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George Washington Bell was born in Richmond, Virginia on October 22 1838, but there is no evidence to show he lived in Virginia beyond his first few years of life.

His formative years were spent in rural Illinois but Bell presented “a genial Southern courtliness of manner” inherited from “a Virginian ancestry”.

He spent most of his adult life in the northern states.   At the age of 23, when the Civil War began the call went out for volunteers.   George Bell’s father, Major William H. Bell, having resigned from the U.S. Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War, on May 28, 1861, was a Major of Ordnance commanding troops at the St. Louis Army Arsenal. St. Louis, being divided between Union and southern sympathies, it placed great stress on governmental agencies and soldiers alike, and all individual loyalties were questioned.   As such, George decided to enlist for military service joining the 64th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, known as “Yates Sharpshooters” and was assigned to Company B.
He remained with that same company throughout his enlistment. The Yates Sharpshooters was a volunteer unit organized at Camp Butler, Illinois, as a Battalion of 4 Companies in December, 1861 with two more Companies mustered in on December 31, 1861. On October 12, 1861, Washington Arsenal was notified, by the direction of President Lincoln, to send to Illinois 500 Harpers Ferry rifles, Model 1855. Most of the 500 rifles provided to Illinois were issued to the 64th Illinois Infantry; the Yates' Sharpshooters.   Bell saw action at New Madrid, Missouri and Island No. 10 on the Mississippi River from March 4 through April 8, 1862; again at New Madrid on March 12; the Capture of New Madrid on March 14; the Capture of Island No. 10 on April 8th, the siege of Corinth, Mississippi on April 29th through May 30th; at Farmington, Mississippi on May 3rd and did guard duty at the Headquarters of General Rosecrans at Big Springs, with numerous smaller actions in between.
 
He then saw action at Iuka on September 19, 1862; participated in the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi on October 3rd & 4th and participated in serval actions before January 1864 when he went on furlough.  A number of other actions followed, including the Atlanta, Georgia Campaign from May 1 through September 8th, the Battle of Resaca on May 14 & 15th  and  the assault on Kennesaw Mountain on June 27th. Bell’s Regiment lost 6 officers and 106 enlisted men killed and mortally wounded with 2 officers and 131 enlisted men dieing from disease. Bell was discharged on July 21, 1864, but while in the 64th Illinois Bell had been promoted, so that when he left the military he supposedly did so with the rank of Colonel.

After the war, Bell married his first wife Hanna, 22 years of age who died in 1879, and had three children; Eugene, Seymore and Blanch. Bell claimed to have earned his living as a lawyer and to have served in public office, but the details are vague. His residence in the United States prior to taking up a position of  a U.S. Consul was in the state of Washington, in the logging and fishing town of South Bend.   Information supplied by South Bend’s museum shows that Bell came to South Bend from Indiana, during the early days of South Bend’s land boom of the 1880s, to engage in real estate. Bell was said to have become a lawyer and public speaker, which induced him to go to work for the State Department and being inducted into the State Department’s Foreign Service.

Bell had lived in South Bend since at least early 1890 and had been a popular resident, well known for his public speeches.  Like others living in South Bend in the early 1890s, he had also been an active participant in the town’s boom. He often travelled back east to work on old connections, to work out industrial investments in South Bend. There was talk of a brewery from Indiana, a gas plant from Chicago and woollen mills from Iowa.  The South Bend Journal, on December 2, 1892, quoted the Des Moines Leader, and wrote:  “From a literary dreamer the Captain has become an active and successful speculator....”   According to the Journal on September 18, 1891, Bell was one of South Bend’s “leading capitalists” with property valued at $22,915; a considerable sum in the context of that time.  But by 1893 Bell’s bubble had burst and he was busted.  A court notice for the case of Elizabeth Scott vs. George W. Bell and Evelyn Bell appeared in the South Bend Journal the first week of August 1893.  Bell failed to appear in his defence and the case was decided by default in favour of Scott for $614 and costs, and an attorneys fee of $60. Capt. George W. Bell had left for Portland the previous Thursday.  In 1906, Bell wrote in his book, “The Empire of Business”, “I lost a quarter of a million dollars just about the time I came to Australia.   Then I lost the pace, and despairing of overtaking the procession, I am still here on vacation.”

