Sir Thomas Bell KBE

Engineer, Passionate Clyde Ship Builder, Innovator and Business Man
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Thomas Bell was born on 21 December 1865 at Sirsawa in India. He was the son of Imrie Bell, a consultant engineer who was in India advising on lighthouse design and his wife, Jane Walker of Edinburgh.

Thomas was educated at the Gymnasium in Celle, Hanover, and then at King's College School, London, as his father travelled on a consulting basis. In 1880 he entered the Royal Naval Engineering College at Devonport, and graduated in 1886 as a fully qualified engineering officer. Thomas had intended to pursue a naval career, but unfortunately had to leave the service due to poor eyesight.

But his talent as an engineer was recognised by the private sector, and he moved to Scotland to commence work as a engineering designer, in the new engine works, with J & G Thomson, on the Clyde.

In 1895, Following stints in the engineering shop, drawing office, and estimating department, Bell was promoted to the position of assistant to the engineering director. The shipyard was then purchased in 1899 by John Brown of Sheffield, who recognising Bell’s obvious talents, appointed him Engineering Manager.

In 1900 Thomas Bell married Helen MacDonald, daughter of Malcolm MacDonald, a Scottish coal merchant; they had two daughters, one of whom died in childhood. His other daughter Margaret Edith (Madge) Bell was born in 1903. The Bell’s family home was Auchentoshan, Dalmuir.

In 1903, Bell was appointed as the local Director to the Board of John Brown. It was during this period that the steam turbine engine was beginning to feature in the propulsion of sea going vessels. Bell wanting to ensure that John Brown was at the forefront of this technological advancement, acquired a Parsons licence for the shipyard in 1903. By the following year the yard had erected a set of experimental engines which were then subsequently installed in the Clyde passenger ferry Atlanta. Turbines were then quickly installed in Cunard’s ‘Carmania’ in 1905, and in the prototype of the quadruple screw machinery of the Lusitania, launched in 1906.

In 1908 Bell acquired for Clydebank the UK licence to the American Curtis turbine, this being the beginning of the development of the Brown–Curtis turbine, especially suited to heavy duty naval service. The first Brown–Curtis turbines were fitted in the cruiser Bristol. In 1909, upon the retiring of John Gibb Dunlop, Thomas Bell was appointed Managing Director of the company.

In addition to his professional work Bell was interested in the public life and community life of Clydebank. He was an active member and benefactor of St Columba's Episcopal Church and together with his wife he founded the Clydebank Nursing Association, and in 1914 they established for it a residential home in which he and his wife took active interest.

Bell’s knowledge and experience was to be utilised by his country upon the outbreak of war. In 1917 he was appointed as Deputy Controller of Dockyards and War Ship Building. He was rewarded for his service when he was appointed KBE in 1918. Bell returned to Clydebank in 1919.

The period after the war, saw work in the Clyde shipyards dry up. Through skilful negotiation and foresight, Bell kept the yards afloat by winning Merchant shipping line business particularly with the likes of Cunard and the Canadian Pacific Railway.

In 1926, in the midst of keeping the Shipyard’s afloat, Bell was to suffer personal heartache, when his wife of 26 years passed away. For the next four years, Bell struggled to gain contracts and by 1930 all eight shipbuilding berths were vacant. The fortunes of the yard were however turned around later that year, when Bell negotiated the Cunard contract for the giant transatlantic liner - The Queen Mary, worth £4 million. But even this contract was to prove problematic. Cunard could not afford to pay for the vessel and work stopped for two years between 1932 and 1934. The liner was eventually launched on the 27th September 1934, following the Cunard-White Star merger and subsequent Government financial backing.

The previous year, 1933, Bell had commissioned the building of a family home in Helensburgh. The house was “Furzecroft”, 15 Lennox Drive East and it was designed by the architect Robert Whyte.

Six months after the launch of the Queen Mary, Thomas Bell was to retire from his position as Managing Director of John Brown & Co, eventually leaving the company in 1946 due to failing health.

Following a retirement of golf, gardening and community activity, Sir Thomas Bell died at his home in Helensburgh on 9th January 1952, and is buried within the Town. His personal estate was a modest £28,632, nearly £12,000 of which was held in stock of the company, John Brown & Co, he had served for sixty years.

Sir Thomas Bell was survived by his daughter Madge. Madge was to live for many years in Helensburgh and finally at Geilston House, Cardross, where she joined her friend of many years, the late Miss Elizabeth Hendry. She became heavily involved in the Girl Guiding movement, eventually becoming Glasgow District Commissioner. Madge passed away on August 25 1997 in her 94th year.