Select Bell Surname Genealogy

The surname Bell appears to have originated in Scotland and northern England. It could be a nickname from the Old French beu
or bel, meaning “handsome.”

Alternatively, the name could have come from the Middle English belle or “bell,” and denote either an occupation, a bell-ringer or a bell-maker, or a location, one who lived by the bell (as attested in 14th century forms such as John atte Belle).

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England. A Bell family from Kingsnorton in Worcestershire was said to have been in the 1300’s de Belne, later shortened to Belle and Bell.

Thomas Bell was a cap manufacturer in Gloucester in the early 1500’s. Robert Bell was an Elizabethan politician who lived at Beaupre Hall in Norfolk. His descendants included Philip Bell, Governor of Providence (Rhode Island) and Barbados, and several early settlers of the Jamestown colony in Virginia.

Most Bells in England, however, were to be found on the borders with Scotland and in the northern counties. Their numbers included:

  • the Bells of Sowerby and Thirsk in Yorkshire, dating back to the early 17th century.
  • the Bells of Portington Hall near Goole, dating back to the late 18th century. Henry Bell was a friend and supporter of John Wesley.
  • Matthew Bell, a successful merchant in Newcastle in the early 1700’s who bought Woolsington Hall on the proceeds.
  • and Lowthian Bell, a Victorian ironmaster, who was twice Lord Mayor of Newcastle in the 1870’s.

A Bell family of farmers at Wark on Tyne began with the marriage of Jacob Bell and Ann Rutter in 1800.

The Bell clan
in Dumfriesshire at Middlebie was a significant presence on the Scottish Borders. An old Scots saying ran “as numerous as the Bells of Middlebie.” It was said that these Bells “used to number their horses in the hundreds and their cattle and sheep in the thousands.” It was also said:

“The Bells, being valiant men, were always sent upon the most hazardous enterprises when sometimes much blood was shed and great booty carried off.”

The Bell clan faded away in the early 17th century as the Border region was pacified. Their last chief William Bell, known as Redcloak of Blackethouse, died in 1628.
In 1685 John Bell of Dumfries, a Covenanter, was murdered by a marauding gang of religious enforcers. By that time one group of Bells had moved to
Glasgow and then onto Argyll and Islay on the Western Isles. Others migrated to Ulster. Some found their way along the Tyne valley and settled in Northumberland.

There was one line from the Borders that led to Fife where they were first recorded at Sandiehill around the year 1730. Thomas Bell of Belmont, provost of Dundee in the 1820’s, was a descendant; as was John Bell who had acquired the Bonytoun estate in Fife. His grandson Sir John Bell was a senior general in the British army in the mid-19th century.

There were Bells coming from elsewhere in Scotland. The name, possibly derived from the Gaelic maol or “bald,” was found as early as 1263 at Dunkeld in Perthshire. Bell had a later connection with the MacMillan clan. In the 1700’s the Bell name was adopted by many McIlvoyles around Inverary in Argyllshire.

Ireland. English Bells, possibly from Durham, were at Streamstown in county Mayo from the 17th century onwards after a grant of land for their support of the Royalist cause during the Civil War. Scots Bells during the Ulster plantation period had come initially to Tyrone and then to Antrim and Belfast where they are mainly to be found today. Many Scots Irish Bells departed for America in the mid-18th century.

America. Bells from Norfolk were among the early arrivals in Jamestown. Robert Bell was an agent in London of the Virginia Company sponsoring early settlers. Henry Bell, aged seventeen, was in Virginia as early as 1608, but did not stay. Robert and Thomas Bell came later and they were the forebears of the Accomack and Northampton Bells. Scots Bells started arriving in Virginia from 1642. From the Bells of Orange county, Virginia came Peter Bell, the Governor of Texas in 1849.

Scots Irish Bell who came later included:

  • John Bell from county Antrim who came in 1720 and settled in Londonderry, New Hampshire. His grandson Samuel became Governor of New Hampshire in 1819.
  • Matthew and William Bell who were among the early settlers of Augusta county, Virginia in the 1740’s. They were the sons of immigrant Joseph Bell. William Bell, an early settler in Texas, was a descendant.
  • while Robert Bell from Tyrone was one of the first settlers at Rosslyn in the Chartiers valley of Virginia in the 1760’s. Son James, aged 13, was captured by Indians and held for four years. He later served in the Revolutionary War and lived to be 96.

William Bell, born in Virginia in the early 1700’s, moved into North Carolina where his son John was born. John left in 1804 with his family to cross the mountains into east Tennessee and into an area then known as “the barren plains.” In 1817 he contracted a mysterious affliction which led to his death three years later. The Bell Witch, as it was called, has passed into southern American folklore.

The early Bells into New England were English, such as Francis and Rebecca Bell from Yorkshire who were among the first settlers of Stamford, Connecticut in 1640. The Bell family remained in Stamford until the 19th century.

Isaac Bell of this family, a shipping merchant in New York, was on the wrong side in the Revolutionary War and departed with his family for New Brunswick in Canada in 1783. But his son Isaac, born in Stamford, returned a decade later to develop his own shipping business. A third Isaac Bell was a successful investor and in 1883 built the Isaac Bell House, one of the famous Gilded Age “cottages” in Newport, Rhode Island.

Canada. William Bell had come to America from Scotland in 1772, just four years before the start of the Revolutionary War. A British Loyalist, he crossed the border into Canada in 1777, married there, and settled with other Loyalists in Lennox and Addington county, Ontario. Among family relics are his cane, masonic apron, and spectacles. Another William Bell, this time from Ulster, sold his commission in the British army in 1830 and left with his family for New Brunswick. He was the progenitor of the Bells in Carleton county, New Brunswick.

The big Bell came later. In 1870 the Bell family departed Edinburgh for Canada where they purchased a farm near Brantford, Ontario. Included in their number was 23 year old Alexander Graham Bell who within five years had patented a device that was to revolutionize the world, the telephone.

New Zealand. Alexander Bell came to New Zealand from Belfast in the 1870’s. He was the first non-Maori allowed to settle in the King Country of North Island since the region had been closed in the 1860’s. This came about in 1874 when he married Katarina Te Waihanea at Taumarunui and set up a trading post there. The couple had twenty one children of whom
thirteen survived. Alexander lived in Taumarunui until he died in 1932 at the age of 93. Streets in Taumarunui are named after the couple.

Select Bell Miscellany

If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for
further stories and accounts:

Select Bell Names

William Bell, called Redcloak, was the last of the Bell border clan chiefs.
Henry Bell was the Scotch engineer who pioneered the development of the steamship and introduced the first steamship service from Glasgow in 1812.
Alexander Graham Bell was the famed inventor of the telephone who set up the Bell Telephone Company in 1877). He was born in Scotland and had immigrated to Canada, aged 23, in 1870.
Manga Bell was a Duala king who led the resistance to German rule in the Cameroon in the 1910’s.
Gertrude Bell was a writer, traveller and early administator in
Arabia. She and T.E. Lawrence were the leading English Arabists
of their day.
Vanessa Bell was one of the leading lights of the Bloomsbury group.
Glen Bell founded the Taco Bell fast food chain in 1962.

Select Bells Today

  • 105,000 in the UK (most numerous in Lincolnshire)
  • 100,000 in America (most numerous in Texas)
  • 62,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Australia)


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