Bell, Robert (1800–67), writer, was born 16 January 1800, youngest son of John or Robert or Thomas Bell of either Cork or Dublin, who was either a doctor or of independent means, and who may have died while Robert was at school. There are serious problems in identifying him. The young man held a civil-service position, but left to attend TCD. He is said to have founded the College Historical Society, and wrote plays – ‘Double disguises’ and ‘Comic lectures’ – performed in Dublin. After leaving TCD he became editor of the Patriot, a paper supporting the lord lieutenant, Richard, 1st Marquis Wellesley (qv), and catholic emancipation. Early in 1828 Bell took over the editorship of the liberal Sunday paper, the Atlas. A few months later he was indicted for libelling the lord chancellor of England, Lord Lyndhurst. Though the case would have been dropped if he had revealed his sources, Bell refused to compromise his editorial principles, and eventually escaped reprisal. He became a prominent radical journalist, and his friends, including Leigh Hunt, William Hazlitt, and W. M. Thackeray, met regularly at his Chiswick house. His friend Dionysius Lardner (qv) founded the Cabinet cyclopædia in 1830; for this Bell wrote a three-volume history of Russia (1838) and a two-volume Lives of the poets (1839). From 1838 he was associated with Lardner in the important but short-lived Monthly Chronicle, as editor from 1839 until it collapsed in 1841, leaving Bell responsible for some of its debts. Bell wrote three comedies (acted at the Haymarket Theatre in 1842, 1843, and 1847), and in 1846 published a successful Life of Canning. His travel book Wayside pictures through France, Belgium and Holland (1849) was also popular, but his work seldom made much money; his novel The ladder of gold (1849) was no exception, although favourably reviewed by contemporary and twentieth-century critics and reissued in 1856. Robert Bell's familiarity with the financial pressures affecting his profession explains his commitment over many years to institutions such as the Royal Literary Fund; he was active on its committee, and helped many struggling authors to obtain grants and pensions. Hearts and altars (1852), an annotated edition of English poets in twenty-four volumes (1854–7), and other works appeared until his death in 1867; he was also editor of Home News. He never, however, achieved financial security, despite his experience, literary skill, popularity, and assiduity. He is only remembered today as Thackeray's friend and as the author of an article on spiritualism, ‘Stranger than fiction’, in the Cornhill Magazine (August 1860), which caused considerable interest. He died 12 April 1867 in London, leaving a widow who unsuccessfully sought a government pension, despite backing from Anthony Trollope (qv), Charles Dickens, and Wilkie Collins.
Athenæum, 20 Apr. 1867, 521; Boase; Allibone supplement; O'Donoghue, Poets; DNB; Alvin Sullivan (ed.), British literary magazines: the Victorian and Edwardian age 1837–1913 (1984); Nigel Cross, The common writer: life in nineteenth-century Grub Street (1985), 1, 62, 117–25; Janet Oppenheim, The other world: spiritualism and psychical research in England 1850–1914 (1985), 48; Loeber, BIF