Shag Valley station in eastern Otago is an unlikely setting for a sister and brother to become world radio pioneers. Margaret Brenda Bell was born there on 18 October 1891; Francis Wirgman Dillon Bell was born in Dunedin on 12 June 1896. They were the only children of runholder Alfred Dillon Bell and his wife, Gertrude Eliza Robinson.
Alfred Bell was more interested in science than sheep. He set up what was probably the first telephone connection in New Zealand, between two farmhouses, and experimented with the new-fangled wireless communication. The two children took up their father’s interest. Frank in particular spent long periods listening to radio signals on a home-made crystal set.
The First World War saw the sister and brother heading for Europe. Brenda served as a military hospital cook in England and acted as a hostess at the New Zealand High Commission in London. Frank served as a gunner in France and Belgium until he was invalided home in 1917. The returned soldier’s boyhood interest in wireless was revived while he recovered at home from his war wounds. Along with a handful of fellow New Zealand amateurs, he helped pioneer the use of short radio waves to communicate over long distances, initially through morse code telegraphy.
He achieved spectacular success. In April 1923 he made New Zealand’s first overseas two-way radio contact, with a fellow amateur in Australia. In September 1924 he made New Zealand’s first contact with North America. The following month, on 18 October, he and a student in London held the first-ever two-way radio conversation from one side of the world to the other. It was a feat that every radio operator had been striving to achieve, and made world headlines. Frank Bell’s international status was such that, in his absence, he was elected to the five-member executive committee of the International Amateur Radio Union at its formation in Paris in 1925.
A self-effacing and publicity-shy Frank Bell soon lost interest in radio and took over the running of the family sheep station. His gregarious sister took over the wireless station. She was New Zealand’s first female amateur radio operator, and one of the first in the world. In 1927 she also became the first New Zealander to contact South Africa.
Brenda Bell was involved with many voluntary clubs and societies. In 1931 she joined the Country Women’s Institute (CWI); she became a member of the Dominion executive. In 1939 she led a 70-member CWI group to London to attend a world conference of country women’s organisations. She stayed on to again serve as a military hospital cook and nurse in England, during the Second World War. Back home, she returned to radio, this time as a writer and broadcaster of popular talks on Dunedin station 4YA.
During the 1950s Brenda Bell attended two further world conferences of country women’s organisations, in Toronto and Edinburgh, and lectured and broadcast on New Zealand throughout Europe and Australia. She also turned to the traditional family pursuit of politics, in which her grandfather, Francis Dillon Bell, and uncle, Francis Henry Dillon Bell, had been prominent. In 1960 Brenda Bell stood unsuccessfully for the New Zealand National Party against sitting member Ethel McMillan in the safe Labour seat of Dunedin North. Undeterred, she later failed to gain the National Party nomination for Waitaki.
Brenda Bell never married. Her brother married twice. On 3 February 1926 Frank wed Leslie Frances Crawford Laidlaw at St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Dunedin. Leslie Bell died in 1946, leaving Frank with two sons and a daughter. On 22 February 1955, the 58-year-old widower married Patricia Stronach at St Columba’s Anglican Church in Wanaka. She died at Shag Valley station in 1962.
Brenda and Frank Bell spent most of their lives on the family farm. Brenda died in The Chalet private hospital in Dunedin on 10 August 1979, shortly after being presented with the Queen’s Service Medal. She was 87. Her brother spent the last four years of his life in a retirement home in Auckland and died in the Argyle Hospital in Herne Bay on 18 August 1987. He was 91. Both had made a significant contribution towards the development of radio as a means of international communication.
Reproduced, with permission, from Ian Dougherty. ‘Bell, Francis Wirgman Dillon and Bell, Margaret Brenda’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 29-Aug-2013