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The Division Bells Of Westminster

February 16, 2020
by the gentle author

There were once as many as four hundred Division Bells in the pubs and restaurants of Westminster, summoning MPs back to parliament to vote, but when Contributing Cartographer Adam Dant & I set out to see how many we could find last week we could barely discover a dozen.

Apparently BT charged £3000 a year to provide the service which has now been discontinued and replaced by an app. In one bar, the manager used a piece of sellotape to reattach the disused bell and, in a restaurant, the maitre d’ opened a cupboard under the counter to reveal the dead plastic box that once relayed the Division Bell.

Regretfully, we realised that these are the last days of the Division Bells of Westminster but, as a consolation, our walk provided ample opportunities for refreshment.

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Click on the map to enlarge

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DIVISION – A MAP OF WESTMINSTER’S DIVISION BELLS

“When I was nine, I wrote a letter to my MP asking if he would grant me and my classmates a tour of Parliament. Very soon we were stuffed into the St Lawrence’s Catholic Primary’s rusty school bus and driven to the seat of power in Westminster.

What I remember from our tour of the chambers and the corridors lined with scary dark Victorian book cases is our MP’s description of his home in the capital. Did he come here from his constituency every day, I asked. When he told us that he also had a home in London ‘within the division bell’ I imagined that he actually had his living quarters inside a bell.

Once I had drawn this map, I realised that in effect MP’s do all live within a big bell. As well as the bells within the Parliamentary estate to summon MPs to the chamber to vote, there is also a network of extra-mural bells scattered across Westminster to remind MPs to return within eight minutes or miss a vote.

This custom originated when the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt after the fire of 1834 and the lack of food provision required MPs to visit local pubs and restaurants for sustenance. It is even claimed that last words of Pitt the Younger were not ‘Oh my country, my country‘ but ‘I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies.’” – Adam Dant

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The Parliamentary Division Bell at St Stephen’s Tavern in Bridge St nestles discreetly in the left hand corner of the bar beneath the old radio

At the Marquis of Granby in Romney St

Anna Boot is guardian of the Division Bell at the Marriott Hotel in the former City Hall

Division Bell at the Blue Boar in Tothill St

Handsome bar at the Westminster Arms in Storey’s Gate

Division Bell at the Westminster Arms

Division Bell in the basement canteen of the Institute of Civil Engineers in Great George St

Division Bell behind the bar at the Red Lion in Whitehall

At the Red Lion

Stelios Michaelides is guardian of the Division Bell at St Ermin’s Hotel in Caxton St

Adam Dant’s Map of Westminster’s Division Bells was originally commissioned by The Critic

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CLICK TO ORDER A COPY OF MAPS OF LONDON & BEYOND BY ADAM DANT

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Adam Dant’s MAPS OF LONDON & BEYOND is a mighty monograph collecting together all your favourite works by Spitalfields Life‘s Contributing Cartographer in a beautiful big hardback book.

Including a map of London riots, the locations of early coffee houses and a colourful depiction of slang through the centuries, Adam Dant’s vision of city life and our prevailing obsessions with money, power and the pursuit of pleasure may genuinely be described as ‘Hogarthian.’

Unparalleled in his draughtsmanship and inventiveness, Adam Dant explores the byways of London’s cultural history in his ingenious drawings, annotated with erudite commentary and offering hours of fascination for the curious.

The book includes an extensive interview with Adam Dant by The Gentle Author.

Adam Dant’s limited edition prints including the MAP OF WESTMINSTER’S DIVISION BELLS are available to purchase through TAG Fine Arts

11 Responses leave one →
  1. February 16, 2020

    I had a ‘research assistant’ pass to the House of Commons in the 1980s. Our preferred watering hole was the House of Lords bar as the beer was heavily subsidised. The Westminster pubs were more expensive but were preferred by MPs as they were convenient for illicit liaisons or meetings with lobbyists who would always buy the drinks. Courtesy of the public purse The House of Commons is probably the most heavily subsidised drinking club in the world. Into a night of heavy drinking MPs might consider the division bell an irritant. However, they knew it would enable them to appear to be working hard as it would take just a few minutes to cross the road, vote and return to the bar. Importantly their constituents would believe that the publication of how they voted in the division lobby was an indication of their earnest democratic engagement on behalf of their constituents. I understand the heavy drinking culture of the 80s is making a comeback with the new intake of MPs. There are numerous examples on youtube of our noble parliamentarians making a contribution in the chamber following a long session in the bar. When division bells ring in Westminster it never means “last orders at the bar please”.

  2. February 16, 2020

    Very informative. All this time I thought The Division Bell was simply a Pink Floyd album.

  3. Greg Tingey permalink
    February 16, 2020

    No longer one in “The Speaker” on the corner of Gt Peter St & Perkins’ Rents?
    SHAME! ( etc. )
    I think the “Buck” ( Buckingham Arms ) in Petty France had one, but was lost in the recent refurbishment …

  4. Andreane Thomas permalink
    February 16, 2020

    Fascinating information which I wasn’t aware of but am now. Thank you so much… I love this kind of historical information. Much appreciated. Please don’t stop writing.

  5. February 16, 2020

    It was probably Bellamy’s veal pies (and the port) that made Pitt’s gout so unbearable. I’ve often wondered how many MPs who heard the Division Bell had sufficiently sober legs to carry them back to the Commons (I’m thinking here of the risible example of Mark Reckless in 2010).

  6. February 16, 2020

    Will wonders never cease? GA, you’ve introduced me to yet-another intricacy of Life In London.
    I had never heard the term “division bell” until today. Since discovering Spitalfields Life, I
    have become older……..true…….but so much wiser.

    Love the photos, Adam’s maps, the inside scoop, and the whole nine yards.
    Riiiiiii-i-i-i-ii-iii-nnnnnng!

  7. paul loften permalink
    February 16, 2020

    Personally speaking, I can’t say that I admire any politician that I have seen in my lifetime to the extent of celebrating them with a drink. Although on the other hand its always worth looking for a good excuse for a pub crawl. This was as good an excuse as any, as you were not celebrating the politicians but the bells, and the pubs were absolutely top of the range!
    I have been on one or two big, organized pub crawls in London during my younger days. I will not go into the details but I must admit they are amongst the best of my memories . I often wonder how they remained as a memory considering the amount of beer consumed on visiting each pub and the state that we were all in the end.

  8. Adele permalink
    February 16, 2020

    Who knew???? Fascinating!

  9. Mark in Colorado US permalink
    February 16, 2020

    Now this is a quest worthy donig…must plan on it when I am next in London.
    Thank you!!!!

  10. February 17, 2020

    I remember these times well. Not bothered about the MPs but another memory of London gone.

  11. Mary permalink
    February 17, 2020

    Well, this is the best excuse for a “pub-crawl” that I have ever heard!
    Seriously, it is yet another fascinating peek at the eccentricities of the British and probably something that has never before been documented, so well done GA and Adam.
    I love the humour in Adam’s maps and I had to smile that he had included a branch of Greggs in close proximity to the Houses of Parliament. Perhaps Greggs needs a division bell – now there is a thought!

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