His ticket to his Australian “vacation” came with the presidential election of Grover Cleveland in 1892.  Bell had been an active campaigner for the Democrats since the early 1880’s, while a newspaper publisher and editor in Marion and Hamilton counties, Iowa.  He was reported to have given some 132 speeches in support of Cleveland’s 1892 campaign and as a reward, politicians offered to help him out of his financial difficulties. They did so by giving Bell a diplomatic appointment as a U.S. Consul to Australia, which lasted through 1900.  Bell had never held a political office and he only accepted the consular office at Sydney because it gave him an opportunity to investigate the country and its commercial possibilities with the United States. George Bell arrived in Sydney in October 1893.

Colonel Bell, as he was popularly known in the colony, was then the Sydney-based Consul for the United States of America, the nation’s chief representative in New South Wales. It was thought at the time that Bell had a touch of the ‘flim flam man’ or confidence man about him and was known the smooth-talking “Sam Slick from south of the border”

Bell was a slightly built individual of thoughtful but amiable countenance, sported an oversize, bushy moustache below a beaky nose with a hairline that receded to all but a token remnant.

His head was said to thrust turtle-like from the carapace of his evening dress on formal occasions. Overall, his appearance elicited one of sympathy and trust. One of his best friends in Australia was George Reid, the premier of New South Wales, in whose company Bell attended many colonial social gatherings. During Bell’s term, the traditional 4th of July open house at the American consulate in Sydney often became a very dry affair.

He broke with the well-established custom of providing free alcoholic refreshments and fine cigars, by not providing free alcohol or cigars to well-wishers of the day. His argument was that only those who were genuine in their feelings would then attend the consulate on America’s Independence Day; rather than those who came only for the free grog and smokes. That reflected his understanding of Australian character.

Bell worked enthusiastically and consistently on behalf of America’s interests in Australia and could be relied upon to help impoverished American citizens wanting to return home.  He did that by finding berths for them as stokers on ships travelling between Sydney and the American West Coast.  Bell came to this arrangement through his observation that steamships needed extra stokers for that leg of the voyage, because of the practice of bunkering the cheaper Australian coal, for both the outward and return voyages.  Extra hands were needed on the American leg to shift the coal to keep the ship in trim.  Shipping firms and sea captains soon came to know that they could count on Bell for reliable men wanting to work their passage home.  Everyone was pleased, none more so than George Bell who was able to repatriate countrymen quickly and at no cost to his consulate. He very quickly became a popular addition to colonial society. He also assisted other veterans in Australia, with their submission of veteran pension forms.

Public recognition came as well through his oratorical skills.  Billed as the “Silver Tongued Orator of the Pacific”, Bell took the rostrum on many occasions.  His speeches, many of which were printed, were on political and economic themes topical of the day, including the advantages of free trade and the benefits of a global union of Anglo-Saxon people.  That was also a theme within which Consul Bell could promote American trade interests.

As Bell had gained his consular position through political contacts, so too he lost it to another, in October 1900.  He chose to remain a resident in Australia, but took the opportunity for extensive travel in Europe, Asia and New Zealand.  His marital arrangement may have been one impediment to his returning to the America. Bell earned a modest living, mainly through his public lectures and writings.   Upon his retirement from Consul service, Bell returned to the United States and then to England, later returning to Sydney.

To welcome him back from his furlough in the United States, a banquet was set up at the Sydney Town Hall. As recorded in a testimonial booklet prepared for the event, persons of high ranking in the political, business and professional spheres sat down to welcome in true British style their honoured guest, the gifted and popular spokesman for the United States.

Guests included George Reid and Sir George Dibbs, along with other members of government and opposition, and many well-known members of the business community.   There is evidence that Bell invented much of his glorified American past. In South Bend, Washington Bell was known as Captain George Bell, while in Sydney, Australia he became known as Colonel George Bell.  The miss-assumption in Australia was that he had been a colonel in the Union Army during the Civil War. 

