Hector Hercules Bell – ringing in the new

H.H. Bell was the second Chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board (MMTB). Often under-rated in comparison to his successor, Major-General Sir Robert Risson, he provided conservative and steady management during the years from 1935 to 1949, when the Melbourne tramway system was strained to the limit by the demands of the Second World War.

He was born Hector Hercules Bell on 1 December 1876 at Richmond, Melbourne, seventh child of Frank Richborough Herbert Bell, railway guard (later inspector of railways), and his wife Emily, née Roberts. Bell received minimal formal education, running away from home at the age of 14 to become an itinerant rural worker. After three years of nomadic life, he returned home to Melbourne to become a blacksmith. He then started a contracting business, but initially achieved little success.

He married Emma Watson (d.1945) on 1 June 1895 in Melbourne, and the newly-weds moved to Perth, where for two years he worked as a subcontractor on the construction of the causeway bridge over the Swan River and other works.

The family returned to Richmond before the end of the century, where Bell worked in turn as a confectioner, wood merchant and contractor. In 1911 Bell was elected to the Richmond City Council, serving for 26 years as leader of the Labor faction on council and chairman of the public works committee. His competence and toughness were recognised by his appointment as Richmond’s representative to the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works, and in 1915 to the Hawthorn Tramways Trust, subsequently becoming deputy chairman of the latter body.

Bell’s increasing success in local politics was reflected by the flourishing of his contracting business. The Australian Labor Party machine was dominant in the Richmond city council, and he became associated with the right-wing faction aligned with John Wren, which was often linked with corrupt behaviour. The relationship became close enough that Bell partnered with Wren in real estate development on Melbourne’s western fringe. Association with this faction led Bell to being implicated in some electoral irregularities in Richmond municipal politics.

In 1919 he was appointed to the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board (M&MTB) by the Lawson Nationalist Party State Government, despite his Labor Party roots. The M&MTB took over all tramways in the Melbourne area during the period 1919-22, with the exception of those operated by Victorian Railways.

In July 1935 Bell was appointed deputy chairman of the M&MTB, succeeding to the Chairman’s role in December 1935, after the previous incumbent, Alexander Cameron, was unceremoniously removed from office. Cameron discovered his dismissal by reading about it in the newspaper. Bell’s annual salary as Chairman was £1750 – a sum that was to remain unchanged until he retired in 1949.

Bell recommenced the conversion of cable to electric trams, previously halted in 1930, completing the shutdown of the cable system in 1940, and resumed the construction of new electric routes. All-night tram services were introduced in 1936-7, being extended during the war to move shift workers around the city. He also angered the conservative elements of society by commencing Sunday morning tram services, violating the formerly sacrosanct church hour. Bell was interested in improving passenger comfort, achieved by introduction of the ‘luxury’ sliding door trams of the SW6 class in 1939, and investigated the latest PCC electric traction technology from America, obtaining the Australian licence for the M&MTB in 1938, and importing a set of equipment in 1949 for use under prototype tram 980.

M&MTB Chairman H.H. Bell wielding a hammer during inspection of new PCC St Louis B3 trucks for prototype tram 980 at Preston Workshops, 1949. M&MTB photograph. M&MTB Chairman H.H. Bell wielding a hammer during inspection of new PCC St Louis B3 trucks for prototype tram 980 at Preston Workshops, 1949.
M&MTB photograph.

Bell embarked on an overseas fact-finding tour in 1938, and returned impressed with the advances in diesel omnibus technology. As a result, the more lightly trafficked cable tram routes were converted to diesel bus operation. However, he made a major miscalculation by converting the last cable tram routes in Bourke Street to bus operation in 1940. The buses could not cope with the heavy loadings, and a decision was made in 1943 that these routes would be converted to electric tramways, however this would not take place for another twelve years. In the mean time, Bourke Street passengers suffered with an inadequate bus service.

He was a conservative financial manager, with both the 1890s depression and the Great Depression of the 1930s leaving their mark. Unlike Cameron, Bell did not make great use of borrowings to develop the Melbourne tramway system. Instead, government equity in the system steadily rose during his incumbency as Chairman, and annual surpluses were the norm. Under Bell’s leadership, the Melbourne tramway system achieved both its highest level of employee productivity and passenger patronage, as a result of wartime conditions. When he was faced with a surplus of obsolescent single truck tramcars in 1936-37 that still had ten or more years of life in them, Bell had the cars converted for use as all-night tramcars with single-man crews instead of writing off the assets and scrapping them. One of Bell’s final acts as chairman was to make a massive payment in 1949 to reduce the outstanding loan liability of the M&MTB.

With peace came declining patronage, shortages of labour and materials, and union militancy. Bell had always ‘talked tough’ with communists in the 1930s; in 1948 he accused Clarrie O’Shea, Victorian State secretary of the Australian Tramway and Motor Omnibus Employees’ Association, and his followers (whom Bell believed comprised only 25 per cent of the workers) of ‘always holding a pistol at our heads’. In retrospect, however, union officials were to remember Bell more fondly than his successor Major-General Sir Robert Risson.

Bell’s achievements as a Chairman were undermined by less than ethical behaviour. During his tenure, certain contractors were favoured to receive contracts over others, most notably regarding bus acquisitions, where he preferred Leyland over its competitor AEC, despite the technical superiority of the AEC product at comparable cost. He also had a large air-raid shelter constructed at public expense at his private residence, supposedly as a conference room for Board members. Finally, his son was appointed to a management position in the M&MTB for which he was not qualified, and Bell’s retirement was marred by non-too-subtle attempts to have his son promoted to a more senior position.

In 1950, after his retirement from the M&MTB, Bell was awarded the CBE for services to public transport. He died at his Hawthorn home on 12 November 1964 and was survived by his son and two daughters. He was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew.

Bibliography

Hawthorn Tramways Trust Annual Reports (1916-19)

Jones, R. (2008) Fares Please: An economic history of the Melbourne & Metropolitan Tramways Board, Friends of Hawthorn Tram Depot

M&MTB Annual Reports (1920-50)

McCalman, J. (1993) ‘Bell, Hector Hercules (1876 - 1964)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, Melbourne University Press

Thomson, K. (1979) ‘Cameron, Alexander (1864 - 1940)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, Melbourne University Press