  But another son Isaac, born in 1768, returned to New York and revived the family fortunes there.

The Bell Witch

Between 1817 and 1820 the Bell family of Adams, Tennessee were said to have been terrorized by a malevolent entity which attacked both the father John and his daughter Betsy.  

Numerous witnesses claimed to have observed the events which included singing and Bible quoting by a disembodied voice.  Andrew Jackson, the future President of the United States, was said to have visited the house.  After one of his men was attacked by an invisible force, he claimed: “I’d rather fight the entire British Army than deal with the Bell Witch.” 

According to the legend which developed, the Bell Witch took pleasure in tormenting John Bell during his affliction, finally poisoning him one December morning as he lay unconscious after suffering a number of violent seizures. Guests at his funeral heard it laughing and singing as he was buried.

Bell's Battle Hymn of the Republic

In the 19th century, the Battle Hymn of the Republic was adapted to fit prominent American surnames of the time, including Bell.  The Bell version was short on specifics.  There was only one verse really that had Bell references.  

“Three stalwart Bells were governors in Vermont, the Granite State;  
Samuel had five worthy sons who were both good and great.  
The value of Bell‘s telephone you cannot estimate.  
The Clan goes marching on!”  

There was just one Bell who was Governor of Vermont, Charles J. Bell from 1904 to 1906.  The story goes that a Scottish ancestor of his had invented the tulip-shaped bell for which he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.  He subsequently took the name of Bell.  His son James came to America and his descendants moved to New Hampshire and later Vermont. 

There were three Bell Governors of New Hampshire, all from the same family - Samuel in 1819, John his brother in 1828, and Charles his nephew in 1881.  Samuel had eight sons by two wives.  Were five worthy and three not-so-worthy? 

Bell’s telephone obviously refers to Alexander Graham Bell.

Alexander Graham Bell's Ancestry

Alexander Graham Bell’s ancestry can be traced back to James Bell who married Janet Whyte around 1685.  These Bells were for the next four generations shoemakers at St. Andrews (the home now of the famous golf course).  The line from James and Janet went: 

  • their eldest son Alexander Bell who was born in 1687 and married Mary Stark in 1717  
  • their eldest son James Bell who was born in 1720 and married Helen Duncan around 1742.  
  • their youngest son David Bell who was born in 1760 and married Isabella Swan around 1787.  
  • and to their second son Alexander Bell who was born in 1790 and married Elizabeth Colville in 1814.  
It was this Alexander who came to Edinburgh and pursued various occupations before becoming well-known in England as a public speaker and professor of elocution.  His son Alexander was born in Edinburgh in 1819 and married Eliza Symonds there in 1844.  He was a teacher and researcher in phonetics. 

They had only the three sons, two of whom died in their twenties of a lung ailment while they still lived in Scotland.  Fear of losing their remaining son, Alexander Graham Bell, to this in the damp climate of the British Isles was part of their motivation for moving to Canada in 1870.

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