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Bell, Thomasfree

  • Peter Isaac

Bell, Thomas (1785–1860), land surveyor and book collector, was born on 16 December 1785 in Newcastle upon Tyne, the second son of John Bell (1755–1816), a land surveyor and bookseller, and his wife, Margaret, the daughter of John Gray, of Combfield House, co. Durham. His older brother John Bell (1783–1864), bookseller and antiquary, was born in Newcastle, on 7 October 1783. On 22 November 1806 John Bell married Barbara, the daughter of Thomas Pringle, of Newcastle; they had nine children. Thomas Bell married, on 17 February 1810, Hannah, the daughter of William Blakey, of Morton Banks, Yorkshire; they had fourteen children, among them John Gray Bell, bookseller.

On leaving school, both the Bells joined their father in his businesses, and Thomas with another brother, James Maddison, eventually succeeded their father. In 1803 John Bell left his father's establishment in Union Street, Newcastle, formerly the premises of the printers and booksellers Solomon and Sarah Hodgson, and set up as a bookseller on the Quayside. There he started his collecting of coins, antiquities, and, most important, ephemera dealing with a great range of topics, which have since proved invaluable sources of information about contemporary life, especially, but not exclusively, the book trade. During his first year in his bookselling business Bell started a numismatic society in Newcastle, which had only a short life; he published two undated charts of British silver coinage.

Shortly after the collapse of the numismatic society Bell issued Proposals, for publishing, by subscription, reprints of a rare and curious collection of old English tracts, but nothing came of this, and it was not until 1818 that the Newcastle Typographical Society came into being under the leadership of John Trotter Brockett. In 1812 Bell published his only substantial work, Rhymes of Northern Bards, a collection of songs and poems from Newcastle, Northumberland, and Durham. Over the next five years he published some eleven pamphlets of local interest. Although his collecting and antiquarian interests attracted many people to his Quayside shop, Bell was declared bankrupt in December 1817. His assignees, who included his brother Thomas, ordered all his possessions to be sold up, including his burgeoning collections of ephemera, which were widely dispersed, some for almost nothing.

Conscious of the importance of Roman and other antiquities in Northumberland and Durham, John Bell felt that it was desirable to form a society for the study and preservation of relics of the past, and in November 1812 he sent a circular proposing this to the leading gentry of the two counties. The success of the project was assured after it received the support of Hugh, second duke of Northumberland, and, after a preliminary meeting on 23 January, the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne was formally established on 6 February 1813. John Bell was elected treasurer, an office he held until his bankruptcy; he was the society's librarian until 1849, and published seven papers in its transactions, now Archaeologia Aeliana, three of them jointly.

In the last years of their father's life Thomas Bell carried the main burden of the surveying practice, which was always his principal interest. When two of his sons were old enough he entrusted the bookselling and stationery business to them. Thomas became one of the most successful land surveyors in the northern counties, numbering among his clients the duke of Northumberland and the earl of Strathmore. He was closely concerned with many of the enclosures of common land in Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, and Yorkshire, as he was with railways being developed in the region, notably the Brandling Junction, the Newcastle and Carlisle, and the Stanhope and Tyne railways. Many of his surveys continue to be useful at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Thomas Bell was an indefatigable book collector, and left a library of 15,000 volumes, which was auctioned in October 1860. His special interest was the history of local families, and he gathered much material, mainly topographical and genealogical, which was later used by local historians. He became a member of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne on 2 June 1813, and was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He died in Cumberland Row, Newcastle, on 30 April 1860, aged seventy-four, and was buried in the family vault in Jesmond cemetery on 4 May.

John Bell, after his bankruptcy, gave up his shop on the Quayside, and moved to Gateshead to practise as a land surveyor; he occasionally also sold books. He continued his omnivorous collections of ephemera, and was visited by many bibliophiles, including the Revd Dr T. F. Dibdin, who gives his usual purple account of the occasion. Many of his collections of ephemera came into the possession of his brother Thomas, who also made voluminous collections. John Bell died on 31 October 1864, aged eighty-one, and was buried in St John's cemetery, Elswick.


  • R. Welford, Men of mark 'twixt Tyne and Tweed, 1 (1895), 234–9, 244–8
  • C. J. Hunt, The book trade in Northumberland and Durham to 1860: a biographical dictionary (1975)
  • P. J. Wallis, The book trade in Northumberland and Durham to 1860: a supplement to C. J. Hunt's biographical dictionary (1981)
  • GM, 3rd ser., 9 (1860), 196
  • Records of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, centenary vol. (1913), 1–3, 40–43, 113–16
  • I. Bain, John Bell's Album de Novo Castro (1963)


  • Gateshead Central Library, collection relating to parish of Gateshead Fell
  • Keep and Blackgate Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland collections
  • Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland collections
  • Tyne and Wear Archives Service, Newcastle upon Tyne, corresp., deeds, and papers
  • U. Durham L., papers
  • U. Newcastle, Robinson L., Northumbrian collection
  • Newcastle Central Library, Welford MSS


  • J. Crawhall, sketch (John Bell), repro. in Bain, John Bell's Album
  • double portrait, line blocks (with John Bell; after pen-and-ink sketches), repro. in Welford, Men of mark, 1, 235, 245

Wealth at Death

under £3000: resworn probate, March 1861, CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1860)

Gentleman's Magazine