Features Bell-Map

Published on August 23rd, 2013 | by Nottingham Drinker


Ding! Dong! The Bells of Nottingham

The names of public houses often refer to a bell. In the first of a two-part article, Nick Molyneux investigates the religious and industrial connection to some of Nottingham‘s pubs.

During the Middle Ages, monasteries and other religious institutions often provided food and accommodation for pilgrims and other travellers. This was big business and – as the religious orders were the multi-nationals of their day – the concept of church run inns and hospitality was widespread.

After the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, some of these commercial establishments became “privatised”, to use a modern term. It would appear that the Bell Inn (Angel Row) which we know today began life as the refectory or guesthouse of the Carmelite Friary – the inhabitants of which were known as the Whitefriars and gave their name to our Friar Lane. The received wisdom often related is that the bell referred to in the pub name was probably the Angelus Bell, used to call the faithful to devotion and to recite “Ave Maria”. In England, this bell would sometimes be inscribed with a dedication, often to Mary but sometimes to the archangels Gabriel or Michael. This seems a plausible explanation for the pub’s name and the sign of the Bell Inn is a wonderfully large golden bell embedded in profile in the building’s front façade.


Not far away, on Upper Parliament Street there is also the Blue Bell,  a fine early 20th century building. On the site of an earlier pub, the inn sign for this pub is a lovely blue glass bell. Wright & Curtis (1995) suggest that the name “Blue Bell” might derive from the memory of bluebell flowers covering the nearby Burton Leys fields, now remembered by Burton Street. This all seems very straight forward until you learn that for much of the 19th Century, the pub on this site was known too as “The Bell“.

As if this wasn’t confusing enough, in the warren of alleys and yards which ran between the Parliament Street and the Market Square, was a third establishment, known at various times as the “Bell Inn” or the “Bell Tavern“ (See sketch map right).

To have three pubs within proverbial spitting-distance trading with the same name at the same time certainly raises a few questions. The link to the Carmelite Friary’s Angelus Bell may well account for the Angel Row hostelry but it does seem a little tenuous for all three.

During the beer house mania of the reign of William IV and the early Victorian period, pub entrepreneurs were more than happy to use the name of an existing watering-hole for their new establishment. This was especially so if it gave their own a greater kudos or perhaps respectability and central Nottingham has a number of examples of Victorian pubs with duplicate names. However, the three “Bells” pre-date this period of time.

The clue may lie in the industrial activity which was taking place between Parliament Street and Long Row during the 17th and 18th Centuries. The “Bell Inn” in this area is usually described as being on Pennell’s Yard. True enough; one side of the building did front onto Pennell’s Yard. More interestingly, the other side backed onto Bell Founder’s Yard. According to the 1882 Ordnance Survey for this part of Nottingham, Bell Founder’s Yard met Parliament Street almost opposite the pub we now know as the “Blue Bell“.

It seems most likely that the Pennell’s Yard “Bell Inn” and the now “Blue Bell” acquired their original names for their proximity to the bell foundry and its workers. Quaint as the notion is of pretty bluebells – a woodland flower – scattering Burton Leys field, I suspect that the “blue” attribution for the Parliament Street site probably came about simply as a result of the pub’s inn sign being a blue-coloured bell, just as it is now.

The bell foundry originally belonged to the Oldfield family, who were producing bells in Nottingham in the 200 years between the dissolution of the monasteries and the middle of the 18th Century. We shall meet the Oldfield’s again in the second of these two articles.

In an interesting digression, one of the licensees of the Pennell’s Yard “Bell Inn” was a member of the appropriately named Dabell family, and in 1848 the family was running an establishment in nearby Swan’s Yard  called the “Railway Bell Inn” (Yes – whilst the other three bells were happily trading away under the name “Bell“ !).

It would appear that the “Railway Bell Inn” specialised in stouts and porters and gave way to “Dabell’s Fettled Porter House”, an operation renowned for a mysterious brew known as “Fettled Porter” and made to a secret recipe!  A quick trawl of the internet suggests that “Fettled Porter” was made by mixing heated porter with sugar, ginger and nutmeg.

Sadly, neither the Pennell’s Yard “Bell” nor “Dabell’s Fettled Porter House” are with us any longer but both the “Bell Inn” (Angel Row) and the “Blue Bell” ( Upper Parliament Street) are both still open for business.

One final thought. In metal founding, the term “fettle” may be used to describe the sand-lining of furnaces prior to the introduction of molten metal. Is it too far-fetched to wonder whether there is a connection between the term for this sand and the sand-like sugar and spice mix used to “fettle” Victorian porter ? And also to wonder whether the term “Fettled Porter” originated in a Nottingham pub next to a bell foundry?

Thanks to George A Dawson, author of “The Church Bells of Nottinghamshire”  – and CAMRA member – for information on the Oldfield Bell Foundry.

If any readers have local Fettled Porter recipes and would like to share them, please write in to ND and let us know.

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