Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bell, Henry Glassford

BELL, HENRY GLASSFORD (1803–1874), sheriff, was the eldest son of James Bell, advocate. He was born in Glasgow 8 Nov. 1803, and received the rudiments of his education in the High School of that city. On the family removing to Edinburgh, he passed through the regular university course there, and, while beginning to study law, exhibited his love of letters in a series of precocious criticisms in the columns of the ‘Observer.’ Those on the actors and acting of the day, under the signature ‘Acer,’ attracted the attention of some of the leaders in the then brilliant literary society of the place, and are said to have had some influence in raising the tone of the stage—an institution in which he continued to the last to take a keen interest. A privately printed volume of poems (1824) testifies to his scholarship, early command of verse, and his share in the Byronic enthusiasm for the Greeks. In 1827 Bell was present and spoke at the famous dinner of the Edinburgh Theatrical Fund, at which Sir Walter Scott publicly acknowledged the authorship of the ‘Waverley Novels.’ In 1828 he started and conducted the ‘Edinburgh Literary Journal,’ which numbered among its contributors Thomas Aird, L. E. L., Mrs. Hemans, Thomas Campbell, Christopher North, the Ettrick Shepherd, Delta (Moir), Allan Cunningham, G. P. R. James, Sheridan Knowles, and others of scarce inferior note. The youthful editor maintained for the publication a position of steadily increasing influence; but at the expiration of three years it passed into other hands, and was ultimately merged in the ‘Edinburgh Weekly Chronicle.’ Some of the most salient of his own contributions were afterwards collected by Bell, and republished in two volumes: ‘Summer and Winter Hours’ (1831), containing the most widely known of his poems, the panoramic scenes from the life of Mary Stuart, so familiar to elocution; and ‘My Old Portfolio’ (1832). Three of the prose pieces in the latter collection deserve special mention: ‘The Marvellous History of Mynheer von Wodenblock,’ which, as afterwards popularised in the doggerel song, ‘The Cork Leg,’ has travelled over England and through Germany; ‘The Dead Daughter’ and ‘The Living Mummy,’ from which Edgar Poe seems to have taken the hint of two of his most famous fantasies. Meanwhile, at the request of the publisher Constable, he had (1830), in compiling his elaborate defence of the Queen of Scots, entered the lists as champion of the cause which he espoused through life with an almost religious zeal. The book was at the time a swift success. The first edition being exhausted, a second was called for within the year; it was translated into French and pirated in America. In 1831 Bell married Miss Stewart, only daughter of Captain Stewart of Sheerglass, Glengarry, by whom he had six children. In the following year he passed as advocate, and henceforth devoted himself mainly to his legal pursuits; but advancement in the ranks of a profession then adorned by the competing talents of Jeffrey, Clark, Cockburn, Hope, Macneil, Rutherfurd, Maitland, Ivory, Robertson, Inglis, and Moncreiff, was, even if sure, necessarily slow, and the cares of an increasing family induced him to accept an appointment as one of the substitutes of the sheriff of Lanarkshire, whose attention had been attracted to the young counsel by his appearance (1838) at the cotton spinner's trial. Bell entered upon this office in 1839, and for twenty-eight years discharged his duties, yearly increasing in extent and responsibility, with a conscientiousness, judgment, and tact, which exceeded expectation and arrested cavil. When, in 1852, it was believed that Sheriff Alison was to become a lord of session, the Glasgow faculty of law memorialised the lord advocate to promote Mr. Bell to the expected vacancy, and on Sir Archibald's death in 1867 he was made sheriff principal, with the unanimous approval of the profession. During thirty-four years' tenure of the two posts he found an arena well calculated to call forth his varied powers; his mental energy and physical strength enabled him to overtake the increasing work of the great commercial city, his discrimination and accuracy made his judgments generally final, and he came to be regarded as the best mercantile lawyer of his day in Scotland. A distinguished contemporary has said of him that ‘he realised the ideal of what a judge ought to be.’ Another writes as follows: ‘The older members of the legal profession hold the opinion that Sheriff Glassford Bell was the best judge that ever sat in the sheriff court of Glasgow. … Approaching every case without a shade of bias, he listened so quietly to the arguments on either side that it was only when his decisions, always remarkable for their clearness, were made that it was seen how carefully he had weighed the matters at issue; it was a common custom of procurators to agree beforehand to accept his ruling and carry the case no further. Early in his career he had to grapple with new and difficult questions under the Poor Law and Bankruptcy Acts, in relation to which many of his judgments have become leading cases. His popularity was increased by the absence of self-assertion, somewhat rare on the bench, the reticence on all irrelevant matters, and the invariable courtesy to witnesses, which were leading features of all his procedure. He always kept abreast of his work, and may be said to have died in harness.’

Outside his court, from which, till his last illness, he was never absent for a day, Mr. Bell took a lively interest in every matter affecting the welfare of Glasgow, advocating the interests of the city and promoting its institutions with an oratory at once genial and forcible, to the uniform success of which his commanding presence and impressive voice doubtless contributed; but the matter of his speeches was always valuable, and several of his addresses, as that to the Juridical Society 1850, and as president of the Athenæum 1851, have stood the test of publication. He was a constant patron of the fine arts, and while in Edinburgh, where he was one of the originators of the Royal Scotch Academy, had given a course of lectures on their history; those on Michael Angelo and Raphael, subsequently delivered before the Philosophical Institution and the Glasgow Architectural Society, attracted considerable attention. The only other prose work of those years of a thousand interlocutors was the long and able introduction to Bell and Bains's edition of ‘Shakespeare,’ published in 1865. During this period his few relaxations were angling, chess—in which game he was the champion of the west of Scotland—and occasional trips to the continent, memories of which he has preserved in his volume, 1866, entitled ‘Romances and Minor Poems,’ which showed that all that weight of law had not stifled the author's imagination. The best verses in this volume are, if somewhat less elastic than those of his youth, more mature and searching. They are the reflex of a mind that has seen more of life and become perplexed by mysteries, for which its former easy solutions have proved inadequate. Mr. Bell's first wife died in 1847; in 1872 he married Miss Sandeman, who survives him. Towards the close of 1873 a disease in the hand, which had for some time caused only trifling inconvenience, assumed so grave an aspect that an operation became imperative. This for a time appeared to have been successful, but early in the next year unfavourable symptoms set in, and he died on 7 Jan. 1874. The respect of his fellow-citizens was attested by the fact of his being—the first example of the century—interred in the nave of St. Mungo's Cathedral. Through life a staunch tory, Glassford Bell had better claim to the title of liberal than many of those who assume it, for he was generous almost to a fault, and took account of men by what they were rather than by what they professed to believe. He will be remembered in Scotland as the genial friend of Wilson, Hogg, and Lockhart, the worthy associate of the great legal race of which Jeffrey, Cockburn, Aytoun, and Burton were but slightly more distinguished representatives. He has been called ‘the last of the literary sheriffs.’

[Journal of Jurisprudence, February 1874; Glasgow Herald, 8 Jan. 1874; personal knowledge and information from Mr. Bell's family.]

J. N.