Bell was born at Southbridge, New Zealand on 14 February 1870. He was the son of Allen and Mary, farmers in the area. He worked as a bushman and a farmer. In 1895, Bell travelled to southern Africa and served with the British armed forces that in 1896 suppressed a rising by the Matabele (Ndebele) people.
He then saw active service with the Rhodesia Regiment during the South African (Boer) War. Bell was discharged on 31 January 1900 and returned to Taranaki. On 29 January 1902 he married James Helen Shaw Lambie at Pihama. They bought land at Te Rapa, north of Hamilton. Their daughter Elaline was born there on 6 July 1904.
Bell was a member of the Waipa County Council and the Hamilton Borough Council. He was the founder of the Waikato Agricultural and Pastoral (A & P) Association and the first director of the Waikato Dairy Company in 1912.
As a conservative, Bell stood for the Waikato electorate at the 1908 general election for the opposition, but lost to the incumbent from the Liberal Party, Henry Greenslade. At the 1911 general election Bell stood as an unofficial Reform Party candidate in the newly formed Raglan electorate; the official Reform Party candidate was Richard Bollard. Bell came into conflict with the party's executive over liquor licensing issues, as "it was used not for the purpose of raising the status of politics, but in the interest of the liquor party." During the campaign Bell created controversy when he advocated the abolition of the monarchy, and the creation of a New Zealand republic. He also argued for the abolition of New Zealand's upper house and Britain's House of Lords. As a result of his comments, the Reform Party disendorsed Bell as their candidate. The armed forces considered that Bell had broken his Oath of Allegiance as an Officer (Lieutenant Colonel). Under pressure, he reluctantly resigned his commission in January 1912.
In 1911, Bell joined the New Zealand Command of the Legion of Frontiersmen and after his discharge from the army went on to devote much of his time and energy into the promoting and expanding the Legion. Bell was appointed as the Legion's Commandant for Auckland with the rank of Colonel. He retained and used this Legion of Frontiersmen rank for the rest of his life.