Bell, John (1764-1836) (DNB00)

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BELL, JOHN (1764–1836), barrister-at-law, only son of Matthew Bell, was born at Kendal, Westmoreland, 23 Oct. 1764, and was educated at the grammar school at Beetham in the same county and at Trinity College, Cambridge. There he graduated in 1786, was first Smith's prizeman and senior wrangler, and was subsequently elevated to a fellowship at his college, and entered at the Middle Temple 10 Nov. 1787, and at Gray's Inn 8 Nov. 1790, having taken his M.A. degree in the preceding year. After reading for some time in the chambers of Samuel (afterwards Sir Samuel) Romilly, he began to 'practise below the bar' i.e. as a special pleader, in 1790, and was called to the bar in 1792. He devoted himself to the equity branch of the profession, and gradually acquired an extensive practice in the court of Chancery. He did not, however, attain the rank of king's counsel until 1816, though long before that date he had gained a reputation as a lawyer second to that of none of his contemporaries. Lord Eldon is said, in conversation with the prince regent, to have described Bell as the best lawyer then at the equity bar, although he could 'neither read, write, walk, nor talk.' Bell was lame, spoke with a broad Westmoreland accent, the effect of which was heightened by a confirmed and distressing stammer, and wrote a hand never more than barely legible. He was accustomed to say that he wrote three hands, one which he himself could read, one which his clerk could read, and one which neither he nor his clerk could read. Nevertheless, his penetrating intelligence and thorough knowledge of law secured for him a large and lucrative practice. Between 1816 and 1819 his name occurs with extraordinary frequency in the reports, but thenceforward is very rarely found there; and he does not seem to have been engaged in any case of great importance after 1820, some years before he retired from professional life. He gave evidence before the commission which was appointed in 1824 to inquire into and report upon the procedure of the court of Chancery, but his lifelong familiarity with the business of this court appears to have had the effect of rendering him almost as obstinately averse to change as the lord chancellor (Eldon). Though conservative as a lawyer, in politics Bell was a whig. In person he was short, stout, and round-shouldered. In 1830 he published a pamphlet entitled 'Thoughts on the proposed Alterations in the Court of Chancery.' He died at his house in Bedford Square 6 Feb. 1836, leaving his wife Jane, daughter of Henry Grove, and an only son, Matthew Bell, now of Bourne Park, Kent, surviving him. Lord Langdale, who had been his pupil, was one of his executors. He was buried at Milton, near Canterbury, where he had an estate. His fortune was considerable. He married late in life, his widow died in 1866.

[Foster's Coll. Gen. Reg. Gray's Inn; Gent. Mag. (1836), 670; Merivale's Reports; Swanston's Reports; Wilson's Chancery Reports; Jacob and Walker's Reports, ii. 9; Jacob's Reports, 633; Ch. Com. Report, App. A. 1; Times, 7 Oct. 1826; Hardy's Memoir of Lord Langdale, i. 238-43.]

J. M. R.