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BELL, Herbert John

b.1855 – d.1909

Herbert John BELL was buried in Horton Cemetery on 18th June 1909. According to the Lunacy Patients Admission Register he had been admitted to Horton Asylum on 8th October 1904 and died there on the 14th June 1909. He was admitted as a pauper but a note against the entry in the register states that he became a private patient on 30th November 1904 and a pauper again on 24th July 1908.

Lunacy Admission 1904/Discharge 1909 (Died)

His death certificate gives the cause of death, certified by J. R. Lord following a post mortem, as General Paralysis of the Insane/Aortic Disease/Chronic Pleurisy with colloid degeneration. The death was registered on the 16th June by Ernest George Pullinger.

The certificate gave Herbert’s age as 54 making his birth year 1855, his occupation as Commercial Traveller, and his address as Bourneville Road, Streatham. The informant was Lily Bell, widow of the deceased, with an address in Blakemore Road, Streatham.

Lily Bell was granted administration of Herbert’s estate in September 1909. The value of the estate was £587, equivalent to about £70,000 in 2021 terms.

Herbert had appeared in the 1901 England census as a Visitor aged 44 at the ‘Feathers Hotel’, Ledbury, Herefordshire. No occupation was given. He was recorded as married and, his birthplace is given as Ceylon (now Sri Lanka ). It has not been possible to trace any record of Lily in the 1901 census.

Herbert Bell’s family

The 1871 England census finds the Bell family in Southampton living at Lamport House, St Paul’s Place, Southampton in a household consisting of:
John Ross Bell, Head, 46, East India Merchant, his wife Isabella P. Bell, 40, and seven children, all at school: Harry S. 16, Herbert J. 15, Gerald M. 10, Isabella 9, Malachi, 7, Lillian, 5, and Frank O. 3.

1871 Census

The household also includes a Nursery Maid, a Cook and a Housemaid.

John Ross Bell’s position as an East India Merchant means that the family had spent a considerable time in Ceylon where all the children bar one were born. John Ross himself, his wife, and one child were born in Scotland.
Scottish records show that John Ross Bell’s parents were Alexander Bell and Mary Ross, and that he was baptised at St. Nicholas Church, Aberdeen on 23th June 1823.

The 1851 Scotland census records that Alexander was a military officer of the East India Company.

The absence of the Bell family from Britain in Ceylon means that there are periods when they do not appear in British records.

The site History of Ceylon Tea includes scanned copies of directories (known as Ferguson Directories after their original compiler, A. M. Ferguson, Proprietor and Editor of the ‘Ceylon Observer’) containing detailed information about all aspects of life in Ceylon and beyond, including lists of businesses and residents, and these have been valuable for tracing the activities of the Bell family and the other families they are linked with in Ceylon.

There are some Ceylonese birth, baptism, burial and marriage records transcribed at Kabristan that have proved useful and it has also been possible to discover some information through The British Newspaper Archive.

Herbert’s father and mother

John Ross Bell married Isabelle Paterson Salmon in Falkirk in October 1853. In total they had at least eight children including one daughter whose birth in Ceylon was announced in the Scotsman in September 1857 but who doesn’t appear on the 1871 census.

An announcement in The Bombay Gazette and Indian Daily News in December 1850 shows that John Ross had been married previously and that his first wife Marianne had died in Kandy aged 24. Baptism and burial records accessed from www.kabristan.org.uk show that they had had a son, James Alexander, and a daughter Emily Jane who had died at 4 days.

The Ferguson Directories record that John Ross Bell’s main business in the western port of Colombo in 1871 was as a Wine Merchant, J R Bell & Co Ltd.

John Ross Bell died in Southampton aged 60 in January 1883. A death notice in the Hampshire Advertiser includes the initials H.E.I.C.S. which stand for Honourable East India Company Service.

Isabella was to live on until 1903.

John and Isabella’s children

From the Ferguson Directories we can see that Herbert John Bell b. 1855 was in Colombo working in his father’s company from at least 1880. He spent a period as a planter in 1885, and then formed the Bell Bros. company in 1890. The company became Harding, Bell and Co in 1893. By 1904 Herbert, identified as a planter, was recorded as being back in Europe. That was the year he was admitted to Horton Asylum. Entries in Masonic membership registers in Ceylon show that he joined Leinster Lodge No 115 Colombo in 1879 and transferred to Sphinx Lodge No 107 in late 1893.

