Recognition at last for top geologist

Recognition at last for top geologist

A BLUE plaque is to be unveiled for a Ballynahinch man who became one of Northern Ireland’s more celebrated geologists.

Robert Bell, whose day job was a shipyard riveter, was born in Ballycreen, near Ballynahinch on December 29, 1864, to working class parents, who later moved to Belfast.

He was a riveter at the Harland and Wolff shipyard for 40 years and worked on the building of the Oceanic. On the day of a launch, the riveters were given the day off, but Bell seldom attended these events, preferring instead to go off collecting fossils and minerals.

He first discovered rocks and fossils on childhood walks with his mother, taking his finds to the Belfast Museum for identification.

In 1922, Bell noticed flint fragments on the eastern slope of Black Mountain in Belfast. It turned out that these were discarded chippings from the making of flint implements by early man and he had discovered a prehistoric ‘flint factory’. 

He would go on to specialise in collecting zeolite minerals from the Ulster basalts, which he sold to collectors and dealers, universities and museums. The famous Ashcroft Collection of Irish zeolites in the Natural History Museum, London, is formed mainly from his specimens. For his knowledge of zeolites, Bell was made a Life Member of the Mineralogical Society of London in 1912.

The Ulster Museum has just over 100 Robert Bell specimens, which were acquired piecemeal over many years.

Bell joined the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club in 1893 and became a prominent member of the club’s Geological Section. He won the club’s prize for the best exhibition on several occasions. In 1925, the club made Robert Bell an Honorary Member and in the following year it bestowed on him the Club’s Commemoration Medal, awarded for important scientific work in Ireland.

Like all shipyard workers, Bell had no pension and when laid off at the age of 60 was without a regular income. In 1930, 30 of Northern Ireland’s leading figures in the academic world, including five professors of Queen’s University, presented a petition to the Northern Ireland Minister of Finance, requesting that he grant a civil pension to Robert Bell in recognition of his services to science. The Minister agreed and awarded Bell “a Civil Pension at the rate of £75 per annum in recognition of your services to Geological Science.”

Robert Bell died at home in north Belfast after a short illness on April 12, 1934.

The Blue Plaque is being funded by the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, Belfast Geologists’ Society, Earth Sciences Ireland and the Mineralogical Society. It will be unveiled on Friday at 25 Charleville Street, Belfast.

Chris Spurr, chairman of the Ulster History Circle, said: “Robert Bell made a significant and lasting contribution to geological science, discovering and collecting specimens, while following his trade in the shipyard.

“His skill as a riveter informed his geological work, and he became renowned for his expertise as a ‘Knight of the Hammer’.


“The Ulster History Circle is delighted that this blue plaque will permanently commemorate Robert Bell’s achievements, and as this month marks the 80th anniversary of Robert Bell’s death in 1934, it is especially appropriate to remember him now. The Circle would particularly like to thank the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, Belfast Geologists’ Society, Earth Sciences Ireland and the Mineralogical Society for the support they have given towards the plaque.”