He was born to Thomas Gell and Millicent Sacheverell in Hopton Hall in Derbyshire His father owned a large estate in the Wirksworth area, largely based on extensive interest in the lead industry, which included possession of the lead tithes in the mines of Bakewell, Hope and Tideswell and smelting and mine owning in Wirksworth. His father died shortly before the birth of a second son in 1594 and his mother married John Curzon, of Kedleston Hall, soon afterwards. Millicent gave birth to a son, John, in 1598.Until his return to Hopton in 1620, Gell lived with his mother and stepfather at Kedleston. This proved significant to his later political career as he formed a close relationship with his half-brother, John Curzon, who became an influential Member of Parliament (MP). Gell was married in January 1609, at the age of 15, to Elizabeth Willoughby, daughter of Sir Percival Willoughby of Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire.
In 1624 Gell was appointed captain of foot in the trained bands, or militia, in the hundreds (administrative areas) of High Peak and Scarsdale. During a decade or more as a militia captain Gell learned how the military was organised in Derbyshire. He became familiar with the rank and file and their officers and with the minutiae of training and command. This knowledge and expertise was soon to be put to use.
Gell's next public appointment was shared with his brother, Thomas, who was a well-connected barrister in London. This was the office of Receiver and Supervisor of the Honour of Tutbury, granted in 1632 successively, for life, to Thomas, and to John and his son, John Gell the younger. The Honour of Tutbury was the name given to the Derbyshire and Staffordshire estates of the Duchy of Lancaster, a royal possession, and Thomas was responsible for collecting Duchy rents and dues, including fees payable whenever a Duchy tenancy was transferred by sale or inheritance. Armed with a schedule of property on which inheritance fees were outstanding, Thomas Gell ordered that defaulters' property should be seized in lieu of unpaid Duchy rents. At a time when the king, Charles I, was governing without a Parliament, and was desperately short of money, the Gells' revenue raising earned them Royal favour. John Gell was rewarded by appointment to the post of High Sheriff of Derbyshire for the year 1635.
Gell's year as High Sheriff was politically important because one of his duties was to raise the tax known as Ship Money,levied for the first time in 1635. Ship Money had previously been levied on coastal towns and its extension to inland areas caused resentment which contributed toward the gathering estrangement between Charles I and Parliament. In Derbyshire Gell set about raising the tax with a thoroughness which made him many personal enemies, especially among those of his own class, who paid the highest rates. Gell was ruthless in using "distraint" - confiscation of assets - against non-payers, and succeeded in raising more for the king than subsequent sheriffs. Gell's record of service to the crown was rewarded by the grant of a baronetcy in 1642, after payments made on his behalf by his brother Thomas, in London, which included "a warrant for a Baronett £300".
The honour may have been designed to secure Gell's loyalty to the Crown in the conflict with Parliament which by then seemed inevitable. However Gell, a Presbyterian, was opposed to the king's attempts to reform the church on High Church lines and to his political absolutism, and chose Parliament. He was commissioned as Colonel to raise a regiment in Derbyshire and throughout the First English Civil War, between 1642 and 1646, managed to maintain the county's allegiance to Parliament. Units of his regiment fought engagements in the neighbouring counties of Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire and took part in the siege of Chester. Among the more important engagements in which the Derbyshire troops were involved were the siege of Lichfield and the Battle of Hopton Heath, in which the royalists suffered the loss of the Earl of Northampton. Gell was appointed Governor of Derby in 1643.
Gell had an irascible nature and a dictatorial way with both his regiment and his colleagues in the county administration which made enemies and provoked complaints to Parliament. He also became disaffected with the Parliamentary commanders in the Northern and East Midlands regions and was out of sympathy with the political direction taken by the regime which emerged after the king's surrender in 1646, as he argued in a petition to the king at Charles II's restoration A further cause of disillusionment for Gell was Parliament's reluctance to compensate him for losses he incurred in fighting the war. In 1646 his regiment was disbanded and in 1648 he was relieved of all appointments He moved permanently to London, having previously transferred his estate to his son John, with whom he kept up a regular correspondence on politics, family matters and the running of the estate 
In London he made contact with the king, asking pardon for his part in the war and making a gift of £300. In 1650 he was tried and found guilty of misprision of treason, in other words of knowing of a royalist plot and not revealing it to the authorities. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of his estates. The authorities were thwarted in their attempt to confiscate the Hopton estate since John Gell the younger was able to prove its transfer to himself. Gell was imprisoned in the Tower of London but released in 1653 on grounds of ill health; he took no further part in politics during the Commonwealth period. He was pardoned by Charles II at the Restoration in 1660 and given an appointment at the royal court.
Gell's wife Elizabeth had died in 1644 and in December 1647 Gell had remarried. His second wife was Mary Stanhope, widow of one of his Derbyshire enemies, Sir John Stanhope of Elvaston. Gell had harried Stanhope for payment of Ship Money in events described by Mary in a petition to Parliament  This unlikely alliance lasted less than a year and the couple separated in late 1648. Mary died in 1653. Gell died in 1671 and his body was carried in procession back to Wirksworth where he was buried in the church there.
|This article relies on references to primary sources. (April 2011)|
(of Hopton, Derbyshire)
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