BELL, WILLIAM, businessman and militia officer; b. 1 May 1806 in London, second child of William Bell* and Mary Black; m. 6 Oct. 1831 Maria Miller in Kingston, Upper Canada, and they had two sons and two daughters; d. 4 Aug. 1844 in Perth, Upper Canada.
William Bell was only 11 years old when he first gazed with his father, a Presbyterian missionary, upon the wilderness of the military settlement at Perth. After spending three years as an apprentice clerk in the general store of William Morris*, William formed a partnership with his twin brother, John, who had trained under merchant Roderick Matheson*. W. and J. Bell opened for business in Perth as general merchants on 4 Jan. 1828 and, by undercutting and selling at a lower profit, proceeded to draw the wrathful scorn of the powerful Morris. Any possibility of friendly relations between the Bell and Morris families was eroded by such mercantile competition, which ultimately divided Perth’s Presbyterian congregation.
In 1829 John and his younger brother Robert* established a branch store at Morphy’s Falls (Carleton Place), while William continued to expand their business as commission agents for the Montreal firm of Benjamin Hart*, among others, particularly in the supply of potash and butter. On the Tay and Mississippi rivers the Bells became directly involved in the fur and lumber trades. As well, they invested in real estate and, with James Rosamond, financed a number of early industrial operations at Carleton Place. By 1838, with activities ranging from obtaining resources in the hinterland to trading in town, William and five of his six brothers were involved in the commerce of Lanark County as merchants or clerks. Although the Bells did not participate in the Morris-controlled Tay Navigation Company, the interests of W. and J. Bell were served by the opening of both the Rideau (1832)and Tay (1834) canals. In October 1839 William represented Perth at a meeting to form the Inland Steam Transportation and Insurance Company to oppose the Ottawa and Rideau Forwarding Company, which monopolized forwarding on the Rideau Canal route to Montreal. The company never got off the ground but the Bells, envisaging a fleet of vessels based at Perth, built a barge in 1841.
The suspension of specie payments by Lower and Upper Canadian banks during the commercial crisis of 1837–38 drained merchants’ supplies of coin. Already burdened by a large outstanding debt and high inventory, W. and J. Bell, like several other firms, responded in 1837 by issuing its own paper money, which could be converted into bank bills at the Perth store but not into coin. Handsomely designed and engraved in Montreal by Adolphus Bourne*, the notes, in five denominations up to a half-dollar, remained in circulation until late 1839.
A moderate reformer and supporter of Malcolm Cameron*, who had been elected to the House of Assembly for Lanark in 1836, William was a strong foe of the “family compact.” He nevertheless displayed his loyalist sympathies as a captain in the 3rd Regiment of Leeds militia during the rebellion of 1837–38. Political and commercial strains after 1837 combined with personal tragedy to affect William’s emotional stability. Following the birth of a son in March 1837, both his wife and the child died and William sank into a state of despondency and depression. He had married his wife, a woman of illegitimate birth, without the knowledge or sanction of his upright father. After her death, William further embarrassed him by his excessive drinking in public and on several occasions his parents looked after his children. The agitated family patriarch demanded a declaration of total abstinence by every living descendant, but to no avail.
W. and J. Bell recovered from the commercial depression in the early 1840s, but not so William Jr. His death at the age of 38, after a period of illness, deprived Perth of one of its brightest business leaders, and without his direction W. and J. Bell collapsed in 1846. In contrast to the endurance and stability of his father, William’s life was one of rapid success and erratic decline.
AO, MU 842, J. G. Malloch diary; RG 22, ser.155, William Bell Jr and John Bell. PAC, MG 24, D61, 2–3. Presbyterian Church in Canada Arch. (Toronto), William Bell, diary, vol.13. QUA, 2402, vols.5–12, 14–15; A. M. Campbell, “Fractional currency instituted by W. and J. Bell, Perth, Upper Canada, in 1837.” Bathurst Courier and Ottawa General Advertiser (Perth, [Ont.]), 14 Aug. 1834, 29 Nov. 1839. Brockville Recorder, 16 March 1837. Chronicle & Gazette, 23 Oct. 1839. Toronto Herald, 12 Aug. 1844. Isabel [Murphy] Skelton, A man austere: William Bell, parson and pioneer (Toronto, 1947). Tulchinsky, River barons, 50. Larry Turner, The first Tay Canal in the Rideau corridor, 1830–1850 (Parks Canada, National Hist. Parks and Sites Branch, Microfiche report, no.142, Ottawa, 1984); “The Shinplasters’ of W. & J. Bell, Perth, Upper Canada, 1837–1839,” Canadian Paper Money Journal (West Hill [Toronto]), 22 (1986): 4–13.