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October 27, 2004

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John Bell

Title-page from John Bell's collection of songsheets (now held at Newcastle University).

It is to John Bell in particular that we owe much of the wealth of collected song material available in the North East. A voracious collector of all things and books in particular, Bell amassed a huge collection of broadsheets, chap books and notated songs throughout his life.

John Bell was born in Newcastle in 1783 to a book seller and surveyor, also named John Bell. Following in his father’s footsteps the young John Bell set up in business as a bookseller, where he was able to indulge his love of collecting. In 1812 Bell published his most well known song collection, The Rhymes of the Northern Bards, which remains one of the most comprehensive sources of local song to this day. Soon after this the collector proposed the formation of a society for the preservation of local antiquities. After gaining the backing of the Duke of Northumberland the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries was eventually formed, although sadly Bell would never be given the recognition or status within the Society he rightly deserved.

Throughout this period Bell carried on amassing collections of local song, until tragically in 1815 he was declared bankrupt and forced to sell much of his collection of books and artifacts. Nevertheless, with a handy sideline in land-surveying, John Bell continued his collecting of local song and by the 1830s had acquired a reputation as a distinguished antiquarian and collector. Unfortunately in 1856 Bell fell into financial difficulties once again, forcing him to sell a number of items to book collector Robert White. Luckily however, many of the volumes were eventually donated to Newcastle University Special Collections where they are now housed. John Bell maintained his love of books throughout his life and died on the 31st October, 1864, aged 81.




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