According to the Ferguson Directories Henry (Harry) Salmon Bell b 1854 was in Australia as a planter in 1880 and then an assistant to his brother at J. R. Bell & Co and Bell Bros. in Ceylon until 1890. In 1891 he is recorded as having left Ceylon and appears in the 1891 Scotland census with the occupation ‘Tea Planter,’ living with his mother Isabella, his brother Frank Oliphant, and his sister Lilian Christina in Edinburgh. Henry died at the same address in February 1892 aged 37 according to a death notice which appeared in the Dundee Courier. 

An 1891 England census record shows Gerald Bell b. 1861 as a visitor aged 20 at a hotel in Ryde on the Isle of Wight. His occupation is given as Army officer. He is next found as Gerald Morgan Ross-Bell in South Australia where he married Mary Newman Griffies-Williams, a widow with three children, in 1894. The marriage certificate gives his occupation as Tea Merchant and that of his father as Tea Planter.  A wedding announcement in the Sydney Morning Herald claims that his grandfather was Colonel Ross-Bell. He died in Wahroonga, New South Wales, in November 1937 without issue.

No record has been found of Isabella Bell b. 1862 after the 1871 England census entry.

Malachi Bell, b. 1864, the only one of the siblings not born in Ceylon, is known after the 1871 census record as Melville Bell. The Ferguson Directories show that he was assistant to his brother at J. R. Bell & Co from 1883, a planter in 1887, and then working for Bell Bros. until 1893 when he is reported as being in Europe. Entries in Masonic membership registers show that he joined the same Leinster Lodge No 115 Colombo as his brother Herbert in September 1884. There is a note against his entry in the register ‘Struck off 1890’.

Melville married May Willoughby, a widow, in February 1891 in St George’s, Hanover Square. His occupation is given as Tea Planter and that of his father as Merchant. No record has been found in either the 1891 or 1901 censuses of either Melville or his wife. Melville died in November 1905 as the result of an incident at Grays Railway Station near Tilbury Docks which a coroner’s jury concluded was suicide. The man involved is described in a local newspaper report as having been working as a storekeeper aboard the ss. Oroya and there are records showing that an M. Bell travelled as a crew-member between London and Sydney on that ship.

However, the report gives the name of his wife as Mrs C. A. Bell of Pimlico which is inconsistent with his wife’s name being May.  Confirmation that the man killed was Melville comes in the form of a death notice inserted in the Sydney Morning Herald on 6th March 1906 under the surname Ross-Bell, identifying him as the fourth [actually third] son of John Ross Bell and grandson of Colonel Ross-Bell, and saying that he was accidently killed at Tilbury on the 7th November 1905. Comparing the form of this notice to that of the wedding, it was very likely placed by his brother Gerald.

Lilian Christina Bell b. 1866 is found in the 1881 England Census aged 15 as a pupil at a school in Southampton and in the 1891 Scotland census living with her mother Isabella and two brothers in Edinburgh. In August 1894 she married Rodie Parkhurst, a doctor. Two daughters, Eva Mary and Lilian Isabella, were born to them in 1895 and 1897 respectively. The 1901 England census finds Lilian living in a lodging house in Bournemouth with Lilian Isabella aged 4. Rodie is living with his step brother in Kingston-upon-Thames. Eva Mary aged 6 is living with her grandmother Isabella in her uncle Frank’s household in Wareham, Dorset. Lilian Christina’s death is registered in the Isle of Wight in Q2 1907. By the time of the 1911 England census Rodie Parkhurst had remarried, Eva and Lilian were living with him and his new wife, Lily, in Newhaven, Sussex, and two more daughters, Ellen Caroline aged 2, and Lily Kathleen, 1, have been added to the family.

Frank Oliphant Bell, b. 1868, is found in the 1881 England census as a pupil aged 13 at a school in Millbrook, Hampshire. In the 1891 Scotland census Frank is living with his mother, brother Henry and sister Lilian in Edinburgh. He is a 23-year-old medical student. In the 1901 England census he is living in Wareham, Dorset where he is the head of his household and his occupation is given as Bachelor of Medicine. His wife is Evelyn Bolton who he married in 1895 and they have a son John Ross, named after his grandfather, aged 3. Their first-born child, Adelaide Mary, born in 1896 died before her first birthday. His mother Isabella aged 68 is living with him, and his niece Eva Parkhurst aged 5. There are two servants.

