BELL, HUGH, educator, businessman, office holder, politician, and philanthropist; b. 1780 in Enniskillen (Northern Ireland), only son of Samuel Bell and Ann Cross; m. first 5 Dec. 1808 Elizabeth Lain in Halifax, and they had five children; m. secondly 14 June 1815 Ann Allison, sister of Joseph Allison, at the Mantua Estate near Newport, N.S., and they had nine children; d. 16 May 1860 in Halifax.
Hugh Bell, the son of a veteran of the American Revolutionary War, was brought to Nova Scotia when he was about two years old. Because his father died when he was a boy, and his mother could not provide him with the limited schooling that was then available in Halifax, he was largely self-educated. His early passion for reading was apparently the source of the reputation he later enjoyed as a “concise and winning speaker” and as a “writer of pure English.” Bell was to employ his speaking abilities both as a Methodist lay preacher who was much in demand on Sundays in Halifax and nearby settlements, and as a politician able to hold his own in debate with the most formidable members of the legislature; his reputation as a writer rested largely on the articles which he wrote for the Acadian Recorder during the 1830s. The quality of Bell’s self-education is perhaps most decisively indicated by the fact that he was asked in 1843 to deliver a lecture on “Self-Improvement” at the Halifax Mechanics’ Institute. His concern for learning was also reflected in his participation during the early 1840s in the establishment of a school connected with the Wesleyan Methodist Church and in his activity as a governor of Dalhousie College from 1840 to 1858.
After a brief period as a schoolteacher in Cumberland County at the turn of the century, Bell was employed as a bookkeeper with the firm of Lydiard and Nock, a Halifax brewery and candlemaking concern. When the original partnership was dissolved a few years later he became a full partner in the reconstituted firm of Nock and Bell. The uneven fortunes of Bell’s business enterprise reflect those of the Nova Scotian economy in the early part of the 19th century. The firm prospered during the War of 1812, struggled through the slump of the immediate post-war period, and by about 1818 was again strong enough to expand its operations with the building of a new brewery and a new soap and candle factory. During the recession of the 1830s Bell once more suffered financial difficulties, but these were apparently soon overcome for in 1838 he was able to move into Bloomfield, his large estate in the northern part of the city. Three years later he possessed sufficient confidence in the stability of his business to turn it over to his elder sons, William and Samuel, in order to devote himself more completely to public concerns.
Until he was 55, almost all of Bell’s spare time had been given to church work, but thereafter he became increasingly interested in public affairs. Although he thus entered public life relatively late, he achieved substantial success as a politician and office holder. His public career began in 1835 when he was made a commissioner “for the Superintendence . . . of the Poor of the Town and Peninsula of Halifax” as part of the effort of Lieutenant Governor Sir Colin Campbell* to reform the municipal government in the wake of Joseph Howe*’s successful defence against the charge of libel after his publication in the Novascotian of a letter accusing the city magistrates of corruption [see Richard Tremain]. In the same year Bell was nominated by Howe as a candidate for the House of Assembly in a by-election in Halifax Township, and won by acclamation. He was re-elected in the general election of 1836. At this period polling took as long as two weeks, the poll being moved from place to place to the accompaniment of gambling, dancing, and heavy drinking. When the Halifax poll closed at St Margaret’s Bay, the people mounted the “popular candidates on chairs and carried them for nearly a mile up and down the Bay amidst cheers.” Howe, the successful Reform candidate for Halifax County, enjoyed the carnival atmosphere, but Bell did not, finding such proceedings “extremely distasteful.” In this, as in his business and church activities, Bell lived up to Howe’s characterization of him as a “fit representative” of the virtues of the “middling class.” Although Bell declared in an election speech that he was “the Champion of no party,” and did not always support the reform cause as strongly as Howe wished, he did regard himself as a champion of the middle class. As such, he showed himself a consistent and at times “zealous” supporter of the reform party’s challenge to the supremacy of the Halifax merchantocracy, particularly in municipal affairs. Thus he participated in the movement for the incorporation of Halifax as a city with elected officials [see Thomas Forrester*], though he was in favour of restricting the elective principle by means of a high property qualification.
In 1840 Bell gave up his seat in the assembly and turned his attention to municipal politics. He ran successfully for alderman in the first municipal election held in Halifax, on 12 May 1841; he was re-elected in 1842 and 1843, and in October 1844 he was chosen by his fellow aldermen to be mayor of the city for the following year. In the mean time Bell’s prominence as a spokesman for the burgeoning middle class of Halifax had brought him to the attention of the new lieutenant governor, Lord Falkland [Cary*], who appointed him to the Legislative Council in 1841. His political career culminated with his appointment in February 1848 to the Executive Council of the first responsible government in Nova Scotia. While a member of the ministry of James Boyle Uniacke he held the office of chairman of the Board of Works and, for a brief period, that of financial secretary; he was often appointed to committees concerned with financial matters and was a delegate to a conference of British North American governments regarding commercial policy which was held in Halifax in September 1849. He resigned from the Executive Council in 1854, but remained as chairman of the Board of Works until 1857 when he was forced out, at the age of 77, by a conservative election victory.
