In descriptions of old pubs there is often a focus on the retention of ‘bell pushes’. Why are these of such interest to pub fans? — Mark Crilley
This is a rather abstract question but we’ll do our best.
Push-button electric bell systems were fitted in stately homes from the 1880s onward (PDF), often battery powered; and they seem to have arrived in pubs from around the turn of the 20th century as mains electricity supplies rolled out across the country. In commentary (e.g. (The Urban and Suburban Public House in Inter-War England, 1918-1939, (PDF) by Dr Emily Cole for Historic England, 2015) they are often associated with the inter-war ‘improved pub’ movement which sought to head off temperance campaigns by making pubs cleaner, safer and more respectable.
By 1949, however, Francis W.B. Yorke’s otherwise painfully comprehensive book The Planning and Equipment of Public Houses, mentions electric bells only briefly: ‘Adequate bell service should be installed, and bell pushes well distributed in convenient positions around the public rooms…’ And, furthermore, like other books of this period whose writing and publication was hindered by the war, it really describes the pre-war situation: few pubs built after 1945 resembled the ideal specimens he describes.
So it is probably safe to say that their period of real popularity stretched from c.1900 up to World War II.
This gives us the first reason for the fascination they hold: the basic issue of their rarity. Like ‘snob screens’ and gas lamps, bell systems and their buttons — by no means universal to begin with — are just the kind of feature that got ripped out during refurbishments and so-called improvements in the mid- to late 20th century. Very few survive and those that do have therefore become notable, or even precious, by default.
But they also have value as reminders of the way pubs, and society, used to operate.
Nowadays, many pubs have one large room and everyone orders at the bar. There was once a time, however, when pubs had multiple rooms reflecting class distinctions in society. In the more refined rooms, where drinks cost more and people took their drink sitting down, you could expect to have your order brought to you by a member of bar staff or even, perhaps, by a white-coated waiter.
If you see a bell push in a pub, it probably means that the room you’re in was once something like (allowing for local dialect and custom) The Lounge, even if there is no longer any other sign of its once elevated status.
So, the bell push isn’t only an interesting architectural feature but also, in its own modest way, represents a vanished social structure — it evokes the fingers that used to push them, the people they summoned, and their relationship to one another.
Suggested further reading: ‘The Vanishing Faces of the Traditional English Pub‘ (PDF), Geoff Brandwood, 2006; Raising the Bar (PDF), Historic Scotland, 2009.
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