From Bell’s Yard to Brooklyn

Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, in 1866
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, in 1866

In the latest of his Morpathia features, ROGER HAWKINS looks at a transatlantic connection.

GEORGE Adam Bell was born at Morpeth in 1824, the son of William Bell, wine and spirit merchant, and Elizabeth his wife. They already had two daughters, Catherine, 13, and Isabella, five. Their house and shop were on Bridge Street, next door to Henry Brumell, the attorney.

William died in 1827, aged 51, and Elizabeth took the shop over and ran it for 13 years. Mrs Bell’s shop, separated from Brumell & Sample’s by a carriage arch called Bell’s Entry, was a local landmark and she herself an institution.

When a new Presbyterian minister, the Rev Matthew Brown, was ordained in January 1829, she gave a splendid entertainment for the leading members of the congregation, and in 1836, when Morpeth Town Council came into being, they held their meetings at her house for the next two years.

George left Morpeth in 1840, and we have this brief account of his business career:

A boy of 13 years, he went to work in his native place, but a few years afterwards he removed to Glasgow, Scotland. He came to New York in 1847 and entered the employ of Mr William Mead, with whom he remained as clerk and partner fifteen years. In 1864 he became President of the New Jersey Zinc Company, at that time the most important concern of the kind in this country. He afterward joined his sons in the insurance business under the firm name of George A Bell & Sons.

At first, he lived with his employer. Mr Mead was a merchant in New York City, but, like other wealthy businessmen, had his mansion on Brooklyn Heights, and crossed the East River to Manhattan by ferry to his place of business. From 1860 to 1863, George was an iron merchant specialising in railings. Manufacturing industry in the US was not then highly developed, and it is practically certain that he imported the railings from Scotland. He then managed the New Jersey Zinc Company for ten years until 1873, when his health gave way.

Turning to his private life, George returned to Glasgow in 1850. We do not know why. He was still a young man making his way, and cannot have been rich. His sisters were both dead by 1847, so it may have been for his mother, Elizabeth; but if so, it turned out quite otherwise.

Three years after his arrival in this country Mr Bell returned to Scotland and married Isabella E Blakey, the daughter of Dr Robert Blakey, a writer of many noted philosophical works, and Professor in Queen’s College, Belfast, Ireland.

The issue of the marriage was five sons and two daughters, the mother and four of the sons surviving.

There is a romantic mystery about the marriage of George Adam Bell and Isabella Elizabeth Blakey. When she was born, Isabella’s father was not an academic but a hatter and wholesale furrier with his shop and workshops on Bridge Street, next to the Black Bull. William Bell and Robert Blakey were both on the Mechanics’ Institute committee in 1825, the Blakeys were guests at the entertainment for the Rev Matthew Brown in 1829, and Mr Blakey was mayor of Morpeth during the time the council met at Mrs Bell’s.

The Blakey family left Morpeth in May 1840 – about the same time as George Adam – moving first to London. Mr Blakey retired from business in 1841, and for the next five years they lived in various places in France and Belgium. While there, he wrote a major work on the history of philosophy, a political history of Europe since Charlemagne, and a work on angling. They returned in 1846, but lived in or near London until 1849, when, following the publication of his History of the Philosophy of Mind, and with discreet support from Prince Albert, he was appointed Professor of Logic and Metaphysics in Queen’s College, Belfast. They left London, moving first to Alnwick and then, as a hopping-off point for Belfast, to Glasgow.

Isabella appears to have stayed on in Alnwick. If so, I wonder when and where she met her future husband? Were they childhood sweethearts who kept in touch for ten long years, or, as seems more likely, did they meet again in 1850, and marry after a whirlwind courtship? Either way, they were married in Glasgow in September 1850; they were both 25, Isabella being eleven weeks the younger of the two. They left for New York soon after and their first son, George Alfred, was born in 1851.

Isabella never saw her mother or younger brother, Robert, again, but her sister Mary visited her in Brooklyn in 1859. By 1870 she had five children: George (18), and Arthur (17), both clerks, Walter (13), Elmer (3), and baby Edith. Edith died young, but the boys all married and had children.

George Adam’s greatest success was as a Sunday School Superintendent. As far as business was concerned, he took life a little easier after his breakdown. In 1880 he and his sons began an insurance broking business, they no doubt doing the work while he devoted himself to Christian outreach. That Sunday schools should be major operations is simply incredible today. But then they served a vital need, and, with George Adam in charge, on the grand scale.

Three months after Mr Bell arrived in this country the Rev Henry Ward Beecher came to Brooklyn, and Mr Bell joined Plymouth Church at its first communion with him in November, 1847. For twenty-seven years he was one of the most active members of that church, and for many years held the offices of clerk and deacon.

As a Sunday-school worker and organiser he became widely known. In 1861 he was made Superintendent of the Plymouth Church Sunday school. Largely by his exertions it speedily increased in membership, and the Plymouth lecture room was in consequence rebuilt and considerably enlarged.

Mr Bell next took charge of the Bethel Mission Sunday school, (the oldest in Brooklyn, which had recently been adopted by Plymouth Church through his influence.) It speedily grew to such an extent that in 1868 a commodious building was erected in Hicks Street, near Fulton, for its permanent home.

In 1872 Mr Beecher and the officers of the church sent Mr Bell to take charge of what was then called the Navy Mission. It greatly thrived under his superintendence, its old building, in Jay Street, being completely altered, and the name of the organisation being changed to The Mayflower of Plymouth Church.

Although his sister Harriet is better remembered nowadays, Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most distinguished men of his time. He was a radical. He ‘sold’ slaves from the pulpit to raise money to buy their freedom, promoted women’s suffrage, opposed the liquor trade, and sent rifles (Beecher’s bibles!) to opponents of slavery in Kansas.

George arrived in Brooklyn in August 1847. Beecher arrived in October, and Bell joined as a full communicating member directly after, so he was well acquainted with the minister from the very beginning. After he had in effect founded the Mayflower Church, George’s health failed and he went to Europe. Presumably Isabella went with him, and presumably they visited Herefordshire to see her father, sister and step-mother and her brother George and his wife and family, but we do not know.

Having recovered, George took charge of Bethel of Plymouth again, and then of the Warren Street Mission: ‘The whole of this work was placed unreservedly in his hands. Before many months more room was needed, and a handsome chapel was erected at Henry and Degraw Streets.’

In 1880 he took on the home church’s Sunday School again, then started a Mission for the Poor in Ellery Street, resulting in the erection of a chapel in Marcy Avenue. He seems to have simultaneously taken charge of yet another Sunday school, the Bethesda Mission School in Fulton Street, where he spent 12 years, again resulting in the building of a new chapel.

He gave up Bethesda on health grounds in 1894, but took over the home church school again – being now over 70 – until 1897, when his health failed finally, and he died on October 20.

George Adam Bell was a member of the Plymouth Church for 50 years, and was quite phenomenally active. He raised $186,000 for Sunday schools, was a founder, treasurer and president of Brooklyn YMCA, and held similar positions in the Brooklyn Sunday School Union, the Brooklyn City Mission, the Brooklyn Poor Association, and the Howard Mission of New York.

His insurance broking company, George A Bell & Son, still exists and operates now from Pleasantville, NY.

You can locate many of the places where George worked by searching Google Earth. The quotations are from his obituary in the New York Times, October 21, 1897.

This and other information was found for me by Nancy Coleman, a professional family historian of Port Washington, NY.