Bell’s retention of the chairmanship of the Board of Works was motivated by his desire to realize the goal which had been “uppermost in his thoughts for more than a decade.” When selected as mayor of Halifax in 1844 Bell made an unusual declaration: instead of expending the mayor’s salary of £300 on official entertaining, “it was his design to appropriate the whole sum to the founding of a Lunatic Asylum in Halifax.” It was probably as a poor-house commissioner that Bell was first exposed to the plight of the mentally ill in Nova Scotia for, in addition to the indigent, the aged, and orphans, the Poor’s Asylum housed those mentally ill whose families were unable or unwilling to care for them. In the year that Bell was mayor, for instance, 40 residents of the poor-house were classified as insane. It was estimated, moreover, that there were at least 200 insane persons throughout the province, most of whom were kept in local jails. The prevalent view of mental illness as an incurable disease of the mind, or even as evidence of demonic possession, precluded any program of treatment other than one of forcible restraint. Bell made the alleviation of this situation the chief object of his public activity.
In 1845 Bell, as mayor of Halifax and with the support of the city council, petitioned the legislature for the construction of a hospital in which the insane could be cured instead of being treated “like inferior animals to be caged and chained and whipped into submission . . . as if the link which unites them to the human family were entirely dissolved.” In response to this petition the government appointed a three-man commission consisting of Bell, Dr Alexander Frater Sawers, and Samuel Prescott Fairbanks* to examine the feasibility of a joint mental institution for the three Maritime provinces (an idea they eventually rejected) and to investigate various institutions in the United States. The report which they submitted in 1846 reflected the influence of two prominent figures in the history of the treatment of mental illness in the United States: Dr Luther Vose Bell, superintendent of the McLean Hospital for the Insane in Charlestown (Boston), and the philanthropist Dorothea Lynde Dix. Hugh Bell’s close association with Dix brought his project within the orbit of the “moral treatment” movement in 19th-century psychiatry, a movement informed by the humanitarian notion that mental illness was attributable largely to environmental stresses and should be treated by individual therapy in combination with the appropriate physical setting and social influences provided by a hospital.
An act establishing such a hospital was finally passed by the Nova Scotia legislature in 1852, and within a year Bell was able to report to Dix that £15,000 had been appropriated for it by the government, on condition that another £5,000 be privately subscribed. The site for the hospital, across the harbour from Halifax (about two miles from Dartmouth), was selected by Dix. She was also influential in the adoption of a plan for the hospital which called for a three-storey brick structure designed to accommodate 120 patients; every floor was to contain six wards, each equipped with parlour, dining-room, clothes-room, and bathroom. Bell, as chairman of the Board of Works, was responsible for the construction of the hospital and the purchase of some of its equipment. A few months before he was ousted from the chairmanship by the conservatives, an editorial appeared in the Acadian Recorder objecting to the amount of public money “squandered” by the Board of Works “upon a Spree at the laying of the corner stone of the Lunatic Asylum [9 June 1856]. . . . We find that the Chairman of the Board of Works gave carte blanche to the person who acted as purveyor and master of ceremonies on that occasion. . . . Why should not the benevolent old gentleman, in founding his darling institution, do the thing handsomely, seeing that the Province would pay for it?” This editorial did not, however, express the general sentiment, which was one of gratitude to Bell for his role as the principal founder of the Provincial Hospital for the Insane (now the Nova Scotia Hospital). Although Bell was to die well before the hospital was fully completed in 1874, Howe expressed the view that it would “ever remain a monument to his memory.” Bell’s activity on behalf of the hospital certainly accords him a prominent place in any account of the development of treatment facilities for the mentally ill in Nova Scotia.
PANS, Biog., Bell family, docs., 1817–97 (mfm.); MG 100, 110, doc.12; 235, nos.22–22e; RG 1, 175: ff.1–2, 229–34, 256–360, 371–75, 410, 440, 518, 558; 199–200, 1847–54; 411: 91b; RG 5, P, 44, 69–71, 73, 81, 121–22; RG 7, 1: 128A; RG 34–312, P, 10–15. N.S., House of Assembly, Journal and proc., 1836–40; 1846, app.32; 1847, app.11; 1850, app.18, 72; 1851, app.74; 1851–52, app.24, 74; 1908, app.3A; Legislative Council, Debates and proc., 1858–60; Journal and proc., 1841–60. Halifax Morning Sun, 1 March 1848; 18, 21 May 1860. Morning Chronicle (Halifax), 5 Oct. 1844. Novascotian, or Colonial Herald, 26 Nov., 17 Dec. 1835; 17 Nov., 8, 15, 22 Dec. 1836; 2, 21 Feb., 25 Oct., 1 Nov. 1837; 8, 15 March 1838. W. P. Bell, A genealogical study (2v., Sackville, N.B., 1962). J. S. Bockoven, Moral treatment in American psychiatry (New York, 1963). D. A. Sutherland, “The merchants of Halifax, 1815–1850: a commercial class in pursuit of metropolitan status”
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Cite This Article
Phyllis R. Blakeley, “BELL, HUGH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 3, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bell_hugh_8E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Phyllis R. Blakeley|
|Title of Article:||BELL, HUGH|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1985|
|Year of revision:||1985|
|Access Date:||June 3, 2023|