BELL, Matthew (1793-1871), of Woolsington, Northumb. and 35 Wimpole Street, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 18 Apr. 1793, 1st. s. of Matthew Bell of Woolsington and Sarah Frances, da. of Charles Brandling† of Gosforth House, Northumb. educ. Eton 1808; Christ Church, Oxf. 1811. m. 10 Oct. 1816, Elizabeth Anne, da. and h. of Henry Utrick Reay of Killingworth House, Hunwick, co. Dur., s.p. suc. fa. 1811. d. 28 Oct. 1871.
Sheriff, Northumb. 1816-17.
Capt. Northumb. and Newcastle vol. cav. 1819, lt.-col. commdt. 1826-67.
‘Honest Matty Bell’, the third of that name of Woolsington, was a descendant of Matthew Bell of Mersington, Berwickshire, through whose marriage in 1677 to Ann, the daughter of Thomas Salkeld, the family gained property and influence in Newcastle and Tyneside. Intermarriages with the Brandling, Lorraine, Ridley and Walsingham families had consolidated and improved their status, so that by his father’s death, Bell, not yet 21, became one of the ‘Great Northern coal owners’. He was introduced to county business as sheriff two years after coming of age and acquired a reputation as a popular public speaker and man of business. He was also responsible with his uncle Charles John Brandling, Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1798-1812, and the county since 1820, for organizing the yeomanry after Peterloo and during the 1822-3 Tyne keelmen’s riots.1 When Brandling’s death caused a by-election in February 1826, Bell was put forward in opposition to the Canningite Henry Thomas Liddell*, and through his family’s exertions and cross-party support he secured a narrow victory in a costly 13-day poll.2 A ‘tip top performer’ on the hustings, he declared for Lord Liverpool’s administration and against Catholic relief, but conceded the right of eligible Catholics to poll.3 His appointment to succeed Brandling as colonel of the militia was announced after his election was declared, and having publicized his candidature at the forthcoming general election, he set out with his uncle by marriage, the Whig Thomas Creevey*, to take his seat.4 No votes or speeches by Bell were recorded before the dissolution in May 1826. Resuming his personal canvass in April, he again declared against Catholic emancipation, and for religious toleration and the abolition of colonial slavery. In another bitter contest at the general election in June he outpolled the Whigs, his colleague Thomas Wentworth Beaumont and Lord Grey’s son Lord Howick*, to come second to Liddell in a 14-day poll.5 Writing afterwards to the Whig renegade and former Member Sir Charles Monck, he complained of the expense and refused to be reconciled to the coalition Tories who had put Liddell first and cast second votes for Beaumont.6 Bell confided to Creevey in February 1827, shortly after buying a house in Wimpole Street, that the two elections had cost him £43,000; but Grey’s brother-in-law Edward Ellice* put the sum at £60,000.7
Bell presented and endorsed Northumberland petitions for increased coroners’ fees, 30 Nov. 1826, and against free trade in corn, 21, 26 Feb. 1827.8 He divided against Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and voted, 2 Apr., and brought up petitions, 27 Mar., 9 Apr., 4 May, against the ministry’s corn importation bill, 2 Apr. 1827.9 The pro-Catholic Canning’s appointment as prime minister that month dismayed him. In January 1828 he promised the home secretary and leader of the House Peel that he would attend on the 29th to support the duke of Wellington’s new government, but he appears to have delayed doing so.10 He presented his constituents’ petitions for repeal of the 1827 Malt Act, 10 Mar., abolition of stamp duty on receipts, 11 Mar., 18 Apr., and protection for lead, 15 Apr., and wool, 12 May, strongly endorsing the last two. Drawing on his experience as a coal owner and employer, on 5 May he gave a strong endorsement to the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce’s petition against the small notes bill and complained that Bank of England branches like that recently established at Newcastle in the teeth of local opposition offered no substitute for the service provided by the provincial bankers during the 1825-6 crisis. He voted in the minorities against the measure with other Borders county Members, 5, 16 June. He divided against Catholic relief, 12 May, and providing a pension for Canning’s family, 13 May 1828. Bell was included in a list of possible movers or seconders of the address in January 1829, but his hostility to Catholic relief was undiminished. Presenting an unfavourable petition from the clergy and deaneries of Alnwick and Bamburgh, 12 Feb., he voiced his ‘deep and unfeigned regret’ at the precipitate change in ministerial policy and promised to do his utmost to oppose emancipation. He presented and endorsed further hostile petitions from Northumberland and beyond, 12, 23, 24, 27 Feb., 3, 9, 17, 20, 30 Mar., in whose adoption he insisted that he had played no part, 17 Mar., and divided against the measure, 6, 18, 23, 27, 30 Mar. He also presented petitions against militia reductions, 17 Feb. In 1827 he had renewed his lease of property on Newcastle quay and applied to the corporation with his Brandling uncles for leave to construct a new dock there, so his opposition to the London Bridge bill was not impartial. On 29 Mar. 1829, backed by hostile petitions, he refuted allegations that combination among the coal owners kept prices artificially high and asserted that the new bridge, if erected, would probably force up London coal prices by 10s. a chaldron.11
