Beer history pubs

Q&A: Why the Obsession With Bell Pushes?

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.

If you’ve got a question you’d like us to try to answer email and we’ll do our best.

16 replies on “Q&A: Why the Obsession With Bell Pushes?”

I saw a functioning electric bell system – complete with a (rather old and doddery) white-coated waiter with a round metal tray – at the Victoria in Withington in 1983. As I remember it the pub was more or less open-plan with a central bar at the time, so there wasn’t any differentiation between ‘rooms’; maybe the buttons were only on certain parts of the panelling, but I wasn’t in beer historian mode at the time and didn’t check. The impression I got was that the management would have liked to do away with it, but they didn’t have the heart to sack old Stan.

Incidentally, ‘bellpush’ is one of those what did we use to call those? words for me – it sounds like an Americanism, but I can’t think what word it would have displaced. Did we just say ‘button’? Any old gits out there?

They were an entirely new concept in the 1880s, as far as we can tell: before then, if you wanted a bell to ring, you yanked a cord. So the word (guessing) probably developed on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time. Francis Yorke was British and he seemed happy with bell push in 1949.

You’d probably just say ‘button’ if you were sitting next to it, though: ‘Oi, Ada, press the button!’

Or ‘thingy’.

Or ‘wossname’.

I think they’re still operational and in-use in the lounge bar of the Peacock on Mansfield Road in Nottingham.

Yes, part of the fascination is that they represent something that was once commonplace in pubs but, within living memory, has pretty much entirely disappeared. I’ve never personally seen it in operation – it had gone from the Vic in Withington by the first time I went there, which was probably in 1986. It’s also still in operation at the Volunteer Canteen in north Liverpool.

There was also an expectation that you would give the waiter a tip, which further increased the cost of drinks compared with the vault.

In the Arden Arms in Stockport there are (or used to be) a couple of round tables with a bell-push in the centre that operated a manual bell underneath.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed a growing tendency for dining pubs to serve drinks at the table rather than expecting customers to go to the bar.

I think that the bell pushes in pubs were associated with waiters – and their waiter trays. This was a working combination in larger pubs particularly serving groups in various rooms, rather than folks trooping back to the bar to get their own pints.

They were common in large pubs in Bradford in the late 50’s early 60’s when I was there.

Many thanks for the time and care put into answering this question; I feel I’ve received a delightful little written gift.

I think what happens within the world of pub appreciation is that certain aspects, like bell pushes, have become significant in a way that seems self-evident to those in the know. With the result that a brief sentence summing up the historical importance of a certain pub may mention just three things: “A fine example of an early 20th century pub, with multiple rooms, fixed seating, and bell pushes.”

Another thing I’ve seen pointed out again and again is the retention of numbers on the doors: “The rear room with the figure ‘3’ on the door, etc”. I gather this also dates from the age of multiple rooms, and that in refurbishments these doors and their numbers were removed, making the remaining ones worthy of note?

In any case thanks again for the research you put into this, and for the writing itself. That last line really gets me: “It evokes the fingers that used to push them, the people they summoned, and their relationship to one another.” Powerful stuff!

Is it possible that in addition to class they represent another factor related to gender? In Ontario after the relaxation of the temperance rules (we never had true prohibition) no one wanted to go back to the saloon, the stand up rough male only drinking hole. I’ve seen a photo of a saloon with a urine gutter running at the foot of the bar. (Also used one in an old elementary school in 1970.) One concern was integrating safety for single women into the drinking scene. We had establishment with women only licenses, for example. Other places allowed men to be present with the consent of women. So could it be that the table service was respecting the desire to avoid the crush at the bar where the bumping and groping might offend?

Possibly although, in this context, class and gender are all wrapped up together in the broader notion of ‘respectability’.

Back in 1993, when I was living in Liverpool, I was with a group of friends in a pub on Smithdown Road. It could have been The Willowbank. We sat towards the back of the pub in a room that was characterised by booths around the walls. We’d been in before plenty of times and we’d noticed these bell pushes, but that particular evening we decided to press one to see if something rang. Nothing did, but we were very surprised when the barmaid appeared a few seconds later to take our order!

It was definitely the Willow Bank, where I used to drink in the late 70s and early 80s: press the button and you’d be served at your table. As you’d expect, it’s not like that now.

I remember waiter service in the Red Lion in Withington in the late 80s/early 90s. A chap in a white coat would go round the tables saying “Has anyone got a thirst?”

Waitress service by Nancy and her colleagues was a feature at the Park Hotel, Hope Street, Wigan, until its closure and demolition in 1989. Great pint of Draught Bass….

The Kensington in Liverpool in circa 1978 still had working bell-pushes: waitress services was a boon for large groups, because it got very crowded and the bars were some distance from many of the tables

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