Bell Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Bell Surname Meaning

The surname Bell appears to have originated in Scotland and northern England. It could have been a nickname from the Old French beu or bel, meaning “handsome,” given possible origins of the Scots Bells in France. 

Alternatively, the name might 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).

Bell Surname Resources on The Internet

Bell Surname Ancestry

  • from Northern England and Scotland (Borders)
  • to Ireland (Ulster), America, Australia and New Zealand

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.

Northern England.  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.

Elsewhere.  One Bell family was first recorded in the early 1700’s at Budby, a small hamlet in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire.  Descendants moved to the London area in the mid-1800’s and then much of the family emigrated to Australia.

Scotland.  The main Bell presence in Scotland was on the Scottish borders.

Scottish Borders.  The Bell clan in Dumfriesshire at Middlebie was prominent here.  Charles Bell’s 1864 book Memorial of the Clan of the Bells was an early account of their history.

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.

Elsewhere.  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 after Culloden 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.

Nine major Bell families from Scotland were identified as living in Ulster during the plantation period.  They came 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.
  • while 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.  Scots Irish Bells who arrived 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.

New England.  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.

Heading West.  Jack Bell, born in Pennsylvania in 1864, was a renowned character of the old West who lived in Nevada until his death there in 1952.  He was in many respects a soldier of fortune and engaged in many activities.  At the turn of the century he was to be found around the old mining camps of Colorado and in Alaska.  He was an expert fisherman and a writer on all manners of subjects.

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.

Australia.  The brothers John and James Bell from Dumfries were drawn to emigrate to Australia by the gold rush fever in Victoria in the 1850’s.  James met his wife Mary on the ship out and they married in South Yarra soon after their arrival.  They all settled down near Geelong in Victoria.

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.

Bell Surname Miscellany

Robert Bell of Beaupre.  Robert Bell’s emergence from obscurity during the reign of Elizabeth stemmed from a fortunate third marriage, to Dorothy the daughter and co-heiress of Edmund Beaupre.  This brought him a large estate in Norfolk, the status and local offices that went with it, and progress in his profession.

He rose to become MP for King’s Lynn, a town some twelve miles from his wife’s estate.  After making a thorough nuisance of himself to the Government in the 1563 and 1571 Parliaments, Bell became Speaker in 1572, and, finally, poacher turned gamekeeper, “a sage and grave man, and famous for his knowledge in the law.”

In 1577 Queen Elizabeth conferred a knighthood on him.  However, he was not to enjoy that honor long.  Later that year, while visiting a prison during the trial of a bookseller who had slandered the Queen, he caught jail fever from the stench and soon died. Robert Bell came from obscurity but left descendants who prospered and they included emigrants to both Virginia and New England.

The Bell Family of Dumfriesshire. An early account of these Bells was supplied by Charles Davidson Bell’s 1864 book Memorials of the Clan of the Bells, written in South Africa.  He considered that these Bells – who were based in Kirkconnell from 1420 to 1550 – were of French extraction and might have arrived in Scotland with the Norman followers of Robert de Brus.

A book which also covered the Border family of Bell was The Bell Family in Dumfriesshire by James Steuart, written in 1932.  The author’s original intent was to record the pedigree of his maternal ancestors, the Bells of Crurie who were offshoots of the Bells of Crowdieknowe.

However, the gathering of data expanded the project and James Steuart was invited to submit a paper on the Bell family to the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Natural History and Antiquarian Society. This paper overflowed its confines and, from the length of the notes, it was resolved to publish them in book form.

Although Steuart regarded his work to be only a “draft” of what a book should be, it is in reality the only work which characterizes the Bells of Middlebie.  In the early 1600’s Middlebie parish encompassed some 40,000 acres and was said to be populated by thirty one major Bell families.

The Murder of John Bell.  According to Daniel Defoe:

“A wretched gang led by Robert Grierson of Lag, coming to a house where they had been informed a field preacher was harbored, rushed violently into the house.  But they found not the man they sought, neither indeed was he there.  They did find five men together with the women and children of the family all on their knees at prayers.

Whereupon without examining any farther, they said it was a seditious meeting which was forbidden by the Council and thereupon instantly dragged out the men and shot them to death before the door.”

The Covenanter John Bell was believed to have been among those murdered.  A monument was erected to his memory which bore the following inscription:

“Here lies John Bell, of Whiteside who was barbarously shot to death in the parish of Tongland in Dumfries at the command of the Grier of Lag, anno 1685.

  • This monument shall tell posterity
  • That blessed Bell of Whiteside here does lie,
  • Who, at command of bloody Lag, was shot,
  • A murder strange which should not be forgot.
  • Douglas of Morton did him quarters give,
  • Yet cruel Lag would not let him survive
  • This martyr sought some time to recommend
  • His soul to God before his days should end;
  • The tyrant said, What, devil you’ve prayed enough,
  • This seven long years on mountain and in cleuch;
  • And instantly caused him, with other four,
  • Be shot to death upon Kirkconnel Moor;
  • So thus did end the lives of these dear saints,
  • For their adherence to the covenants.”

Bells in Inverary, Argyllshire.  The old parish registers of Inverary in Argyllshire showed a remarkable fading of the MacIlemhaoil or McIlvoyle clan name in the 1700’s.   Indeed, after two entries in the 1760’s, the name disappeared altogether. The records also revealed, however, an equally extraordinary blooming of Bells at exactly the same time, a name hitherto unknown in this parish register.

