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Robert Bell (1824-1894)

Obituary

The Late Mr Robert Bell of Clifton Hall

This gentleman, well known in commercial circles both in the east and west of Scotland, died at his residence, Clifton Hall, Linlithgowshire, yesterday morning. Having been in rather poor health during the winter, he in the spring, and in the hope of recruiting, formed one of a party, which included his friend Bailie Steel, who went on an extended tour to Syria and Egypt. The journey was rather too much for Mr Bell, and, unfortunately, on the way back he was attacked with pleurisy. On his return to Clifton Hall, about a month ago, he took to his bed, from which he never rose again, other complications of a serious nature, having ensued.

Clifton Hall home of Robert Bell Clifton Hall, near Broxburn, home of Robert Bell

Born in Wishaw in 1824, where his father was a farmer, Mr Bell commenced business as a wood merchant. In 1851, however, he leased a coalfield on the Wishaw estate, and, gradually extending his operations, became one of the leading coalmasters in that district of Scotland. In 1860 he established the Wishaw Blast Furnaces, which he worked for some time, until they were taken over by the Glasgow Iron Company. In the year 1856 he leased from the Earl of Buchan the Broxburn minerals, and began there an enterprise which brought him wealth and fame. Some years before Mr James Young had succeeded in distilling a burning oil from a bituminous cannel or parrot coal called the Torbanehill or Boghead coal. Works were erected at Bathgate for the production of this oil, which attracted considerable notice as a fresh commercial product. In working the Broxburn coal, Mr Bell came upon the shale, the composition and properties of which were not so well known as they became at a later day. From the shale he commenced to distill oil about about 1860, and laid the foundation of that industry, which is now to be reckoned as one of the largest in the country. Mr Bell is entitled to the credit of having been the first in Scotland to distill oil from shale, though the article "Paraffin," in the last edition of Chambers Encyclopedia, where his work is noticed, it is stated that a Frenchman named Du Buisson had obtained a patent in that country, previous to 1850, for the distillation of schist or shale.

Mr Bell not only exploited the shale, but to him is due the further credit of having discovered the ammonia which it contains, and which, until he led the way in erecting plant for its recovery from the watery product of distillation had constituted one of the nuisances of a paraffin manufactory. It is now one of the most important products of the Scottish oil companies. Like many other important discoveries which have been turned to profitable account in connection with our manufactures, this utilisation of ammonia in shale was to a large extent the result of accident. Mr Bell had been threatened with numerous law pleas for polluting with the water from his oilworks the neighbouring streams. He hit upon the expedient of pumping the offending liquid up to the top of a huge waste bing, in the hope that it would be exhausted by evaporation. Soon, however, the water began to ooze out at the fringes of the bing, and Mr Bell noticed to his surprise that the grass all around was of a more luxuriant kind than that further afield. He had the liquid analysed: found out its valuable properties, and thereafter, it is needless to say, turned it to commercial account. This Broxburn business so extended as to get beyond the control of a single individual. The Broxburn Oil Company was accordingly floated in 1877, and of that concern Mr Bell was for many years chairman. It might be mentioned in this connection that in the early years of the shale industry, before foreign competition was known, paraffin oil sold at 3s. and 3s. 6d. a gallon. Today it is 4d. a gallon.

Many other commercial enterprises of considerable magnitude from this time forward engaged Mr Bell's attention. In 1872 he purchased the Holmes estate, where subsequently the Holmes Oilworks were constructed, and in that Company he had a large interest. In 1879 he opened cannel coal and limestone mines in the parish of Muirkirk; in 1885 he took a leading share in the founding of the Belhaven Iron and Steel Works, Wishaw; in the same year he opened the Pardovan freestone quarries near Linlithgow; and he was also for many years the chairman and one of the mainstays of the Shotts Iron Company. His name was also associated with the reconstruction of the Niddrie and Benhar Coal Company, of which he became chairman, and which, after a long series of deplorable reverses, has, under his able guidance, been lifted into a secure commercial position.

With so many irons in the fire, Mr Bell was necessarily a busy man; but he nevertheless found time to interest himself in the social and political affairs of the county in which he was a resident. He was for many years chairman of the Uphall Parochial Board and of the School Board; he was a Justice of the Peace and a County Councillor of Linlithgow, and he was a Commissioner of Supply for Mid-Lothian. In politics he was a Liberal, and was chairman of the Liberal Committee of the County. Since 1886 he has been a Gladstonian, though latterly he has not been prominent in party politics. Ecclesiastically he was a member of the Church of Scotland.

Previous to 1884 Mr Bell lived at "The Lodge," Broxburn. In that year he purchased the estate and mansion-house of Clifton Hall from Sir James Gibson Maitland at a cost of £50,000. He has resided at Clifton Hall since, and this pretty estate on the Almond has been both extended and improved under his ownership. As a business man, Mr Bell was shrewd and clear-headed; in private life he was of a kindly disposition, and by none was he held in more regard than by his neighbours, the people of Broxburn, to many of the poor people in which he and the late Mrs Bell were very kind. To Broxburn he and Mrs Bell presented a well-equipped fever hospital, and established a library; and previous to his trip to the East this spring Mr Bell gifted to Broxburn a town clock. On that occasion he was presented with an illuminated address by the inhabitants. In 1869 Mr Bell married Miss Dalrymple, the only daughter of Mr Dalrymple of Burnside, Isle of Man – a large manufacturer there, and a member of the House of Keys. Mrs Bell died over ten years ago, leaving a family of four sons and four daughters, who also survive their father. One of the daughters is married to Mr A. Dewar, advocate.

The Scotsman, Thursday 31st May 1894

 

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