Family history in Fryer: the Bell Family papers

In this guest blog post Sue Bell shares her experience of researching her great-grandmother's letters in the Fryer Library's collection.

Records of women's lives in the 19th century are very sparse in comparison with those of men or at least 'important' men. Women were usually invisible with few or no signs that they had lived and even wives of 'important' men were only recorded when they were attending social occasions or accompanying their husbands to events.

So to have a collection of my great-grandmother's letters from the 1890s in the Bell Family Collection, Fryer Library has always seemed significant. The majority of letters cover a period of five years commencing at the beginning of 1892 and finishing at the end of 1896 (a few letters cover the years after this). They were written as Queensland's economic fortunes deteriorated during Australia's severe economic depression in the 1890s.

The Bell Family

These letters are in the Bell Family Papers, which my father, Francis Bell, donated to the Fryer Library in the 1980s. Late last year the papers of my father's sister Lyn Young (nee Bell) were also donated to this collection by her sons Don and Tony Young.

My great-grandmother was Margaret Bell, the wife of Sir Joshua Bell whose family owned Jimbour Station on the Darling Downs for about fifty years. The letters were written about ten years after Joshua's death, to her third son, Colin, who was working on Ayrshire Downs a property near Winton in western Queensland. The only mode of communication at that time was through letters and the occasional telegram, as Jimbour had a local post office which had telegraphic communication with Dalby. So there was no immediate communication, unlike now, which could reassure a mother that her son was well.

A sepia photograph of the Ayrshire Downs showing a landscape with four houses and scrub
Ayrshire Downs in the 1890s.
UQFL79, box 4, photograph 10.

The letters are difficult to decipher and many of the pages were misplaced, so the first job was to transcribe and sort them. While doing this, I have become increasingly interested in some of the events and personalities which are mentioned in the letters, so I have commenced researching newspapers and texts of the time to find out more about the people she writes about and to provide more context for the letters.

Margaret Bell

Margaret was a woman in her early to mid fifties at the time the letters were written. She had adult children and the letters reveal something of the relationship she had with all of them and, typical of all mothers, each of them worried her in different ways. The letters provide an insight into the family's deteriorating financial position and the various responses to this within her family. They also reveal something of the writer.

Black and white family photograph of four men and two women in period dress
Margaret Bell with her five children. Colin is third from the left.
UQFL79, Box 4, Photograph 22.

She was a devout person who believed in God and this religious faith comes through in her letters. She was also a very sociable and outgoing woman who previously had a wide circle of friends but, as you read the letters, it is clear her impoverished position made it increasingly difficult to mix with people unless they were long held friends. She stayed often for months at Jimbour without seeing anyone as there was no money for her or Maida (her daughter) to have the 'change' that she often writes about. You feel that Joshua's death and other tragedies in her life must have changed her from the confident and carefree woman she had been.

She was determined to sort out her family's financial difficulties. This must have been a very difficult thing to do as a woman at that time and in this endeavour she had little support from her sons. From the letters, it is unclear whether they thought the situation was irretrievable or whether they just did not want her to 'rock the boat'. This applied particularly to her eldest son, Joey, who entered Parliament as the member for Dalby during the 1890s.

Sometimes reading these letters, I feel as if I am trespassing on her privacy as she was a very private person. She would say 'entre nous' to her son Colin, which meant that this particular piece of news or information was private and not to be repeated. And she often provided him with various pieces of motherly advice, such as considering his behaviour with women, never touching 'stimulants' (alcohol) and not allowing himself to take on rough bush ways!

"With love from Margaret M Bell Dec 18th 13"
Margaret's last contact with her son Colin, Christmas 1913

I have really enjoyed getting to know my great-grandmother, albeit in a small way, through reading and transcribing these letters. I know more about her story now and I realise, even more than I did, how her life changed during her lifetime from one of comfort and privilege to one of insecurity and loneliness. However, considering her situation, she remained stoical and only shared her emotions on rare occasions with her son.

Last updated:
7 June 2021