Bell, George Joseph (DNB00)


BELL, GEORGE JOSEPH (1770–1843), advocate, brother of Sir Charles Bell [q. v.], the celebrated anatomist, born at Fountain Bridge, near Edinburgh, 26 March 1770, was educated chiefly at home, and very largely by himself, his mother being left by her husband's death (1779) in very straitened circumstances. He does not appear to have had any regular academical training at the university of Edinburgh, though he attended some courses of lectures there. He was admitted advocate in 1791. In 1805 he married Barbara, eldest daughter of Charles Shaw, Esq., of Ayr, by whom he had several children. Having for some years previously devoted himself to the systematic study of the Scottish mercantile law, then in a very imperfect condition, he published in 1804 a work in two volumes, 4to, entitled 'A Treatise on the Laws of Bankruptcy in Scotland,' and in 1810 a second enlarged and improved edition of the same work, under the title 'Commentaries on the Laws of Scotland and on the Principles of Mercantile Jurisprudence considered in relation to Bankruptcy, Compositions of Creditors, and Imprisonment for Debt.' A third edition followed in 1816, and a fourth in 1821. This work, which dealt with the whole extent of the mercantile law of Scotland, and was the only scientific treatise which did, early obtained a deservedly high reputation, and brought its author a considerable accession of practice. It took rank with the classic 'Institutes' of Lord Stair, and was treated by the judges with a respect which in this country is never paid to any living jurist, and to but very few amongst the dead. In 1822 he was elected professor of Scots law in the university of Edinburgh, the motion, seconded by Sir Walter Scott, being carried unanimously. Bell was not altogether new to professorial duties, having held for two years (1816-18) the post of professor of conveyancing to the Society of Writers to the Signet, devoting the income to the support of the widow and children of the late professor, his brother Robert (the eldest of the family), who were left but ill provided for. In 1823 he was placed on a commission appointed, pursuant to an act of the same year, to 'inquire into the forms of process in the courts of law and the course of appeals from the Court of Session to the House of Lords,' in which capacity he very ably discharged the important duty of drawing up the report upon which was founded the bill which passed into law in 1825 as the Scottish Judicature Act, a measure largely superseded by later reforms, and was consulted by the committee of the House of Lords, which had charge of the framing of the measure, upon many points of detail. In 1826 he published a fifth edition of his 'Commentaries.' In 1832 he succeeded David Hume, nephew of the philosopher, as one of the four principal clerks of session. In 1833 he was nominated chairman of the royal commission then appointed to inquire into and draft proposals for the amendment of the Scotch law, from which resulted the Scotch Bankruptcy Act of 1839 (2 & 3 Vict. c. 41) which continued to regulate bankruptcy proceedings in Scotland until 1856, when it was superseded by the act now in force. In 1841 he was attacked by a severe inflammation of the eye. Though the son of an episcopalian clergyman, he belonged to the whig party. He was of a genial disposition and courteous manners, and appears to have had a larger culture than is common amongst lawyers. Throughout life he was on terms of close intimacy with Jeffrey. A fine portrait of him by Raeburn hangs in the Parliament House, Edinburgh. His great work, the 'Commentaries,' has fully sustained the reputation which it acquired during its author's life. A sixth edition with notes was published in 1858 by his brother-in-law, Patrick Shaw, Esq., advocate, and a seventh, also with notes, in 1870, by John M'Laren, Esq., advocate. In a very recent case reported in the law reports (appeal cases) for 1882 (The Royal Bank of Scotland v. The Commercial Bank of Scotland), the judges of the Court of Session having to choose between the authority of Lord Eldon and that of Bell upon a difficult question of bankruptcy administration, and having preferred to follow the latter, the House of Lords declined to overrule them.

Bell also published: 1. 'An Examination of the Objections stated against the Bill for better regulating the Forms of Process in the Courts of Scotland,' 1825. 2. 'Principles of the Law of Scotland, for the use of Students in the University of Edinburgh,' 1829, a professorial manual originating in outlines of his lectures issued to his students, of which a second edition appeared in the following year, a third in 1833, and a fourth in 1836. 3. 'Illustrations from adjudged Cases of the Principles of the Law of Scotland,' 1836 (second edition, 1838), in three volumes, 8vo, being a commentary upon the preceding work. 4. In 1840, 'Commentaries on the recent Statutes relative to Diligence or Execution against moveable Estate, Imprisonment, Cessio Bonorum, and Sequestration in Mercantile Bankruptcy.' This book, a thin quarto, was not so much an independent work as a supplement to the 'Commentaries on the Laws of Scotland.' A short treatise, 'Inquiries into the Contract of Sale of Goods and Merchandise,' revised and partly printed before his death, was published the following year.

[Letters of Sir C. Bell; Edinburgh Review, April 1872; Anderson's Scottish Nation; Grant's Story of the Univ. of Edinburgh, ii. 374.]

J. M. R.