Robert Bell (Irish geologist)

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Robert Bell
Born29 December 1864
Ballycreen, County Down
Died12 April 1934(1934-04-12) (aged 69)
Known foramateur geologist and mineralogist
AwardsBelfast Naturalists' Field Club Commemoration Medal (1926)
Scientific career

Robert Bell (29 December 1864 – 12 April 1934) was a Northern Irish riveter with Harland and Wolff and amateur geologist, mineral and fossil collector.[1] He was described by Robert Lloyd Praeger as "the working-man naturalist."[2]

Early life[edit]

Robert Bell was born in Ballycreen, County Down in 1864. Sources conflict on his exact date of birth, the possibilities being 20 May, 22 May,[1] though most sources state 29 December.[3][4][5] He later moved to Belfast, becoming a hot riveter in Harland and Wolff's shipyards.[1]

Geological work[edit]

Despite the full-time work in the shipyards, as a teenager Bell would spend his spare time studying in the Belfast Museum. It was during this time that he developed an interest in geology, and began to collect specimens of minerals and fossils at the weekends. Bell discovered the skull of the fossil Ichthyosaurus communis in 1885, in lias clay in the mountains outside of Belfast. When he married Margaret Millar in 1896, he began to spend time at her parent's home in Randalstown, County Antrim.[1] In 1912, he was made a lifelong member of Mineralogical Society of London.[3][6] Over time Bell was recognised as an authority on local geology, aiding visiting scientists, led many field trips, and prepared and catalogued specimens. In particular his skill with a geology hammer was noted,[1] being referred to as "Knight of the Hammer".[7] He assisted Dr W.F. Hume of the Egyptian Geological Survey, and George William Lamplugh of the Geological Survey of Ireland.[4]

Bell was a member of the Belfast Naturalists' Field Club from 1893. He would display his specimens at the club's annual social evening, winning the award for best exhibit numerous times. Bell was awarded an Honorary Membership by the club in 1925, receiving the Club’s Commemoration Medal in 1926 for his scientific contributions. He also discovered a neolithic flint factory on Black Mountain, above Belfast in 1922. A portion of Bell's collection of zeolite minerals is now in the Ulster Museum, which includes many first records for Ireland. The Ashcroft Collection of Irish zeolite collection in the Natural History Museum, London is also based around Bell's specimens. However, Bell sold the majority of his specimens to dealers, collectors, universities and museums.[5][6] Two minerals which Bell collected were new to science and were named by Cecil Edgar Tilley scawtite and larnite in honour of County Antrim, where they were discovered. Bell was also an Honorary Member of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society,[2] and also had an interest in botany.[8]

Later life[edit]

Bell worked in the shipyards for forty years, and was laid off in 1924. By this point Bell had become deaf, and suffered from depression at first, but then dedicated himself to his scientific work. Owing to an application of a number of prominent Ulster intellectuals, Bell was awarded a civil-list pension in 1930. Bell's son James worked at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, was a fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, working in the fields of chemistry and medicine. Bell and his wife had four other children, including two daughters. He died on 12 April 1934 in Belfast.[1]

A blue plaque to Robert Bell was unveiled in Ballynahinch, near his birthplace of Ballycreen.[7]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Lunney, Linde (2009). "Bell, Robert". In McGuire, James; Quinn, James. Dictionary of Irish Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ a b Praeger, Robert Lloyd (1949). Some Irish Naturalists: A Biographical Notebook. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
  3. ^ a b Spencer, L.J. (June 1936). "Biographical notices of mineralogists recently deceased" (PDF). The Mineralogical Magazine and Journal of the Mineralogical Society. XXIV (153): 279. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
  4. ^ a b Welch, R.J. (1934). "Robert Bell. 1864-1934". The Irish Naturalists' Journal. 5 (3): 62–63.
  5. ^ a b Ulster History Circle. "Robert Bell (1864 - 1934): Geologist and shipyard worker". The Dictionary of Ulster Biography. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
  6. ^ a b Ulster Museum. "Robert Bell". Ulster Museum. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
  7. ^ a b "Recognition at last for top geologist". Down Recorder. Retrieved 17 June 2015.
  8. ^ Desmond, Ray (1994). Dictionary Of British And Irish Botantists And Horticulturalists Including plant collectors, flower painters and garden designers. London: Taylor and Francis. p. 63. ISBN 9780850668438.