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 William Bell

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William Bell occupies a special position in the development of NER architecture, having spent his whole career with the company and served as Chief Architect for almost four decades: from  January 1877 to the end of 1914. During this time, the NER reverted to using a mildly updated version of the arched trainshed roof pioneered by John Dobson at Newcastle Central, and good examples of this are to be found at Darlington Bank Top Station (completed 1887), the remodelled Hull Station (1903-5) and the extensions of the early eighteen-nineties at Newcastle itself. Another formerly existed at Stockton Station (1891-3), with small editions at Gateshead and North Shields (both demolished) along with Alnwick, which happily survives.

Under Bell, the department also produced a handsome sequence of smaller station roofs. The earlier ones, such as Tynemouth Station (1882), display vigorously-detailed supporting ironwork combined with a lightness of touch in the actual roof structure. Later, the treatment became increasingly refined and simple, as seen to advantage at Whitley Bay Station (1911) and extensions to Bridlington (1912) and York (1890 & 1909). 

The most significant individual design is Darlington Bank Top Station, which embodies in an almost ideal form Thomas Elliot Harrison's views on station planning, implemented by Bell with verve and panache. Apart from numerous engine sheds and goods stations, other works include a variety of office buildings. Bell's earliest significant essay in this field appears to be the one built for the NER Accountant in 1883 at the west end of Newcastle Central; many others followed, the last one of note being the Locomotive Department Offices (1911) at Darlington.

William Bell is unique among NER Chief Architects in being a native of York and having spent his entire career in the NER office. He was born on 11 February 1844, the son of Joseph Bell, a tailor, and his wife Jane Hebden. His schooling ceased about the age of fourteen and he joined the NER Architect's Ofice under Thomas Prosser.

His training would have ceased by the age of 21, and he soon became involved in the supervision of works at the principal project on hand in the eighteen-sixties: Leeds New Station (1866-9). This period also brought his marriage, to Susannah, daughter of a Malton builder Henry Brown, on 1 September 1866


Bell's organisational qualities were soon recognised, and by 1874 he was the highest-paid member of the York office after William Brown, who ran the office as assistant to Benjamin Burleigh, then Chief Architect. William Peachey's reorganisation of the office, two years later, placed Bell on a par with Brown as one of three 'supervisors'; the other was Peachey's former chief assistant in private practice, Robert Liddle. With Peachey's enforced resignation on 5 January 1877, Bell was appointed to run the office although he was evidently on probation. He proved his worth, and was formally appointed Architect on 3 August, with a pay rise to £500 p.a., backdated to the start of the year. His first three years called for tact and managerial skill. First came dismissals of a number of the staff who had been recruited from the unfortunate Peachey's private office. Then a serious recession in the North-East iron trade led to economies, with the directors calling for staff reductions and wage cuts. There the attrition ended and the eighteen-eighties brought new investment, including major extensions to the company's workshops and substantial new stations at Thornaby, Darlington and Stockton.

In his first decade Bell had the valuable experience of working under and with the NER's formidable Engineer, T.E. Harrison. After Harrison's death in 1888, the NER let the post of Engineer in Chief lapse, allowing the three divisional engineers to rule their own fiefs. This accentuated Bell's unusual position: on a par with these three engineers in terms of the company hierarchy, though with much narrower responsibilities and a consequently smaller salary. Nonetheless, with full design responsibility for any individual building, including station trainsheds, and routine access to the directors, through his attendance at the Works Committee, Bell had a much stronger role than any counterparts on other railways. Another railway would typically use its engineering staff or outside consultants to design major roof structures, but Bell had a structural expert on his own staff to sort that out. Latterly this post was held by Robert Arthur Parkin, whose skill is to be seen in the refined NER platform roofs of the early twentieth century.

From 1879, the day-to-day running of the office was in the capable hands of Arthur Pollard, who succeeded Bell on his retirement at the end of 1914. For years Bell had taken his family on an August holiday to the coastal resort of Whitley Bay, near Newcastle. Eventually he bought a house on the promenade, naming it Knavesmire House, after the York racecourse, and retiring there. In a happy coincidence, one of his last major jobs was the provision of a handsome new station for Whitley Bay. Two of Bell's five sons had followed him into the office: Henry Brown Bell (born 1869) becoming a quantity surveyor and George William (born 1873) a clerk. At the end of May 1919, Bell made a will appointing them executors along with 'my friend Arthur Pollard'; he died four months later, on 5 October.






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© W. Fawcett, 2011