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At the Ten Bells

December 14, 2010
by the gentle author

The Ten Bells – seen in the top right of this busy photograph of Commercial St in 1905 – is almost as old as Nicholas Hawksmoor’s mighty edifice of Christ Church, Spitalfields, which it sits beneath just like a parcel under a Christmas tree. Once the church was completed in 1729, funds were raised for the installation of a standard peal of eight bells, and in 1755, The Eight Bells Alehouse was recorded in Red Lion St, the thoroughfare that became Commercial St in the nineteenth century. And The Eight Bells was renamed The Ten Bells in 1788, when a new set of ten chimes was installed in the belfry at Christ Church.

In 1851, as a result of the vast expansion of trade in London, Commercial St was cut through Spitalfields to convey traffic from the docks, diverting it from passing through the City, and the former Red Lion St was widened, resulting in the demolition of The Ten Bells. At the same time, the end of Fournier St was chopped off and, in compensation for the loss of their premises, Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co, owners of The Ten Bells were given the freehold of number thirty-three, the last house standing at the Western extremity of the street, along with five hundred pounds to rebuild the property. The architect’s solution was to build the wrap-around facade which you see today, to cover the naked embarrassment of this fragment at the end of the terrace, enclosing a Georgian building within a Victorian frontage.

I learnt all this from John Twomey, the landlord, when he took me on a tour of the current renovations that are nearing completion after six years of planning and which will result in the reopening of the upper room with its dramatic views across to the market, down Commercial St and up to the spire of Christ Church looming overhead. The internal structure is an eccentric hybrid, in which, upon the upper floors, walls veer at unexpected angles to link the regularly spaced windows of the exterior with the jumble of interior spaces derived from the previous building.

As part of the restoration, the previous signboards have been removed to reveal those from a century ago, emblazoned with “Truman’s Beers” in gold capitals upon a deep green ground, and – by chance – when I came to meet John Twomey, my arrival coincided with the new delivery of Truman’s Beer that is now returning to the pubs of the East End. Walking in off the street, I discovered that the bar has been moved to the centre of the room which throws emphasis onto the magnificent coloured tiles that gleam in the light just as they have done for over century, connecting us to the countless thousands before us for whom this pub was a refuge from their working lives. In Spitalfields, many casual workers rented beds by the night and had no place to relax, socialise and seek solace after work except the bars – giving literal meaning to the phrase “public house.” And in the smoothed stone upon the threshold, in its beaten up floors and worn staircases, everywhere throughout this old building, the soulful presence of all our predecessors is tangible at The Ten Bells.

“Coming from multiple career backgrounds and living in multiple locations, the only place I have ever felt at home is Spitalfields, which always changes,” admitted John, who lives up above the pub in the warren of rooms with views across to the church. A fearless entrepreneur with steel blue eyes and copper hair who underplays his keen intelligence through magnanimous demonstrations of Hibernian charm and levity, John brings his own story to graft onto that of The Ten Bells. “Once upon a time,” he began, “my mother started a fencing club and at thirteen I won a major competition. I began competing all over Europe, and it gave me a life of travelling and learning languages. But since the day I bought this pub, I haven’t done a day’s training.”

“As a kid, I invented electrical testing equipment for fencing and that led me to study electrical engineering as a student. In Ireland, I won the national championship ten times, which was a record in their history, so I wasn’t particularly interested in winning it eleven times. After university, I went to the Soviet Union and learnt Russian, but because I was in Estonia, which broke away, I had to learn Estonian too. It was exciting to be in a country that was being born, I got involved in starting a bank and was able to enjoy careers in banking and fencing hand-in-hand. The Soviet Union were the World Champions at the time, so to be invited to join an Estonian team was a great honour and we won their national championship. Then in 1996, I decided to move to London and by then I could speak ten languages. So I got a job designing systems for banks that allowed me to travel to places where I could do fencing, but by now I had fallen in love with Spitalfields…”

And then John fell silent, casting his eyes around humorously, after recounting his extraordinary narrative, because since 2001, this has been his life – here at The Ten Bells – even though he could not resist restoring a five hundred year old building in Morocco to create a hotel, as a side project. I could only marvel at this catalogue of achievement and draw the irresistible conclusion that John possesses that rare combination of both flourish and acumen, essential for a successful landlord.

We were sitting in the bar, upon tiny chairs from a primary school, on a sunny morning. Most prominent on the wall was William Butler Simpson & Sons’ whimsical ceramic mural dating from the eighteen eighties, now cleaned by the same company that originally manufactured it, and we took a moment to admire it. Entitled “Spitalfields in ye olden times” and displaying a scene of aristocrats coming to buy silks from a weaver in the eighteenth century, John revealed it would shortly acquire a companion piece entitled “Spitalfields in modern times,” painted by Ian Harper.

Over the next week, all manner of wild rumours reached me concerning who was being portrayed in this new painting and in what form. Then, last night, the residents gathered in a state of high anticipation in the upper room, for a party hosted by John, where Ian Harper pulled off the dust sheet to applause and murmurs of approval from the assembled crowd. It was the beginning of a new chapter, heralding renewed life at The Ten Bells.

This section of John Horwood’s map (1794-99) shows Spitalfields before Commercial St was cut through along the line of Red Lion St. At this time, The Ten Bells occupied the un-numbered building at the corner of Red Lion St and Church St (now Fournier St). When these premises were demolished in the creation of Commercial St, the Ten Bells moved to the property numbered 33 Church St on this map and a new facade was built enclosing the earlier building, which you see today.

The Ten Bells sits beneath Christ Church, Spitalfields.

John Twomey, Olympic Fencer, Tallinn 1993.

John prepares to engage.

John Twomey, landlord of The Ten Bells.