The explanation is not far to find. The first of these Bell entries is the baptism in 1743 of a daughter Mary to Archibald and Christian Bell, a couple whose marriage can be found fourteen years before under the name of McIlvoyle.  The sudden nature of this name change suggests an arbitrary decision by the Minister or Session Clerk to do away with the old Gaelic name in the church records.

But the old name was not forgotten.  Angus Bell who died in Inverary in 1897 at the age of 96 had the ancient clan name of MacIlemhaoil engraved on his tombstone.

Reader Feedback – The Bells of Streamstown, Mayo.  The simplest way for me to give a pathway to the Streamstown and the Purranes Bells is to refer to a 1911 book called The Crofton Memoirs. This comprehensive history can be downloaded online, from which you can tease out the convoluted lineage of the Bells from their arrival here around 1667 to the end of the 19th century.

Like the Bells, the Croftons were significant members of the landed gentry. Those families (and others like the Blakes and the Binghams) intermarried, married cousins and had large families.

I have traced one of the Bell branches down to 1943 when Sir Major General Lyndon Bell died in Surrey. Other subdivisions are more challenging. It’s a very interesting lineage and has many twists and turns. It will take you from the court of Queen Anne to the Brontes and to the top physicians of the land.

Joe Keane (

Since we last spoke, I have obtained new information on the Bells which indicates that this family came from Scotland via Antrim to Mayo. Another source, Alan Nicholls Bell, wrote a brief genealogy which indicates that the family came from Antrim.  Nicholls Bell was the husband of Charlotte Bronte and their story is very interesting.

The Bells of Stamford, Connecticut.  Francis Bell with his wife Rebecca was among the first settlers of Stamford in 1640 and their son Jonathan, born a year later, the first European child born there.  He grew up to be one of the leading men of Stamford, as selectman, representative, lieutenant and captain.  The line then ran to Jonathan, James, and to Isaac, a Loyalist at the time of the Revolutionary War.

Isaac owned several mills in Stamford and was also a large shipping merchant in New York.  However, his adherence to the British cause at the time of the Revolution meant that he lost most of his possessions. Leaving Connecticut, he came within the British lines in New York and, when the British abandoned the city in 1783, he took his family to St. Johns, New Brunswick where they were to remain for the next five years or so.

One of his sons Henry was accidentally killed in New York in 1773 and was buried in Trinity churchyard.  But another son Isaac, born in 1768, returned to New York and revived the family fortunes there.

The Bell Witch.  Between 1817 and 1820 the Bell family of Adams, Tennessee were said to have been terrorized by a malevolent entity which attacked both the father John and his daughter Betsy.

Numerous witnesses claimed to have observed the events which included singing and Bible quoting by a disembodied voice.  Andrew Jackson, the future President of the United States, was said to have visited the house.  After one of his men was attacked by an invisible force, he claimed: “I’d rather fight the entire British Army than deal with the Bell Witch.”

According to the legend which developed, the Bell Witch took pleasure in tormenting John Bell during his affliction, finally poisoning him one December morning as he lay unconscious after suffering a number of violent seizures. Guests at his funeral heard it laughing and singing as he was buried.

Bell’s Battle Hymn of the Republic.  In the 19th century, the Battle Hymn of the Republic was adapted to fit prominent American surnames of the time, including Bell.  The Bell version was short on specifics.  There was only one verse really that had Bell references.

  • “Three stalwart Bells were governors in Vermont, the Granite State;
  • Samuel had five worthy sons who were both good and great.
  • The value of Bell’s telephone you cannot estimate.
  • The Clan goes marching on!”

There was just one Bell who was Governor of Vermont, Charles J. Bell from 1904 to 1906.  The story goes that a Scottish ancestor of his had invented the tulip-shaped bell for which he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.  He subsequently took the name of Bell.  His son James came to America and his descendants moved to New Hampshire and later Vermont.

There were three Bell Governors of New Hampshire, all from the same family – Samuel in 1819, John his brother in 1828, and Charles his nephew in 1881.  Samuel had eight sons by two wives.  Were five worthy and three not-so-worthy?

Bell’s telephone obviously refers to Alexander Graham Bell. 

Alexander Graham Bell’s Ancestry.  Alexander Graham Bell’s ancestry can be traced back to James Bell who married Janet Whyte around 1685. These Bells were for the next four generations shoemakers at St. Andrews (the home now of the famous golf course).  The line from James and Janet went:

  • their eldest son Alexander Bell who was born in 1687 and married Mary Stark in 1717
  • their eldest son James Bell who was born in 1720 and married Helen Duncan around 1742.
  • their youngest son David Bell who was born in 1760 and married Isabella Swan around 1787.
  • and to their second son Alexander Bell who was born in 1790 and married Elizabeth Colville in 1814.

It was this Alexander who came to Edinburgh and pursued various occupations before becoming well-known in England as a public speaker and professor of elocution.  His son Alexander was born in Edinburgh in 1819 and married Eliza Symonds there in 1844.  He was a teacher and researcher in phonetics.

They had only the three sons, two of whom died in their twenties of a lung ailment while they still lived in Scotland.  Fear of losing their remaining son, Alexander Graham Bell, to this in the damp climate of the British Isles was part of their motivation for moving to Canada in 1870.

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, traveler and early administrator 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 in England.
  • Glen Bell founded the Taco Bell fast food chain in 1962.

Bell Numbers 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)

Bell and Like Surnames

From our selection, these are the surnames of those who have made their business mark in America – as pioneers, inventors, developers, or corporate leaders – over its long history from colonial to modern times.


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Written by Colin Shelley

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