George Bell was born at Hull, Yorkshire, England, on 9 January 1809, the son of John Bell, a customs landing waiter, and his wife, Hannah Armitage. Until the age of eight George was educated at home by his mother, and was then sent to a private school, taking Latin, French and rudimentary mathematics. At 14 he was apprenticed to a mercantile firm trading with Canada and the Baltic; after completing his articles he became accountant and salesman at the York office of the same firm. He later returned to Hull to work for a firm of sugar refiners, became a traveller for the company, and by the 1840s was managing a manufacturing business in Sheffield.
On 13 June 1836, at York, George Bell married Abigail Taylor, Quaker daughter of a North Riding farmer. He actively supported the Anti-Corn-Law League founded in 1838–39 by John Bright and Richard Cobden, both of whom he knew personally, and was said to have written a pamphlet on currency reform. He was deeply involved in Sunday school administration. On his departure from England he was presented with a handsome silver inkstand as a testimonial to his work in that field.
In 1852 George and Abigail Bell, their six daughters and one son emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where Bell became shorthand writer to the state parliament; during recesses he covered court hearings. He later helped to establish Hansard coverage in Adelaide. In October 1863, when visiting Dunedin, New Zealand, with the Congregational minister Richard Connebee, he was engaged by Julius Vogel to join Ebenezer Fox and Thomas Bright on the staff of the Otago Daily Times. Bell's wife and four of his daughters joined him in February 1865.
When Bright left, Bell sub-edited the Times and edited the Otago Witness, and with Vogel away for long periods carried a heavy work-load. Between 10 February 1866 and 31 December 1867, besides his other work, he wrote 357 leading articles. Vogel had sold his financial interest, remaining as editor; but John Bathgate, the new manager, found the finances so bad that in April 1868 he dismissed Vogel and the whole editorial staff. In revenge Vogel founded the rival New Zealand Sun on 16 November 1868, assisted by Fox and backed by William Henningham of the Evening Star. Bell, meanwhile, began his own modest Evening Independent in January 1869. When the Sun collapsed in March 1869 and Henningham's creditors put the Star on offer, Bell bought it for £675 with the assistance of promissory notes and merged the two papers, keeping the Evening Star name; like the Independent, the new publication would 'advocate what is just and true, binding itself to no party'.
At an age when most people are content to retire, Bell thus began his life's main work – inauspiciously, for he was immediately forced to move the Star plant to new premises. He published the first joint issue on 14 June 1869 with extreme difficulty, bluntly apologising for the 'lame manner in which the first number of the enlarged journal was brought out, and the late hour at which it was issued'. The Star soon made progress, although a 16-page weekly, the Observer, also published by Bell, lapsed after three issues.
With the promissory notes settled, Bell launched the Morning Star on 2 December 1872, aiming at a country readership. He simply took the Evening Star each night, retained the advertisements, included later news, and replaced the masthead: costs were minimal and advertisers were given additional circulation. This venture, perhaps New Zealand's first penny morning paper, ran until July 1873. Bell then sold the name and rights to the new Guardian (soon to be the Otago Guardian ), which took over on 23 July 1873.
Bell now devoted himself solely to the Evening Star. Its coverage, mainly confined to Dunedin, lacked the scope of the Otago Daily Times. It was essentially middle-brow, owned by a man who took no part in public life, and it lacked writers of national reputation. But by focusing his energies, Bell became one of New Zealand's first full-time city newspaper proprietors. He covered local events so competently that the Star quickly dominated its rivals, challenging the Times in city sales. The issue of 8 September 1879, covering a spectacular fire, sold 8,300 copies, then considered 'the largest number ever sent out by a daily paper in this Colony.' Working conditions were good, technology up to date and staff relationships excellent.
Photographs show Bell as a man of alert appearance and upright bearing, balding, with a high-domed forehead and white mutton-chop whiskers. The vigorous editorials which he wrote well into his 70s were of a kind with his character: not stylish in manner, but forceful and sensible, always ready to attack hypocrisy, incompetence or self-interest. In June 1873 he published (and pointedly commented on) a document which reflected badly on the Dunedin lawyer James Macassey, and in a famous £10,000 libel case the jury found in favour of Bell. He won a similar case over sharp editorial remarks about Catholic clergy.
Bell was active in several charitable and private organisations. After leaving the Congregationalists he joined the Anglican communion, becoming treasurer of All Saints' Church parochial guild and a churchwarden. He joined an Oddfellows lodge, presided over the New Zealand Institute of Journalists and was a fine violinist. He was active in the Press Club, and was gazetted as a justice of the peace in 1881. He was described as 'high-souled', 'a benevolent patriarch' and a man of considerable candour. He retained into his 80s sole control of the newspaper he had created, and finally passed the business to his family on 1 January 1895, Mark Cohen succeeding him as editor. Bell died at Dunedin on 4 February 1899, aged 90; Abigail Bell had died in 1892.
George Bell was an important figure in the newspaper world of his day and created something of a dynasty: his son, George, was temporary managing director of the Evening Star from 1902 to 1904, and the families of his daughters, Louisa Clapperton and Hannah Smith, also held positions on the paper for many years. The paper ultimately became vested in the Smith family, which took over the Otago Daily Times and in 1975 created the Allied Press – in the late twentieth century one of New Zealand's rare surviving independent family newspaper companies. The Evening Star ceased publication in 1979.