What happened to Westminster’s famous pub division bell?on February 18, 2024 at 2:22 am

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The chimes that tell MPs in pubs it is time to vote seem to be dying out.

Division Bell at The Albert pub

The clanging of the division bell used to be a familiar sound in the pubs and restaurants of Westminster.

The noise would alert MPs that it was time to put down their knives, forks, pints, or shot glasses and head to the House of Commons to vote.

It still sounds in parliamentary and governmental buildings but it seems the bell – which has annoyed regulars and baffled tourists in Westminster’s watering holes for so long – is becoming a thing of the past.

Once upon a time around 20 non-governmental buildings had a division bell installed.

Locations included the Red Lion pub opposite Downing Street, the Westminster Arms and the Institute of Civil Engineers, all within easy walking – or staggering – distance of the House of Commons.

But now barely a handful still have working bells.

A number of restaurants which used to have the bell have since closed for good.

The bell in the Marquis of Granby, once a favourite spot for Conservatives, portentously stopped ringing just before the pandemic shut pubs across the country – and hasn’t started back up since.

In another pub, they were not sure why their bell was broken or when it would be fixed, only that it hadn’t been working for years.

“Just like our politicians,” added one member of staff.

Messages on phones

Pub manager at the Marquis of Granby Jo does want to get it back up and running. “I like having it, it is unique to this area, unique to Westminster, but trying to get it fixed is a nightmare.”

The division bell hasn’t been working at the Red Lion for around six or seven years. A spokesperson for Fuller’s, which owns the pub, said: “These days, they [MPs} all get a message on their phones so our division bell is somewhat redundant. It’s a shame when these traditions fade away – but the legends live on.”

The bells may also have been hit by the transition as traditional copper-wire landlines are replaced by internet-based connections.

BT, which provides the lines for bells outside of Parliament, said: “Ahead of a line closure, we provide our customers with plenty of advance warning to ensure a seamless transition, but we are reliant on business customers advising us on the non-voice products and services they have connected.”

It is not clear when the bells were first introduced, but in his History of Parliament blog, Paul Seaward cites an 1854 article in the Illustrated London News describing the “simultaneous ringing of sharp and peculiar-sounding bells in every room”.

It is also unknown when the division bell began to be installed beyond Parliament, but by 1874 at least one had been established in St Stephen’s Club.

We know this much because in his book The Irish Parliamentary Party, F.H. O’Donnell describes how one MP, Philip Callan cut the wires to the club’s bell thereby ensuring victory for his side in a vote on the Irish fishing industry.

MPs may find the clangs irritating but they should be grateful they weren’t working in the Canadian Parliament in the 1980s.

In 1982, a political row combined with procedural rules meant the division bells rang continuously for fifteen days.

A depiction from 1901of MPs being summoned to vote by the division bell

Image source, Getty Images

Gerry Dolan – who ran the Westminster Arms for 30 years – said the bell could sometimes be irritating if you had to live with it day in day out.

“It was terrific for tourists,” he says. “They were totally enthralled by it.”

Sometimes he had to reassure visitors it wasn’t a fire alarm and they could resume their seats.

He naturally was completely accustomed to the noise – except once.

Having shut the pub for the evening, he was enjoying a quiet late-night drink when the bell started unexpectedly clanging.

“I hadn’t realised the House was sitting so late… I nearly fell off my stool.”

Guinness and economics

He also recalls the strangeness of big vote nights when he would see MPs enjoying a pint and then five minutes later they would pop up on the TV news channels walking into Parliament to vote.

The former landlord – who retired last year – has fond memories of running one of Westminster’s most established drinking holes.

He can reel off an impressive list of former customers including US politician Ted Kennedy, Prince Edward and at least three Bonds – Connery, Dalton and Moore.

Ex-Prime Minister Ted Heath was a regular every Monday evening. He would enjoy a Scotch malt whisky, “chuckling away to himself”, while his security detail would have a shandy.

He remembers Tory politician Ken Clarke drinking in the pub. “He once asked me ‘Gerry how come the bubbles in Guinness go down whereas the bubbles in English lagers go up?’

“I replied that the bubbles go in the opposite direction to the nation’s economy.”

He also recalls seeing a punter at the bar and telling him: “You look just like Desmond Tutu.”

“I am,” chuckled the South African bishop.

‘What happens in Vegas…’

In all his time he said he never had to throw out an MP or saw them misbehave. Generally, they could handle their drink, he says.

Even if he had seen any bad behaviour, Mr Dolan says he would never sell stories to the press.

“I would say ‘I never saw anything’. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

He also resisted the temptation to lobby visiting ministers.

“They would come in for a beer and that’s it. You don’t want someone bothering you.”

Nigel Farage and Gerry Dolan

Image source, Getty Images

His memories are generally happy ones. The only time he didn’t really enjoy the job was during “the Brexit years”.

“It wasn’t nice – there were lots of protests, the police were out in force and people were venting their anger.

“Side against side… you had to keep a close eye on people then.”

The rise of smart phones seems to have made the traditional division bells surplus to requirements, but Mr Dolan feels nostalgic for the times before technical advances.

“The old days were probably better days, more fun days.

“But times change and you change with them, if you don’t change you die.”

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