Though Bell had served as a Lieutenant  in the 64th Illinois and may have acted in the rank of Captain, no source can be found to support his rank of ever serving as a Colonel. In Australia at that time however, a “courtly Virginian”, especially a southern Colonel, was arguably more socially acceptable than a “pushy Yankee”.  To be addressed as Colonel Bell had a nice ring to it in the drawing rooms of Sydney’s society. Whatever the source or authenticity of his rank, Colonel Bell encouraged its use by friends and the public. He did not as a general practice, however, use the title in his consular correspondence with the State Department.

Though Bell was an American by birth, Bell was profoundly British in his sympathies. His lectures on “The British Empire” and “The Empire of Business” were characterized by deep thought and the bright outlook of future possibilities. He stressed the prospects of future trade with Japan and China before it was even considered and the advancements of Australian interests if it were to come about; without any loss of national pride. His last lecture before his death, was on the “Triumphs of Britain” at which time he gave a glowing indication of the “civilising process” that existed every where the British had been involved. He stressed that every time Britain conquered a country, it then returned the country back to the people and had improved the lives of the people in every instance. It was said Bell had been a credit to himself and to Australia as well.

Dr George Hurst, a Bathurst medical practitioner and member of the Bathurst People’s Federal Convention General Committee, suggested the invitation of Colonel Bell to the Bathurst People’s Federal Convention of 1896. That was done at the meeting on October 22, 1896. Colonel Bell was to be invited to deliver a lecture on the American Civil War to the Convention on November 18, 1896. Colonel George William Bell addressed the Bathurst People’s Federal Convention on the theme, ‘Progressive Liberty’  and 200 official delegates were joined by Bathurst townsfolk, in spite of a drenching summer storm.

George Bell returned to the United States in 1896 and 1899, visiting Washington State on both trips.  With the 1896 trip undertaken “to attend to private affairs”, Bell left immediately for South Bend upon his arrival at San Francisco, staying for only the briefest of visits.  His visit three years later to “Puget Sound country” was likewise brief.  According to him the trip was made “for the purpose of visiting my children” and “looking after some private affairs”.  Although only recently married, Bell was not accompanied by his Australian wife on this trip.  The reader may care to speculate on the character of Bell’s “private affairs’ in Washington. 

There is evidence that the Colonel may have left his first lady in America.  In Australia, George Bell acknowledged his first marriage which had ended with his wife’s death in 1879.  However, it was not known in Australia that he had remarried in 1880.  That wife, who may have been with him in South Bend, did not accompany Bell to Australia. In Australia, Bell was described publicly as a widower.  It is possible Bell may have gotten a divorce, but all evidence found to date suggests the second marriage may have still been in effect when he remarried, on December 23, 1898 at the age of sixty years, to his second wife Mary O’Sullivan; who happened to be his live in nurse, and was only twenty years old at the time. He lived with Mary in Sydney until his death on July 7, 1907.  His American wife Mary, of Iowa, outlived her husband.  A resident of Iowa, Mary Bell was widely known as the widow of George Bell, former Minister to Australia.

George’s Australian widow, also named Mary, filed a claim for a Civil War veteran’s widow’s pension.  The contents of that claim refers to his first marriage, but makes no mention of a second American marriage.  It appears highly likely that Colonel George W. Bell may have committed bigamy in his marriage, at age 60, to Mary O’Sullivan, age 20.

Bell died in Sydney on Edward Street in North Sydney on July 7, 1907 at age 69.  News of his death reached Pacific County within days, no doubt by way of the recently laid submarine cable between Australia and Vancouver, and was reported in the Willapa Harbor Pilot on July 12, 1907.  That his death should be reported so soon after he died suggests Bell had maintained some contact over the years. George W. Bell was buried in the Gore Hill Cemetery, grave 16, in the Church of England section E. Upon his death, Mary being his lawful wife was granted a veteran widows pension.

The general unawareness of his given names, George William, was such that when he died in 1907, his obituary writer named him as George Washington Bell. The name perhaps reflects as well the degree to which Bell had come to personify America for Australians and he has been known by that name ever since.

 

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