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date: 29 February 2020

Bell, Arthurfree

(1825–1900)
  • Ronald B. Weir

Bell, Arthur (1825–1900), wine and spirit merchant, was born on 30 November 1825 at Surrey Square, London, the seventh of fifteen children of Robert Fitzroy Bell, a general agent, and his first wife, Hannah Bruce.

Nothing is known about Bell's upbringing but by the late 1840s he was employed as a traveller by James Roy, who owned a wine and spirit business in Perth. This had been established, probably in 1825, by Thomas Sandeman, an agent for Sandeman & Co. of Porto. Sandeman died in 1837, leaving a business with annual profits of over £900 to his clerk James Roy. The shop in Kirkside, Perth, sold wines, spirits, malt liquors, tea, black beer, and cider, all dutiable commodities. Trade was mainly local and retail but some wholesale trade was done with publicans and hoteliers. Bell's duties were to extend sales beyond Perth and each spring he toured the highlands seeking orders and collecting payments. He became Roy's partner in 1851, an arrangement which continued until 1862 when Roy retired and Bell formed a new partnership with a nephew, Thomas R. Sandeman. On 16 November 1864 Bell married Isabella Warden (b. 1835/6), daughter of Robert Duff, a merchant; they had two sons and two daughters.

The partnership between Bell and his nephew was dissolved in 1865 when they quarrelled over expenses which Sandeman had incurred on personal business but charged to the partnership. The dissolution grieved Bell, for Sandeman had been best man at his wedding, but the business was hardly returning sufficient profit (£1925 in 1865) to sustain two partners, let alone the eleven relatives Bell supported, eight of whom were female, whose financial well-being was a constant anxiety. Bell replaced Sandeman's capital of £2597 by bank borrowing, the only time in his career he did this. Although he repaid the bank by 1870 he was determined to be independent and met his future capital requirements by reinvesting a high proportion of profits.

Other misfortunes affected Bell's attitude to business. His early attempts to market whisky in England, following the assimilation of English and Scottish excise duties in 1856, floundered. None of his London agents was successful and it was not until 1886 that Bell again tested the English market; by then Scotch whisky was becoming very popular. This was followed, in 1890, by the appointment of his first overseas agent, in Australia. Both were responses to intense competition in the Scottish spirit trade but another powerful motive was Bell's ambition to pass on a successful enterprise to his sons.

Bell was a cautious businessman. His advice to a nephew in 1890 was: 'I think the best motto in business is “slow and sure”, but I see the present generation prefers “fast and insecure” and in most cases they land themselves in the mud' (Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd, letter-book, 26 July 1890, United Distillers Archive). His methods were conservative. He refused to advertise and just 'allowed the qualities of my goods to speak for themselves' (ibid., 9 Dec 1879). Before he retired he was still arguing that 'the reason I can keep up the quality is that I do not advertise' (ibid., 16 Jan 1891). His initial blending technique was extremely crude, for he simply added whisky to a tun which was never emptied. Later he recognized the importance of accumulating mature stocks and became reluctant to alter the constituents of his blends. Independence mattered to Bell. He fell out with the Distillers Company when it refused to include him in a discount scheme and thereafter refused to buy grain whisky from Distillers, an act which denied him access to credit for expansion. He supported the two independent grain distilleries, North British (founded 1885) and Ardgowan (1896). His distrust of agents also impeded expansion and he was forced to reverse the policy between 1886 and 1893 when he finally created a network of agents in England.

Bell was totally absorbed by business and meticulous in his attention to detail. His private journals include the following note for 1897: 'Assets: Cash £16.14.1 plus 9d.—undiscovered error for the first time since 1851!' (Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd, personal journal, 1897). Bell was not a dynamic entrepreneur. Prudence in business was a perpetual refrain in his correspondence. He was an exponent of careful, plodding management and that is his very fascination, for without advertising, overseas sales trips, and brand registration Bell built a business which, by 1895, was selling Scotch whisky in England and exporting to Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, and Ceylon. He epitomized, more often than business historians recognize, the myriad numbers of small businessmen who formed a majority of the whisky trade before it became increasingly concentrated. The firm provided Bell and his family with a more than adequate income.

Bell began to withdraw from the day-to-day running of the firm as his sons became partners. His elder son, Arthur Kinmond Bell (1868–1942), Scotch whisky blender and philanthropist, was born on 4 October 1868 at Moncrieff Terrace, Craigie, Perth. He was educated at Perth Academy and Craigmount School, Edinburgh. After an apprenticeship with a blending firm in Edinburgh, he joined the family wine and spirit business in 1889, at a time when it had considerable unrealized potential for expansion, and his arrival coincided with a rapid growth in demand for Scotch whisky. Profits, a modest £1753 in 1889, rose to £5276 in 1895, when he became a partner with a half-share in the profits. He was joined the following year by his younger brother, Robert Duff Bell, who had established agencies in Australia, Tasmania, and New Zealand during a tour in 1892. Until their father's death the profits were shared equally between all three.

On 8 June 1899 ‘A. K.’ or ‘Atty’, as Arthur Kinmond Bell was known in the whisky trade, married Camilla Bruce (1871–1959), daughter of Robert Bruce, medical practitioner. Arthur Bell died on 16 February 1900 at Craigenvar, Scone, Perthshire, from cardiac disease and hemiplegia. By then annual profits had risen to £11,795, and his sons had begun to change the management of the business. More agents were appointed, a modest amount of advertising began, and, in 1904, the name Bell's first appeared on the firm's labels. A. K. Bell's bench-mark was another Perth blending firm, John Dewar & Sons, and these changes, together with the introduction of Bell's whisky to Canada, yielded impressive growth in profits to £24,573 in 1913. A. K. Bell remained the driving force in Bells' expansion, but profits were so buoyant that his brother Robert withdrew from the firm on the eve of the First World War to pursue the life of a country gentleman.

The partners also reinvested an increasing proportion of profits in mature whisky stocks—by 1915 stocks were valued at £105,000, five times their value in 1900—and this proved crucial in enabling Bells to withstand the shortages following the Immature Spirits Act of 1915. Indeed, Bells would have been an attractive purchase for the larger blenders but ‘A. K.’ inherited his father's strong streak of independence. In 1921 the partnership was converted into a private limited liability company, with A. K. Bell as governing director holding all the ordinary shares.

Life for an independent blending house between the wars proved extremely difficult. In the worst year, 1932, Bells lost £10,952 but reserves enabled the firm to survive. In 1933 A. K. Bell expanded by purchasing the Edinburgh whisky firm, P. Mackenzie & Co., which owned two malt distilleries, Blair Atholl and Dufftown–Glenlivet. A third, Inchgower, was purchased in 1936. Some doubted the wisdom of buying distilleries when most were silent and the trade's future highly uncertain but all were acquired extremely cheaply and enabled Bells to benefit from the recovery of exports (then the most profitable part of the industry) by 1938. A. K. Bell is remembered as 'a man who always bought cheap and never let a penny go by' (private information).

A. K. Bell was also a noted local philanthropist. In 1922 he purchased the Gannochy and Muirhall estates and began a model housing scheme to provide cheaply rented homes. The estate, consisting of 150 houses, was completed in 1932. Five years later he founded the Gannochy Trust and in 1941 allocated some of his shareholding in Arthur Bell & Sons to the trust with the specific purpose of improving sewage treatment to ensure the purity of the local water supply to Perth and its outlying villages. He also purchased Quarrymill Den, a local beauty spot, and presented it to the trust. Other activities that he supported included the allotment garden movement, the Boy Scouts, local bands, and his favourite sport, cricket. Bell resurrected the local linen industry following the voluntary liquidation in 1936 of John Shields & Co., manufacturers of linen damask, and one of Perth's largest employers. Bell bought the premises, re-equipped them for artificial fibre production, and reconstructed the firm. For this and his philanthropy he was made a freeman of the city of Perth in 1938.

By 1941, with profits of £100,000, Bells' future seemed assured. However, the death of A. K. Bell on 26 April 1942 at Campsie Hill, Perthshire, left an acute problem of succession. He had no children and his finances were intricately connected to the firm's. His younger brother, by then aged seventy, stood in as caretaker for just over a month until W. G. Farquharson, a chartered accountant recruited by A. K. Bell in 1927, was appointed chairman. Robert Bell died on 12 June 1942, the last of the family to be associated with Bells. The firm owed £247,000 to A. K. Bell's estate and family, and in 1949 Bells was converted to a public company to pay off the loan and finance reconstruction.

Sources

  • R. B. Weir, ‘The distilling industry in Scotland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’, PhD diss., 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1974, 2.411–93
  • ‘Bell's o' Perth: an independent Scotch whisky house’, Wine and Spirit Trade Record, 87 (1958), 176–82, 186, 188
  • J. House, Pride of Perth (1976)
  • J. Duncan, ‘A roof over one's head’: a short history of the Gannochy Trust (2012)
  • private information (2004); (2008) [D. Montague]; (2014) [M. Webster]
  • b. cert.
  • b. cert. [Arthur Kinmond Bell]
  • m. cert.
  • m. cert. [Arthur Kinmond Bell]
  • d. cert.
  • d. cert. [Arthur Kinmond Bell]

Archives

  • United Distillers and Vintners Archive, Leven, records of Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd

Likenesses

  • portrait, repro. in House, Pride of Perth, 26

Wealth at Death

£22,903 5s. 5d.: confirmation, 12 Oct 1900, CCI

£465,198 5s. 6d.—Arthur Kinmond Bell: confirmation, 1 Aug 1942, CCI