The Bell Family

By Alison Aldersea Dec 2007.

In many ways, the Bell family represent a typical Ulster family. They came to Belfast in the 1870s (or thereabouts) from Larne and married into the Fleming family from Antrim and Scotland. John Bell worked in the shipyard and his daughters earned their living in the linen mills that sprang up at this time around Belfast. The family have been living in the Shankill area from at least 1876 and while many members of the family continue to live there to the present day, other members make up the Diaspora in Co Cork, England, Australia, US and Canada.

On the 19th April 1886, John Bell married Agnes Fleming in St Anne's Church of Ireland Belfast. John was listed as a labourer and he lived in Sylvio Street. John Bell's parents were George Bell and Ellen Irvine. Agnes' father was William Fleming and her mother was Agnes Kane. Their first child was Ellen Irvine Bell-born in June 1886. My great grandmother Mary Fleming Bell was born the following year on the 10th July 1887. Seven more children followed:

  • William in 1889
  • Agnes in 1892
  • George in 1893
  • Margaret in 1897
  • Ruth Fleming in 1899
  • Elizabeth in 1901
  • John in 1904

The sons were named after the maternal grandfather, the paternal grandfather and the father- in that order. The oldest girl was named after her paternal grandmother, the second as yet unknown and the third after her mother and maternal grandmother. Their middle names Irvine and Fleming reflect the previous generation too and were a great help in finding the family. The names reflect traditional Irish naming patterns.

The family lived in various houses around the area, Boundary Street, Ambleside St and later Brookfield Place. The birth certificate of Ellen Irvine Bell lists their address as 116 Boundary St. Ellen was christened at St Stephen's Church of Ireland on the 30/6/1886. In 1887, they were at 106 Boundary St for the birth of Mary. In 1892 when the third daughter Agnes was born, they were living at 27 Boundary Street or maybe Agnes had been born at the home of her maternal grandparents, as this was the address of William Fleming.

William Fleming was an implement blacksmith. One of his daughter's birth certificate (Ruth b. 16/7/1876) had the family at 4 Letitia St Belfast in 1876. By 1880, The Belfast Directory shows them living at 49 Brown's Square. Then in the 1901 census he was at 27 Boundary with his wife and two of his daughters. William was 61 in 1901, he could read and write. His wife was Agnes Fleming (nee Kane) who was born in Scotland; she was 58 and could also read and write. Ruth Fleming was 24 and a Flax Reeler, Elizabeth Fleming was 17 and a Flax Winder. The family were Presbyterians. The 1907 and 1910 Directories show William Fleming still living at 27 Boundary Street.

The 1901 Census has the Bells living at 51 Ambleside Street. John Bell was 37. His occupation is listed as a holder up at shipyard. He was born in Antrim (Larne in 1864.) Agnes Bell was a housewife and had been born in Scotland. The only child not at home or school was Ellen who was a flax weaver at the linen mill (at age 14). They were Presbyterians.

The next official record of the Bells has them in the Belfast Directory of 1907 at 11&13 Brookfield Place. They then moved to 15 Brookfield by 1912 at the time of Mary Fleming Bell's marriage. The last official records I have of them are their signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912. The Covenant was signed on Ulster Day, Saturday the 28th September 1912. Agnes signed the Declaration at St Mary's Institute and John signed the Covenant at the City Hall. John would have signed with his work colleagues and boss.

Jonathon Bardon writes about this day in his book A History of Ulster. (p437-439) Black Staff Press:

At 2:30 p.m. a procession of bands from every Protestant quarter of the Belfast converged on the City Hall, each contingent halting at a prearranged position and continuing to play different loyalist airs. Bowler hatted stewards regulated the flow of men eager to sign. A double row of desks stretching right around the building made it possible for 550 men to sign simultaneously. Signatures were being affixed after 11pm.

After this date, family oral tradition takes over. Apparently, John Bell became a cabinetmaker and went to work in Canada around 1920. He must have made regular trips because it is said he came back and took the children one by one to Canada. No mention has ever been made of Ma Bell leaving Belfast though. William Bell certainly went to Canada where he was gassed shortly afterwards. John Bell (jnr) ended up in Canada too where his descendants still live. At some stage, he did a stint in the British Legion and was in Gibraltar at some point. Ruth Bell's descendants live in New Jersey. Agnes too went to Canada. Ellen or Nellie the oldest girl died young, possibly in childbirth. I am sure she stayed in Belfast.

As for those that stayed in Belfast, my great grandmother Mary Fleming Bell married Thomas John McKee in February 1912. The marriage took place at St Michael's. The marriage certificate seems to prove another family rumour. It was said that Thomas John McKee-'Oul Jack'- was married before yet he is described as bachelor (previously unmarried) on the certificate. A search of the records has found another marriage for him to an Agnes Boyd who also lived in Ambleside St (around the same time as The Bells.) Therefore, the bigamy rumour seems true. Jack was a very clever man by all accounts and worked as an engineer at Combe Barbour. In November 1912, when his only child with Mary (Mavis McKee) was born, he was working in Clydebank. Eventually Mavis McKee married Hugh Cunningham (whose family were from 162 Boundary St) and they moved to Enfield Dve off the Woodvale. In 1972 Mavis and Hugh, their son Hugh and his family moved to Australia to join their daughter Ivy and her family.

Margaret Bell married Arthur Cunningham (brother of Hugh above) and lived at various addresses around the Woodvale. Some of her family still live in Workman Ave. Elizabeth married John Russell and lived in Sydney St West for many years.

The oldest family names I have -George Bell, Ellen Irvine, Agnes Kane and William Fleming would have all born around the time of the famine. It all seems so long ago and I know so little about them, yet their genes live on in me, and my many cousins throughout the world. John and Agnes Bell have four great, great, great, grandchildren in Australia, living a life they would not have imagined. Their hopes and dreams live on throughout the world.