Family history

John Bell

Jacob Bell's family has been traced back to the middle of the seventeenth century. A John Bell married Elizabeth at Embleton near Cockermouth, Cumbria on April 2 1651. In the early eighteenth century, three of their grandchildren moved to London. One of these grandchildren, also called John, had a son called Jacob. This Jacob was the paternal grandfather of the Jacob Bell who is the subject of this exhibition.

According to Jacob junior, his grandfather had been a successful mastmaker at Wapping Wall in London's Docklands until the American War of Independence. He then became a hosier to avoid any involvement with the supply of materials for war, which was against his principles as a Quaker. However, on the senior Jacob's marriage certificate to Sarah Sheppard in September 1771, he was described as a 'hozier and citizen and Longbow Stringmaker.' On its fifth daughter’s birth certificate in 1785, he was described as a mastmaker. It therefore seems that he did profit from the prosperous shipbuilding industry that the American War brought about.

Both of Jacob Bell's parents came from long-established Quaker families. Jacob Bell's father, John, was born in 1774. John Bell was apprenticed to a chemist and druggist, Frederick Smith (1757-1823) who owned a business on 29 Haymarket, London. Frederick was a Quaker, who had been sacked from the Post Office when he refused to give evidence about a robbery because of his religious objection to capital punishment and to oath-taking. Smith took over his father-in-law's pharmacy business, even though he had no experience in the profession, and made a success of it. John Bell married Eliza (d.1839), Smith’s eldest daughter, in 1802. They had 8 children.

In 1798, aged only 23 and within a year of completing his apprenticeship, John opened his own business as a chemist and druggist at 338 Oxford Street. He had financial support from his father and his younger brother Jacob worked as his apprentice. Sadly, Jacob died of consumption in October 1805, aged only 22. However the shop was an immediate success. John took only two years to pay off the capital he had borrowed from his family, and he had soon taken on three apprentices, all from Quaker families. He seems to have run a very tight ship with strict roles and responsibilities for all involved in the business.

Rather than joining the Society of Apothecaries, he actively stood against them. In 1813, he became a member of the committee that secured exemption for chemists and druggists from control by the apothecaries under the 1815 Apothecaries Act. John went on to second the motion to establish the Pharmaceutical Society in 1841. He died in 1849.

Image above: John Bell was painted by HP Briggs in 1833. This engraving, taken from the portrait, was the frontispiece of The Pharmaceutical Journalfor 1848-9.