While exact international numbers are hard to quantify, it’s safe to say New Zealand has had a larger share of premiers with a Jewish background than most nations, both as a percentage and in absolute numbers. As well as the current prime minister, John Key, the country’s roll of Jewish premiers includes Julius Vogel—and Francis Bell. For the cultural record, however, Bell will probably be best remembered as one of the shortest-serving national leaders, after spending just 16 days in high office, from May 14-30, 1925.
Yet Bell’s achievements were more outsize than the brevity of his premiership would suggest. He was, as well as a onetime mayor of Wellington, a long-serving cabinet minister with the Reform Party from 1912, including stints as minister of immigration, internal affairs and foreign affairs, and from 1923 he was the country’s attorney-general.
The son of a Jewish mother, who later converted to Christianity, Bell’s earliest work—and in some respects his most enduring—was in law, where he was among the first to take a particular interest in Maori issues, involving himself in cases involving land disputes and native access to fisheries and lake beds. With his wife, Caroline Robinson he had four daughters and four sons, with his legal and later political work continuing apace. In 1886, Bell became senior partner in the firm which went through various combinations in his lifetime, but which still bears his name: Bell, Gully.
According to Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, he at all times “impressed his contemporaries with his powerful, indeed overmastering, personality; he usually ended up by holding the floor at any informal gathering. He could not suffer fools (or sometimes even opposition) gladly, and possessed fearsome powers of invective.”
With then prime minister William Massey’s health failing, he took on his biggest oratorical challenge when he assumed the role of prime minister on May 10, 1925, and officially took the position upon Massey’s death four days’ later. The two leaders had been very close. But he turned down a subsequent offer to remain in his friend’s position—at 74 he felt he was probably too old for the hurly burly of the premiership—opting instead to continue his work as attorney-general. He died in 1936.
Image header (above): Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell, 1914. Photograph by S P Andrew Ltd. Sir Francis Henry Dillon Bell. S P Andrew Ltd :Portrait negatives. Ref: 1/1-013506-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22303081