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From FHM issue 147

What's in a name? Bell

The name Bell has a very appealing history, taking us from the world’s most famous detective to America’s most infamous ghost; from an individual of inventive genius to a family of rogues, thieves and brigands. If that’s not enough, its story covers whisky and great literature too.

            The etymology of the name is uncertain in individual instances, although there are a number of possibilities. The first stems from the French word ‘belle’, describing an attractive person. It could also have been the son of someone named Bell (ie Isabel, Christabel) or someone who lived near a bell, whether on the sign of an inn or in reality. It could also have come from an ancestor who made or rang bells.

            The name evolved around the border between England and Scotland, and the highest proportion of them remain in that area even today. In 1881, the areas most densely populated by Bells were around Cumbria, Northumberland and Dumfries and Galloway, and in 1998 the focus of the name had changed but little – the Borders region is still where most Bells were found, although by this point they had spread both north and south. To emphasise this geographical stasis, the postal area with the highest rate of Bells per million people was the same in both years – Carlisle in Cumbria.

            It is in this region that one particularly interesting chapter in the Bell family history took place, at the time from the 13th to the 16th centuries when frequent wars between England and Scotland had led to the area becoming notoriously lawless, violent and dangerous. Chief among the lawbreakers were the Border Reivers – raiders who invaded the property of others, stealing livestock and whatever else they could.

            The Bells were not merely involved with these plunderers, they were among the worst – one of the ‘De’ils Dozen’, the 13 most powerful of all. They lived in the ‘Debatable Land’ in the west, uncontrolled by either Scotland or England, where families claimed allegiance to neither country but instead lived as clans, with their own laws. It was the most anarchic spot in this troubled area, and the Bells were among its most feared inhabitants.

Many from this region took part in the Plantation of Ulster, when James I encouraged protestants from Britain to colonise Northern Ireland, particularly Scottish Presbyterians and criminals who had been banished by him. This accounts for the fact that the name Bell is far more common in Northern Ireland than in the Republic, with the rate of occurrence per million being 4,139 and 47 respectively.

            Bell is the 48th most common surname in Great Britain. In England and Wales it is ranked 60th, while in Scotland it sits high at 34th. In the US it was, in 1990, the 58th most common surname. For those with an interest in American paranormal history, however, it is certainly among the top few best-known names, all because of the Bell Witch.

            Between 1817 and 1821, the Bell family of Tennessee are said to have been terrorised by a malevolent entity, which attacked the father, John, and his daughter Betsy. Numerous witnesses claim to have observed the events, which included singing and bible quoting by a disembodied voice. Andrew Jackson, future president of the United States, is said to have visited the house and, after one of his men was attacked by an invisible force, claimed: “I’d rather fight the entire British Army than deal with the Bell Witch.” Legend has it that John Bell was poisoned by the spirit that had tormented him, and guests at his funeral heard it laughing and singing as he was buried.        

            The most famous living man to carry the Bell name also found fame across the Atlantic after moving there from Scotland at the age of 23. Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) is known the world over as the inventor of one of the world’s most used and most useful devices – the telephone. Born and raised in Edinburgh, a member of a family steeped in the study of phonetics, Alexander moved first to Canada and then to the US, where he was awarded the patent for the invention in 1876.

Whether or not he actually invented the telephone is disputed, with others claiming to have made the breakthrough first, but there is no doubt that Bell is a towering figure in the world of science and invention. He even found time to throw together the world’s first metal detector in an attempt to find a bullet buried in the body of assassinated US president James Garfield. It failed – the president lay on an iron-framed bed.

            A more useful agent of detection connected to the Bell name is Sherlock Holmes, who might not have existed without the influence of one Dr Joseph Bell (1837–1911), a lecturer in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. It was there that Arthur Conan Doyle became his student in 1877, and it is believed that Bell’s methods of observation and diagnosis, his use of deduction and forensic science, provided the basis for the character of the Baker Street detective. Apparently Bell could deduce a stranger’s work simply by studying his movement and appearance – a trick Holmes often used to impress clients in the stories.

            Other well-known Bells include Ian (born 1982), one of England’s top cricketers; Gertrude (1868–1926), a writer, archaeologist and spy whose political work in the Middle East saw her described as a ‘female Lawrence of Arabia’; and Martin (born 1938), the war reporter turned former independent MP. Bell’s whisky, meanwhile, is the UK’s best-selling brand, and was started by Arthur Bell of Perth in the mid-19th century.

The Bell family also, temporarily, laid claim to some of the greatest novels in the English language. Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, wishing to avoid prejudice against female writers, adopted the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, and it was under these pseudonyms that Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall were first published.           

Anyone researching further may be interested in, which contains links to a number of relevant websites.

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