Q&A: Why the Obsession With Bell Pushes?

Bell Push illustration: 'Press'.

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 contact@boakandbailey.com and we’ll do our best.

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

  1. 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?

    1. 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’.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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?

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

  7. 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!

    1. 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.

  8. 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?”

  9. 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.…

  10. 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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