Isabella died in 1903 in Wareham at the age of 76.

In the 1911 census Frank and Evelyn are still living in Wareham and have two servants. Their son John Ross is a boarder at a school in Dorchester.

Frank died in Wareham in 1922 and Evelyn died, also in Wareham, in 1951. Their son had a career in the RAF.

Lily’s mother and father and Herbert and Lily’s daughter

Lily is next found after Herbert’s death in the 1911 England census as a widow aged 47, now using the surname Ross-Bell. The census record reveals that she was living with a daughter, Ysobel Mary aged 23, who had married Charles Henry Samuell, 29, a Commercial Traveller in drapery, in 1910. The household included one servant and was in Caversham, Oxfordshire. Both Lily and Ysobel’s place of birth is given as Colombo, Ceylon. Charles was born in Manchester.

Charles and Ysobel’s marriage certificate records that they were married at St Paul’s Church, Clacton-on-Sea and that the service was conducted by A. Gray Maitland, Vicar of Dudley. One of the witnesses was J. Maitland who was John Maitland born in Daviot, Aberdeen in 1833 and the eldest brother of A. Gray Maitland. It appears that Lily was the daughter of John Maitland and his first wife, Mary McSween, who he had married in 1856. Mary died in Colombo in 1874 and John Maitland re-married in 1875 to Helen Mousley. John’s marriage certificate for his first marriage describes his occupation as ‘Medical Staff Army’. That for his second marriage describes him as a ‘Merchant’. His parents were William Maitland, a farmer, and Lilias Gray of Moat, Auchterless, Aberdeenshire.

The 1911 England census also includes Charles Robert Maitland, born in Ceylon in 1865, living in Dulwich with his wife Charlotte who he had married in 1903. Charles’s occupation is ‘Physician and Surgeon’. Their marriage certificate shows that they too were married by A. Gray Maitland and that John Maitland was Charles’s father, making Charles Lily’s brother.

Charlotte’s maiden name was d’Esterre and the 1891 census shows her husband at school in Sydenham with her brothers John and William who also became Physician Surgeons. She and her siblings had all been born in Kandy, Ceylon and their father was John Norcott d’Esterre, a merchant.

Three sons of Herbert and Lily

In the 1901 England census there are records of three boys with the surname Bell born in Ceylon as Boarders at Ockham Schools in Kingsley, Hampshire. They are Herbert, 16, Guy, 12, and Cyril, 10. Although there is no direct evidence that these were Herbert and Lily’s sons the circumstantial evidence points to this being the case.

Herbert is next found under the name Herbert John Ross-Bell as a visitor at an address in Putney in the 1911 England census. His occupation is ‘Bank clerk’. He went on to make a career in banking and died in Ewell, Surrey in 1942.

From a newspaper announcement of his wedding in the Sydney Morning Herald we know that Guy Ross Bell was in Ceylon and employed by the shipping company Clarke, Spence & Co by 1915 when he married his first wife, Dorothy Victoria Mary De La Mare. In 1917 he travelled to England with his wife and young daughter and joined the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) as a 2nd Lieutenant in early 1918.  He next appears in the directories in 1920 as Bell, G Ross JP CPM MPRC (Lieut. late of RGA) Manager Clarke, Spence & Co. and Walkers & Clarke Spence Old Queens House, Galle. After divorcing his first wife, he married secondly Sylvia Grace Wreford in 1924 in Ceylon.  He became a partner in Clarke, Spence & Co. in 1925 and is listed under the surname Ross-Bell for the first time in 1937. By 1940 he had added Vice-Consul for Norway to his roles and became the Managing Director of E. Coates & Co (Galle) Ltd. In 1952 he added the chairmanship of J. H. Vavasseur & Co (Ceylon) Ltd and also became a director of Ceylon Coconut Industries Ltd. He is listed in the directory for the last time in 1956.

His death was registered in Surrey in Q1 1979. 

Cyril has not been found in any records after the 1901 England census, except for possibly a passenger list for a journey from Singapore to Falmouth in 1917, until his death is registered in Wallingford, Berkshire in Q2 1919 at the age of 29. There is a burial record for him in Caversham Cemetery on www.findgrave.com.

