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

Q&A: What Became of Kitty Witches, Great Yarmouth?

‘I did a pub called Kitty Witches in Great Yarmouth with my mates on a few dinner time sessions back in June 1982. The pub was a small and single roomed with the bar facing. There were lots of witches hanging from the ceiling and they were also for sale. The pub was a Whitbread tied house and was in the middle of town. I would be very interested if you could let me know what happened to this pub.’ Alan Winfield

The building is still there, and still operating as a licensed premises, under the name Liberty’s Rock Cafe.

The extremely comprehensive Norfolk Public Houses website, referencing local licensing documents, suggests, however, that Alan’s memory of the date might be incorrect, as it was trading as The Lion & Lamb until 1987, when it looked something like this:

It then briefly became ‘Manhattans’ in around 1987-88, before being renamed Kitty Witches or Kittywitches from around 1989 to 1996.

It’s possible, we suppose, that it was decorated with witches and/or known as Kitty Witches, with reference to a local folk custom, before the name changed formally.

If you have any more information, or think we have the wrong end of the stick, leave a comment below.

Q&A: What Do We Know About The Falmouth Brewery Co?

This is the first in our new series of Notes & Queries posts. If you have a question you’d like us to try to answer email us at contact@boakandbailey.com

Do you have any information about Falmouth Brewery or Falmouth Brewing Company? I believe it closed some time around the early 1900s. — Neil McDonald

A quick look at Norman Barber’s definitive reference work A Century of British Brewers 1890-2012 (Brewery History Society, RRP £17.95) tells us that the proprietors of the Falmouth Brewery Co. were W & E.C. Carne, that it was acquired by the large West Country brewing firm of Devenish in 1921 and that brewing ceased in 1926.

Brothers William Carne and Edward Clifton Carne came from an important local family of merchants, bankers and mine speculators and William, like his father, served more than once as mayor of Falmouth.

Though there are earlier mentions of breweries in Falmouth, the first reference to a company by this name that we can find in the newspaper archives is from 1863 [1] when a beer shop selling its products stood opposite Carne’s general stores on Market Street. It was run by the elderly Mrs Ann Allen, born in around 1876 1776. Her sons, George and Robert Allen, were listed in an 1847 trade directory [2] as the only brewers in the town. Robert Allen suffered bankruptcy in 1851 [3] but continued trading as a brewer, without George (who had probably died) at least until 1878.

Meanwhile, the expansion of the Carne brothers’ business can be charted through the same sources: in 1847, they are general merchants; by 1856, wine and spirits have been added to their portfolio (along with guano…); by 1877, the Carnes were boasting in advertisements of being the ‘sole agent’ for the Falmouth Brewery Co’s ales [4] and in 1878 were listing ale and porter among their interests, though still not describing themselves as brewers. At some point, though, they had clearly taken in a stake in the business, or had otherwise come to be identified with it, as an 1868 article refers to it as ‘Carne’s Brewery’. [5] By 1883, the Allens were out of the picture altogether and the the rather grand advertisement at the top of this post appeared in Kelly’s Directory.

Now to the juicy stuff, and what we suspect Neil (a brewer by trade) will be most interested in: what did they brew? In 1889 [6] this was their line-up:

XXX MILD ALE 24s
XX MILD ALE 21s
P.A. LIGHT DINNER ALE 19s
X. MILD BEER 19s
P. PORTER 20s

More than a decade later, in 1902 [7], that had scarcely changed, though the stronger mild had apparently gone, replaced by another pale, bitter-type beer:

XXX. MILD ALE 21s
T.B. TONIC-BITTER ALE 23s
P.A. LIGHT DINNER ALE 19s
X. MILD BEER 17s
P. PORTER 19s

(Does T.B. strike anyone else as a particularly poor name for a beer…?)

There’s nothing distinctively Cornish about that range and it looks pretty much in line with what we know Hicks (St Austell), another Cornish brewery, was brewing in 1912. As to where any brewing logs from the Falmouth Brewing Co might be found, the Devenish archive at the Dorset History Centre is probably the best place to look. It certainly contains brewing logs, though whether any Carne recipes are included we can’t say.

The brewery itself, small but with a high chimney, stood a few doors down from the town hall, about where the Tesco loading bay is now. (There’s a photo of it c.1900 here.) It was demolished to be replaced by an art deco Odeon cinema, itself now gone.

Carne's Falmouth Bitter beer mat, 1980s.In the 1980s, Devenish revived the Carne’s brand name for a keg bitter and bottled ales with a fanciful founding date of 1756.

So, there you go — that’s what we’ve got for now. If we find out anything more on our trips to the archives, we’ll update this post. In the meantime, any experts on the history of Cornwall, or of beer, or both, who have more to add should feel free to chip in in the comments below.

SOURCES
1. Royal Cornwall Gazette, Friday 02 October 1863
2. Williams Commercial Directory of the Principal Market Towns in Cornwall, Liverpool.
3. North Devon Journal, Thursday 27 November 1851
4. Royal Cornwall Gazette26 January 1877
5. Royal Cornwall Gazette, Thursday 09 January 1868
6. West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, Thursday 19 December 1889
7. West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, Thursday 14 August 1902

Questions & Answers

Do you have a question about a particular pub, brewery or beer that you’d like answering? We’d like to help, if we can.

We’ve acquired a ton of mouldering old books, newspapers and magazines over the last few years, as well as developing ninja-level skills at online archive searching.

And we love a puzzle, like this one that caught our eye on Twitter last night:

(The same quotespam website also attributes it to William Faulkner but we found a version of the same statement relating to wine in a book from 1821.)

As it is we occasionally get questions out of the blue which we always enjoy trying to answer and, a while ago, asked for submissions through our email newsletter, which led to this post about pub snacks.

Now, we’d like to try making this a regular feature, so if you have a question email contact@boakandbailey.com and we’ll do our best.

NB. If your question is ‘What does AK stand for?‘ then, sorry, but we can’t help…