Nineteenth century ceramic mural in the bar, “Spitalfields in ye olden time – visiting a weaver’s shop.”

Ian Harper unveiled “Spitalfields in modern times” last night at The Ten Bells. Pay a visit yourself and you will recognise several figures from the pages of Spitalfields Life.

Truman’s Beer is delivered to The Ten Bells.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Pam Mossman permalink
    December 14, 2010

    I live opposite the Ten Bells and looked on the net to try and find out what the latest developments are, as I have observed with interest all the changes to the pub and the area over the last 26 years. I was lucky enough to find this – very interesting read, about the pub, the area and the landlord.

  2. December 19, 2010

    With our workrooms down the road in this part of the City, I often favour long established businesses that offer much more historic relevance to the environ.

    Pleased to see and read that somehow, these eateries and pubs have made it up to now to capitalise from the increase and footfall brought by the re-development of the area.

    As consumers, we all have a choice where we spend our money and should use this power to make informed decisions which places we frequent to offer the financial support while enjoying the authentic.

  3. January 6, 2011

    Great article, I personally love The Ten Bells – always a great atmosphere. So are the upstairs areas open for viewing etc (as you suggest viewing the new “Spitalfields In Modern Time”) which is upstairs.

  4. February 20, 2012

    Once again, a weaving of past and present well done, and gave me information to add to family history in the 18th century – and a pub to visit on future travels. Cheers!

  5. sue forward permalink
    September 2, 2013

    my friends mum and dad had this pub for many years, was always there during the 60s, had lots of fun,

  6. Mo06 permalink
    April 6, 2014

    I used to frequent the Ten Bells in the 1990s, when I worked in the City.

    They used to have strippers on at lunchtime, and the place was always very busy.

    Then in the evening, the character of the pub changed and it became the ‘Jack The Ripper’ pub, frequented by tourists seeking the old London. They even sold Jack The Ripper T – shirts.

    The last time I visited was in 2011, and the strippers had gone, which is a pity, the chap behind the bar knew nothing of the recent history of the place.

    Great site, thank you.

  7. Terry Stewart permalink
    January 28, 2015

    After returning from Montreal in 1964, where I had been working, I took over the upper part of No12 Fournier Street from a friend, Gerald Laing who had just finished studying at St Martins. He had been living there with his wife and daughter. On the Ground Floor lived an American, Jack Babuscio, who upon his return to New York became the New York Sunday Times film critic. I sublet the garret to another American, Pete. They were both teaching in England. On the middle floor were two students from St Martins. Our neighbours all seemed to be students from St Martins. Next door was David Milne and his future wife – they emigrated to Canada and Brian Poitier and his partner Nicki, he was studying at St Martins and Nicki was a nurse they later had a daughter Claudia. We had a mutual friend, the jazz trumpeter Ian Carr, he and his wife Margaret lived at No9. There is a good description of his time there in his biography by Alan Shipton. We used to go to both the Ten Bells and The Seven Stars. I seemed to remember the name of the landlord’s wife at the Ten Bells, was Pat. When I visited her later, she told me that her husband had died from a barrel rolling back on him from the pavement whilst he was in the cellar. One evening over Christmas 1964 I went to the Seven Stars, it was packed with a live group playing. At sometime in the evening there was a lot of disturbance going on, paramedics had gone through to the toilets – we were drinking the other side of the bar so couldn’t quite understand what was going on. The band struck up ‘Happy Birthday to you’ and out of the toilets came the paramedics with a young woman on a stretcher. Apparently she had given birth to a baby. On one occasion Brian Poitier asked me if I would like to see the interior of Christchurch, it was closed at the time because it was in terrible disrepair. The vicar had the keys and all we could do was ask. Anyway it gave us a chance to see the interior of the vicarage, which apparently had also been designed by Hawksmoor whilst he let his apprentices get on with the drawings for the houses in the street. It was like walking from one time zone to another stepping over the vicarage threshold. The interior is as it was built. We were greeted by the vicar who wanted to introduce us to his family, wife and three daughters. We were led past the front room that was the Dining Room with the table already laid complete with table knapkins in cones. In the Living Room was the vicar’s wife and daughters who seemed to be all draped over the furniture rather like late Victorian portraiture or the Bloomsbury set. The Living Room French doors looked out onto a beautiful manicured lawn. I had to remind myself that on the other side of the wall was Itchy Park with its meths drinkers. The area outside the vicarage was not a pretty place. The youngest of the vicar’s daughters was studying art and when we asked how she managed with the area, she genuinely looked mystified. We did wonder how those young women survived. The vicar lent us the keys to the church, at our own risk and we carefully found our way round the dilapidated interior of the church. It was dangerous because the floor had collapsed in parts and a large part of the ceiling had come down. If I’m in the area I always visit, it is my favourite Hawksmoor Church and just a few years ago, it is where I went to a memorial service for my god-daughter’s father, Gerald Laing, who had introduced me to Fournier Street and the area in the first place.

  8. john stokes permalink
    June 24, 2015

    great old picture,and story about the ten bells.shame know one mentions the britainnia pub in this picture,bottom left.

  9. Peter norris permalink
    May 14, 2016

    My ex wife’s family the roche’s used to run this pub back in the late 60’s early 70’s. I actually lived there for a couple of years. Patricia Roche was the landlady a very strong woman but with a heart of gold. Her husband did die there after falling down the cellar steps. She had four children – Michael, Bernhard, Ann and Martin. The pub was very much a drinkers lair with lots of street people, very noisy and a great atmosphere. I remember the murals and some of the upstairs rooms. Place holds a lot of memory’s for me and my wife’s family.

  10. January 24, 2020

    How old is the building itself?

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