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Bell, Johnlocked


Bell, Johnlocked

  • Richard B. Sher

Bell, John (1735–1806), bookseller, was born on 24 November 1735, the middle child of the Revd John Bell (d. 1767), minister of the parish of Gordon in Berwickshire, whose father, Robert, and grandfather John were also Church of Scotland ministers, and Elizabeth Ewing (d. 1788), daughter of John Ewing of Craigston, writer to the signet. His elder brother Robert (b. 1734) followed their father into the Presbyterian ministry but eventually took orders in the Church of England and became a chaplain in the Royal Navy. His younger sister Margaret (1737–1781) married another Scottish clergyman John Bradfute (1725–1793), and one of their sons would later become Bell's partner and successor in the book trade.

Nothing is known about Bell's life until he entered the employ of the Edinburgh bookseller Alexander Kincaid and his partner, Alexander Donaldson, becoming an apprentice on 20 November 1754 and a burgess by right of his masters on 13 January 1762. Writing in 1821, Archibald Constable maintained that Bell had been educated for the church, and the likelihood that he attended a grammar school and a university is increased by a reference to him as 'a man of liberal education' in an obituary in the Edinburgh Advertiser and the Caledonian Mercury, and by the appearance of a Joannes Bell in George Stuart's humanity (Latin) classes in 1748–9 and 1750–51. In May 1758 Bell succeeded Donaldson as Kincaid's partner, thus establishing one of the leading Scottish bookselling and publishing firms of its day. In association with Andrew Millar and Thomas Cadell of London, Kincaid and Bell published important new books by Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Thomas Reid, Lord Kames, and other Scottish authors. Bell's letter-book from this period confirms Charles Dilly's assertion, in correspondence with James Beattie, that it was Bell rather than Kincaid who managed the firm with respect to 'printing and vending articles for the shop' (21 May 1771, Aberdeen University Library, MS 30/2/58). A prolonged dispute with Cadell over the publication and reprinting of Ferguson's Essay on the History of Civil Society may have weakened Bell's standing with Kincaid, who was pressured for three years by his old friend William Strahan, Cadell's publishing partner, into replacing Bell with William Creech, and finally did so in May 1771.

During the 1770s and 1780s Bell operated in Edinburgh on his own, in Addison's Head (1771–7) and then in Parliament Square (1778–88). He remained actively involved in publishing and reprinting books by Scottish authors, particularly Lord Kames and Adam Ferguson, and made a speciality of works on the law. In 1785 Bell and the London publisher George Robinson scored a coup by outbidding Strahan and Cadell for the rights to Thomas Reid's Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man, which they purchased for £300, marking the beginning of a productive relationship between Bell and Robinson. From November 1788 Bell operated in partnership with his nephew John Bradfute as Bell and Bradfute, a firm that remained in business until well into the twentieth century. The thick catalogues issued by Bell, and later by Bell and Bradfute, sometimes running to over 200 pages and costing up to 1s. themselves, testify to the large scale of the firm's retail bookselling business, as does the fact that Bell's will left his partner one-half of the firm's stock-in-trade at a value of £4155. After the death of Charles Elliot in 1790 the firm purchased his handsome shop, which is pictured in a collaborative oil painting of Parliament Square that hangs in Huntly House Museum, Edinburgh.

Bell could be abrasive, and the London bookseller John Murray found him 'difficult to work with' on account of 'the peculiar turn of his mind' (Murray to Gilbert Stuart, 4 Oct 1777, Murray MSS). But Archibald Constable, who was Bradfute's close friend, considered Bell:

the most thorough gentleman of the profession in Edinburgh at this period … a man of excellent talents, kind and benevolent in his intercourse with his brethren, of rather a humorous and facetious turn of mind, particularly when associated of an evening with a few friends.

Constable, 536

On 11 December 1758 Bell joined the most prestigious lodge of freemasons in Scotland, Canongate Kilwinning no. 2. In February 1776 Bell was among the founders of the Edinburgh Booksellers' Society; when the society was reconstituted on 17 December 1792 he was elected its first praeses, and after his death on 22 September 1806 the members dressed in mourning as a sign of respect. Bell left most of his property to his nephew John Bradfute, and is not known to have married, though his will mentions a natural daughter born of a woman called Margaret Lawrie. A large amount of his business papers have survived, especially from the latter part of his career, including many Bell and Bradfute ledgers that were accidentally discovered in the late 1990s by contractors working in the cellars beneath the Edinburgh city chambers.


  • C. B. Boog-Watson, ed., Register of Edinburgh apprentices, 1701–1755 (1929)
  • A. Constable, ‘Edinburgh booksellers of the period’, in T. Constable, Archibald Constable and his literary correspondents, 1 (1873), 533–40
  • Edinburgh Advertiser (10–12 Oct 1806)
  • Caledonian Mercury (11 Oct 1806)
  • J. Morris, ‘Scottish book trade index’,
  • Fasti Scot., new edn
  • R. B. Sher, ‘Corporatism and consensus in the late eighteenth-century book trade: the Edinburgh Booksellers' Society in comparative perspective’, Book History, 1 (1998), 32–93
  • Bell and Bradfute catalogues, NL Scot., NG.1615.d.15(1–5)
  • H. Evans and M. Evans, John Kay of Edinburgh: barber, miniaturist and social commentator, 1742–1826 (1973)
  • U. Aberdeen, MS 30/2/58
  • matriculation registers, 1748–9, U. Edin. L., university archives
  • matriculation registers, 1750–51, U. Edin. L., university archives


  • NL Scot., Edinburgh Booksellers' Society MSS

Wealth at Death

substantial property in real estate and book stock

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University of Edinburgh Library, special collections division
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Bodleian Library, Oxford
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H. Scott, , 3 vols. in 6 (1871); new edn [11 vols.] (1915–)
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University of Aberdeen
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National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh