Bell, James (1769-1833) (DNB00)

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BELL, JAMES (1769–1833), geographical author, was born in Jedburgh in 1769. At the age of eight he went to Glasgow, where his father, the Rev. Thomas Bell [see Bell, Thomas, 1733–1802], was appointed, in 1777, minister of Dovehill Chapel. During childhood and youth James suffered much from feeble health and sickness, and gave but little promise of either much bodily or mental vigour; but he managed to acquire a liberal education. As he grew up his constitution became stronger, and he evinced a remarkable propensity for desultory reading. His first employment was that of a weaver, to which business he served an apprenticeship. In 1790 he commenced trade on his own account, as a manufacturer of cotton goods, with a fair prospect of success, but, finding himself hindered by the mercantile depression of 1793, he gave up his business, and for some years worked as a warper in the warehouses of manufacturers. As his tastes and the uncommon simplicity of his character rendered him unfit to win his way in business pursuits, his father at length settled upon him a small annuity which enabled him to revert to those studies and researches to which his natural inclination led him in early life. About 1806 he quitted warping to earn a livelihood as tutor in Greek and Latin to advanced students attending the university. At the same time he, with untiring zeal, studied history, theology, and especially geography. To this science, around which the whole of his sympathies were gathered, he devoted the labour of his life. His first literary effort was made about 1815, when he contributed some chapters to the 'Glasgow Geography,' a popular work of the period, published by Khull, Blackie, & Co., now scarce. In 1824 he wrote 'An Examination of the various Opinions that have been held respecting the Sources of the Ganges and the Correctness of the Lama's Map of Thibet.' It was published as Article 2 in 'Critical Researches in Philology and Geography,' an anonymous volume in 8vo, now known to be the joint work of James Bell and a gifted young student in philology, one John Bell, a namesake but not a relative. The high encomiums that this article elicited from some of the leading periodicals of the day served at once to establish the reputation of James Bell as a writer upon geography. He was forthwith entrusted with the serious task of preparing and editing an unabridged edition of Rollin's 'Ancient History' Glasgow, 1828, 3 vols. 8vo. The original notes, geographical, topographical, historical, and critical, with the life of the author by Bell, serve to this day to place this edition at the head of all that have yet appeared in English. Bell's fame as a geographical author reached its climax in his 'System of Geography, Popular and Scientific,' Glasgow, 1830, 6 vols. 8vo. It may be fairly urged that it opened a new era in the study of geography in our language; but it is doubtful if it nas commanded the attention of the geographical student south of the Tweed as much as it even now deserves. By his contemporaries Bell was held to be 'certainly one of the first critical geographers of this country.' In its method it never yet has been, and probably never will be, entirely superseded. The chapters on the history of geography contained in the third volume of Rollin and in the sixth volume of his 'System of Geography' have apparently served for models for all subsequent attempts of the kind during the last half-century.

His latest, but posthumous, work, 'A Comprehensive Gazetteer of England and Wales,' Glasgow 1836, 4 vols. 8vo, although now almost obsolete, was, in its day, an exceedingly useful book of reference, a model of conciseness, and still valuable for its introduction drawn up under twelve sections; one of these, on the cartography of England and Wales, compiled mainly from Gough's 'British Topography,' is a feature peculiar to the gazetteer which has never been imitated by any subsequent one.

In forming a correct estimate of Bell and his literary work it is necessary to note that although he was an accomplished classical scholar, as his notes to Rollin show, he was not always an exact one, being more intent upon elucidating the ideas of his author than upon niceties of language. Finally, the greater portion of his work was done under the disadvantages of ill-health, the want of powerful friends, and an exceedingly limited apparatus of books; the last disadvantage his extraordinary memory enabled him to partially overcome. His religious sentiments were thoroughly Calvinistic, tempered with a feeling of wide tolerance for tne religious convictions of others, while few could wield the weapons of theological controversy with greater vigour and effect. Owing to increasing attacks of asthma to which he had always been subject, he waa obliged to leave Glasgow about ten or twelve years before his death and retire into the country. The place selected for the scene of his labours was a humble cottage at Campsie, twelve miles north of Glasgow. He died in this secluded but beautiful spot 3 May 1833, and was there buried, at the age of sixty-four.

[Anderson's Scottish Nation, i. 282; Chambers's Biogr. Dict, of Eminent Scotsmen, ed. Thomson, 1868, i. 119; Dublin University Mag. i. 687; Edin. Journal of Natural and Geographical Science, ii. 109, 193; Roy. Geog. Soc. Journal, ix. lvii.]

C. H. C.