Bell was included among the ‘Tories strongly opposed to the present government’ on the Ultra leader Sir Richard Vyvyan’s* list predicting Members attitudes to the Tory realignment contemplated in October 1829. He did not divide on the Ultra Knatchbull’s amendment regretting the omission of distress from the address, 4 Feb., and declined attendance at the Northumberland distress meeting, 15 Feb. 1830, because ‘there is every reason to believe matters concerning the coal trade will be considered early in the session’.12 He was appointed to the select committee on the London trade, 11 Mar., and voted to repeal the Irish coal duties, 13 May. When Liddell, its instigator, presented Northumberland’s distress petition seeking extensive tax remissions, 12 Mar., Bell attributed the economic downturn to free trade and restrictions on the right of country banks to issue paper currency. He added that distress was ‘not so general’ in his county as elsewhere, yet he felt that government was ‘bound’ to act. He voted against transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., and the enfranchisement of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb. He presented and endorsed petitions for protection from the distressed Tyneside ship owners, 5 Apr., and certain Alnwick tobacco manufacturers, 21 May. He divided against Jewish emancipation, 5 Apr., 17 May, and voted to abolish the death penalty for forgery, 24 May, 7 June, and against the sale of beer bill’s provisions for on-consumption, 4 May, 21 June, 1 July, having endorsed hostile petitions that he brought up from Shields, 30 Apr., and Alnwick, 7 June. Responding to a fresh challenge by Beaumont and manoeuvring by Liddell, he hosted dinners countywide and directed his agents to canvass thoroughly before the general election of 1830, when Beaumont replaced Liddell as his colleague.13 On the hustings, he said that there was no turning back on Catholic emancipation and emphasized his opposition to the Small Notes Act and free trade, to which he again attributed the ship owners’ plight. He justified his votes against the beer bill on moral grounds and repeated his call for the abolition of all slavery, but refused to commit himself to supporting any measure of parliamentary reform.14
The ministry listed Bell among their ‘friends’, and he divided with them on the civil list when they were brought down, 15 Nov. 1830. He presented numerous anti-slavery petitions from Newcastle and the county on at least seven separate occasions, 3 Nov.-6 Dec. Supporting the campaign for repeal of the coastwise coal duties, he refuted Sir John Wrottesley’s claim that the public would gain nothing by the remission because of the Northern coal owners’ monopoly, and robustly defended their ‘understanding’ and its use to ‘regulate the supply’, 12 Nov. Presenting a Newcastle petition, 15 Nov., he maintained that, as in 1824, when the 3s.4d. levy was waived, London prices would fall sharply if the duty and the attendant ‘Richmond shilling’ levied on Newcastle shipments were abolished, and predicted that there would in consequence be a sharp increase in exports to the Netherlands. He introduced further petitions and resolutely defended his stance, 15 Dec. 1830, 7, 16, 28 Mar. 1831, and was a member of the committee appointed (16 Mar.) to prepare a consolidating bill when the duty was conceded. Opposing the ballot, he disputed the origins and tenets of the North and South Shields reform petitions that Beaumont presented, 10 Dec., and maintained that they did not represent the opinions of the majority of the freeholders. Making ‘parliamentary business’ his excuse, he held aloof from reform meetings, presented pro-reform petitions ‘couched in proper language’ from Kelthorp and Hexham, but dissented from the prayers of any he handled which expressly approved the change in ministry and demanded the ballot and shorter parliaments, 8, 28 Feb. 1831.15 Northumberland reformers ridiculed his letter to the county meeting of 16 Mar., and his statement, on presenting their petition, that he was ‘not opposed to reform’ but thought ‘the plan of ... ministers goes much too far’, 19 Mar.16 He divided against its second reading, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. Presenting the contentious 3,000-signature Northumberland anti-reform petition next day, he denied claims that it had been procured under duress by the duke of Northumberland’s agents and expressed ‘disgust’ at the tactics deployed to force Members to back the bill. He insisted that he would not ‘give way to threats and intimidation’, and repeated: ‘I am not a violent reformer, but I am a moderate one’. Assured of a £100,000 ‘fighting fund’ in the event of snap dissolution, he commenced canvassing, 22 Apr. However, his hostile reception, reputation as an anti-reformer and the duke’s man, and an unstoppable campaign to return Howick with Beaumont made his position untenable, placed his personal safety in doubt, and thus prompted his pre-poll retirement, 1 May 1831.17
Bell commanded the yeomanry during the Tyne pitmen’s strike of 1830-2, rallied the Tories and declared early as a Conservative for the new Northumberland South constituency at the 1832 election, when, despite attempts to ‘blacken’ him and criticism of his voting record, he defeated his cousin, the Liberal William Ord*, to come in with Beaumont.18 He sat undisturbed until his retirement in 1852 and died without issue at Woolsington in October 1871 after a protracted illness.19 Under his will (proved at Newcastle, 28 Oct. 1871), his estates, which had mortgage debts of over £50,000, were placed in trust and the succession settled on his brothers, passing first to Henry, who died without issue in 1887, and then to John’s son Charles Lorraine Bell, an under-secretary at the board of trade.20
Ref Volumes: 1820-1832
Author: Margaret Escott
- 1. R. Welford, Men of Mark ‘Twixt Tyne and Tweed, i. 240-4.
- 2. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 11 Feb.-9 Mar.; Durham Chron. 11, 18, 25 Feb.; Grey mss, Lady Darlington to Grey, 17 Feb., Howick to same, 22 Feb.; The Times, 27 Feb.-10 Mar. 1826.
- 3. Creevey mss, Creevey to Grey, 21 Feb.; Fitzwilliam mss 124/5; The Times, 15 Mar. 1826.
- 4. Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 9, 11 Mar. 1826.
- 5. The Times, 13 Apr., 2, 16, 23, 30 June; Northumb. RO, Middleton mss ZMI/B16/VI, Bell to Monck, Friday .
- 6. Middleton mss B16/VI, Monck to Bell, 8 July, reply, 12 July 1826.
- 7. NLS, Ellice mss, Grey to Ellice, 7 Feb.; Creevey mss, Creevey to Miss Ord, 10 Feb. 1827.
- 8. The Times, 1 Dec. 1826.