Lily Ross-Bell’s death aged 60 was registered in Q1 of 1924 in East Preston, Sussex.  There is a burial record for her too in Caversham, Berkshire which gives her full name as Lillian Margaret Sophia Brodie Ross-Bell. Charles Samuell died in 1944 and Ysobel died in 1948, both in Lancashire. Their daughter qualified as a teacher and their son as a doctor.

The Maitlands and the d’Esterres

The 1911 England census records Lily’s father John Maitland living as a boarder aged 77 in Westcliff-on-Sea and his death was registered in nearby Rochford, Essex in 1917. According to a short article in the Aberdeen Evening Express in January 1917 reporting his death, he had been a tea and coffee planter[i] in Ceylon for 40 years, going there after the end of the Crimea War. He had trained originally as a chemist before joining the army and had worked in the Crimea with Florence Nightingale. He had returned to England from Ceylon about 20 years before his death.

J Maitland & Co Ltd were operating in the port of Colombo in 1880 as druggists and agents for the Colombo Ice Company Limited. In 1883 Maitland and Co. Ltd. Secretary Wm. Maitland is listed under ‘Chemists & Druggists’, also ‘Booksellers’ at Nos 15 & 16, Chatham Street, Fort. John Maitland is identified as the chairman and director of Colombo Ice Company Limited and managing director of J. Maitland & Co Ltd. William Maitland may be John’s younger brother or possibly his son by Mary McSween.

Meanwhile the d’Esterres were operating a similar company in the central town of Kandy. An advertisement from the 1883/4 directory shows the wide range of goods and services they were able to supply going far beyond the drugs and medicines that were their main business.

General Paralysis of the Insane               

By the early years of the twentieth century, General Paralysis of the Insane (GPI) had begun to be recognised as a manifestation of tertiary syphilis that could occur up to twenty years after the initial infection. Degeneration of the brain and nervous system led to delusional mental symptoms followed by dementia, physical paralysis and death. Many patients were well advanced in the path of the disease by the time they entered the asylum. Louise Hide, in her book ‘Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914’[ii], reports it as perhaps the diagnosis that is associated more than any other with this period in asylum history. In 1901 GPI accounted for 17.3% of male admissions to London asylums and for 38.5% of male deaths.

Hide notes the social stigma and serious economic consequences of a GPI diagnosis.  It was most likely to affect men with family responsibilities during their most productive years. This would all have applied in Herbert’s situation. It is unlikely that Lily, with a doctor brother, would have been unaware of the reason for his illness. It would have fallen to her as to how Herbert’s fate was explained to her father and the rest of the Maitland family, including her uncle, the Vicar of Dudley, and to the d’Esterres with whom the Maitlands had a long association.

At first sight it seemed that Herbert’s admission to the Asylum had left his wife Lily and his children in a very precarious position. Various misfortunes had affected his family and possibly only his youngest brother, Frank, could be in a position to offer any support, though he and his family were some way distant in Dorset. His other surviving brother Gerald was in Australia and his sister Lilian seems to have had problems of her own. However, Lily was fortunate in that her brother Charles and his wife was reasonably close at hand to offer assistance as well as possibly some of her d’Esterre in-laws. Her father was also still alive.  

The early death of Lily’s youngest son, Cyril, must have been another blow for her but it is to be hoped that she found some consolation in seeing Ysobel settled in family life and the success of Herbert junior and Guy in establishing their careers.


[i] Under the East India Company and the rule of the British colonial government from about 1815 coffee was Ceylon’s main export until 1869 when the plantations were devasted by a leaf disease and there was a switch to tea cultivation.

[ii] Gender and Class in English Asylums, 1890-1914 L. Hide Palgrave Macmillan UK 2014

[1] John Robert Lord was medical superintendent of Horton Asylum/Mental Hospital from 1907 until his death in 1931 and commanding officer of Horton War Hospital during WW1 with the rank of Lt. Col. One of his interests was research into general paralysis of the insane.

[1] The Pullingers were a well-known Epsom family of booksellers, stationers and printers.

[1] References to Ceylon, the colonial name for Sri Lanka, have been retained where they appear in sources. Ceylon became independent in 1948 and officially adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972.

[1] The East India Company was founded in 1600 as an English joint-stock company to trade in the Indian Ocean region. It maintained military forces and ended up seizing control of large parts of the Indian subcontinent and colonising parts of Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. Control of India was ceded by the company to the British Crown in 1858.


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