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The Presbyterian Cemetery

Robert W. Bell: a Tale of Resilience, Community Engagement, and Entrepreneurship in 19th Century Alexandria

Introduction

The story of Robert W. Bell intertwines the threads of community involvement and entrepreneurial spirit in the 19th century. Born in 1809, Bell’s journey took him from the Isle of Ely, England, to the bustling town of Alexandria in 1832. Throughout his life, he left an indelible mark as a member of the Meeting House, an active participant in various church affairs, and a key figure in Alexandria’s book trade scene. Let’s delve deeper into the life and achievements of Robert W. Bell.

Emigration and Early Years in Alexandria

In 1832, Robert Bell boldly decided to leave his homeland in the Isle of Ely, England and set his sights on Alexandria. This pivotal move began a remarkable journey that would see him become an integral part of the local community. Shortly after his arrival, he joined the Meeting House as a member by examination, demonstrating his commitment to his faith and the community he now called home.

Church and Community Engagement

Bell’s presence in church affairs was felt strongly, and he wasn’t merely a passive participant. He became a Sunday School teacher in 1861, contributing to the spiritual and educational growth of the congregation’s younger members. His dedication extended beyond the church walls, as he was elected as an Elder of the Meeting House in 1844, a position he held until his passing in 1885. This long service period reflected his deep commitment to the church’s mission and values.

Commemorating Robert Bell: A plaque bearing his name graces the southern wall of the Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, Virginia.

A Man of Many Roles

Bell’s impact extended beyond his church duties. He was a devoted member of the Meeting House and a man of action within the broader Alexandria community. Serving on the Board of Guardians of the Free School from 1865, he shaped educational opportunities for local youth. His dedication to education was further evident in his involvement with the Alexandria Widow’s Home and Orphan Asylum for Boys in 1854, reflecting his concern for the welfare of those less fortunate.

Entrepreneurial Ventures

Bell’s entrepreneurial spirit shone through in various aspects of his life. In 1837, he established the Bell bookselling, stationery, and printing business, which would continue to thrive for over a century, cementing his place as a local businessman. Initially located on King Street, his shop played a pivotal role in Alexandria’s literary scene, offering books, stationery, and printed materials.

Print and Publication

Bell’s contributions extended beyond retail. He played a crucial role in the dissemination of knowledge and culture. As a bookseller, printer, and stationer, his shop on King Street was known for its assortment of books and printed materials. Bell also ventured into publishing, directly or as a distributor, for works such as T. T. Castleman’s “Plain Sermons for Servants” and Randolph H. McKim’s “Washington’s Church.” His involvement in the literary world showcased his commitment to promoting knowledge and ideas within the community.

Robert Bell’s business card

Challenges and Civic Service

Bell’s life wasn’t without its challenges. The Civil War brought a turbulent period to Alexandria, and Bell found himself arrested for receiving contraband goods intended for Confederate use. Despite these challenges, his dedication to civic service remained unwavering. He served as a City of Alexandria Alderman, demonstrating his commitment to the betterment of the city and its residents.

Erected in 1815 after the U.S. Capitol was destroyed, the Old Capitol functioned as a Civil War prison, detaining numerous Alexandrians. Redish, W. (between 1861 and 1865). The Old Capitol Prison, Washington, D.C. [Photograph]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2013651882/

Legacy and Resting Place

Robert W. Bell’s legacy lives on through his contributions to the Meeting House, impact on the local educational landscape, and entrepreneurial pursuits. He was a close friend of Lewis McKenzie, a relationship that underscored his importance within the community. Bell’s final resting place is in the Presbyterian Cemetery, a fitting location for a man who dedicated his life to faith, community, and progress.

ROBERT BELL
born in the
Isle of Ely, England
1809 – 1885
Called and chosen
and faithful
MARY GREENHALGH
wife of ROBERT BELL
born in Lancashire
1816 – 1891
ELIZABETH BLINKHORN
BELL
aged 90 years
43:122, obelisk

Conclusion

Robert W. Bell’s journey from the Isle of Ely to Alexandria tells a tale of resilience, community engagement, and entrepreneurship. His involvement in the Meeting House, dedication to education, and contributions to the literary world all demonstrate the multifaceted nature of his impact. As we look back on his life, we remember Robert W. Bell as a man whose legacy inspires us to invest in our communities, pursue our passions, and leave a positive mark on the world.

Sources of Information

Pippenger, W. E. (1992). Tombstone Inscriptions of Alexandria, Virginia: Volume 1. Family Line Publications, Westminster, MD, and Heritage Books, Inc., Bowie, MD.

Powell, M. G. (2000). Index by Pippenger, W. E. The History of Old Alexandria, VA, from July 13, 1749 – May 24, 1861. Willow Bend Books.

Dahmann, D. C. (2002). The Roster of Historic Congregational Members of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House (Unpublished manuscript).

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By David

Hello. With a passion for bringing history to life, I serve my community as a public historian and cemetery superintendent. My journey has led me to own businesses, conduct Civil War battlefield tours and research Alexandria’s cemeteries.

Since 2015, I have had the privilege of serving as Superintendent of the historic Presbyterian Cemetery and Columbarium, located within Alexandria's Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex. The Presbyterian Cemetery has close ties to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, situated one mile east, where my family has worshipped for two generations. My parents are laid to rest in this cemetery, which holds a special place in my heart.

Most weekends, you can find me leading tours of the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex, where thirteen cemeteries are located, with over 35,000 buried. Considered one of the most historic cluster of cemeteries in the United States, I weave my enthusiasm for teaching with the stories of those interred there. I also manage a blog focused on all the cemeteries in Alexandria where the many souls buried across the city are memorialized.

In addition, I'm an active Board Member of both the Alexandria Historical Society and Lee-Fendall House Museum. As part of the Northern Virginia Cemetery Consortium, I diligently preserve endangered burial sites throughout the region.

If Alexandria’s history captivates you, I invite you to join one of my cemetery tours, read my blog on memorializing souls buried across the city’s cemeteries, or connect with me on social media. I find joy and purpose in bringing Alexandria’s rich past to life and serving my community.

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