Public Houses in East & West Molesey

Rowland G. M. Baker, 1981

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Bell Road, East Molesey


The "Bell" is one of the most popular of English inn names. Over five hundred examples are known to exist throughout the country. Its familiar sign can be seen in almost every town and village, usually sited near to the old parish church, within the reverberation of the steeple bells.

Molesey's Bell is one of the most picturesque public houses in Surrey. It has stood here for well over four hundred years, although it is by no means certain that it has been used as an inn throughout the whole of that time. It may have started life as a large farmhouse, and been converted to a hostelry later.

The earliest landlord who can be associated with the Bell with any certain degree of certainty is William Bonwick, who died in 1749. In the burial register he is described as "victualler and farmer" [21], but two years earlier when, "being weak in body but praised be God of sound and disposing mind and understanding", he had drawn up his will, he describes himself simply as "farmer" [22].

The inference of this surely is that farming was his main occupation, and perhaps adds weight to the suggestion that the house was originally a farm-house. He farmed the lands behind the house, which in the parish books are known as "St. Eloy's Farm", as well as leasing the park surrounding Matham Manor House, which was on the other side of Bell Road, where Matham Road now stands. His widow, Ann, carried on both as licensee and farmer after his death. A dual role which was continued by the two next landlords. In fact, it was John Goddard, who moved to the Bell in 1777, having previously run the Swan just down the road, who divorced the victualling side from farming and concentrated entirely upon running the public house, and turned it from what previously had been just an alehouse into a proper full-blown inn [23].

The fame of the Bell has spread far beyond the bounds of Surrey. Its gabled façade and medley of warped shapes, its twisted angles, and rippling roof, its patterned bargeboards and seemingly unopenable windows, have combined in a paradise for artists and photographers alike. Like many an old building in a contry which lacks building stone but has plenty of timber, it is constructed of a wooden skeleton filled in with lath and plaster, and its fantastic shape is caused by the weight of this heavy timber frame slipping and warping on a loose foundation.

The Dickensian atmosphere of the inn absolutely reeks of mail coaches and masked highwaymen, and such allure is bound to be circumscribed with romantic legends. The dandified Claude Duval, whose particular haunt was Hounslow Heath just across the river, and Jerry Abershaw, who terrified the Portsmouth Road until he was hanged in 1795 on Kennington Common, are the two "gentlemen of the road" whose names are most usually associated with the Bell by the storytellers; but even the legendary Turpin is not entirely left out of their accounts.

But truth to tell, all of these tales, romantic though they may be, must remain pure speculation. There is no authentic evidence to link any of them with the Bell at all, and most likely none of them ever even saw the place.

However, there has appeared one connection between the inn and mail coaches. In 1948 a copper halfpenny token, such as was used in the eighteenth century, was found at the inn. On the obverse is an illustration of a coach and four, with the inscription: "PAYABLE IN LONDON", and on the reverse: "TO J. PALMER THIS IS INSCRIBED AS A TOKEN OF GRATITUDE FOR BENEFITS RECEIVED FROM THE ESTABLISHMENT OF MAIL COACHES" [24]. John Palmer (1742-1818) was the proprietor of the Bath Theatre. In travelling around the country he found the stage coaches very slow moving and ill-organised. He put forward a plan for the reform of the mail service, and was made Comptroller of the Post Office. In which position he instituted a series of fast coaches across the country which revolutionised transport and was much appreciated by the travelling public and the receivers of mail [25].

The network of stage coach routes inaugurated by Mr. Palmer was primarily purposed for the conveyance of the royal mails, which were collected and deposited at each stop (or post) along the way. It was natural, therefore, that people called at the inn to post and to receive their letters, and that the innkeeper should act as local postmaster. This was certainly so at the Bell. When the inn was redecorated in 1948, a layer of plaster was removed from the lintel above the front door, revealing a grey weather-beaten signboard bearing the words "POST OFFICE" proudly painted thereon [26].

In the nineteenth century the mails were taken first to Kingston, from whence they were brought to the Bell by foot. In 1846 the lettercarrier arrived at the inn with the mail at a quarter to eight in the morning, and the letters were immediately distributed around the village by Mr. Philip Pitcher, the landlord, himself. The mail bags were hen hung up inside the bar on two pegs which are still there, or were a few years ago, into which people could post their mail throughout the day, until they were collected at a quarter past six in the evening [27].

Five years later a further delivery at half past two and a collection at half past ten in the morning had been added [28]. These arrangements remained until 1869, when the main post office business was removed to a shop in Bridge Road, and the Bell became a sub-office for collections only [29]. In later life Mr. Pitcher loved to recall that it was during his period of office that the Postmaster General ordered the return of his datestamp marked "EAST MOULSEY" and replaced it with another inscribed "EAST MOLESEY". Thus giving official sanction to the use of the older and much more correct spelling of the district [30].

Unlike most legends, there is one often told about the Bell which can be verified as the truth. This story relates to the picturesque old weather-vane which revolves about the centre gable of the inn, and depicts a gentleman clothed in typical eighteenth-century costume, peering through a telescope. Tradition ascribes this to have been originally fixed above the ancient parish church just across the street. Now in the Guildhall Library in London there is a water-colour, painted by Hassell in the 1820s, of the little old church which stood there then, and lo!, surmounting a small wooden spire, plainly to be seen, is this very same gentleman looking through his very same telescope. The old church was partially damaged by fire in December 1863 [31], and demolished the following year, to be replaced by the present edifice. One of the members of the Church Building Committee was the indefatigable Mr. Philip Pitcher, mine host at the Bell. We can well imagine, therefore, that he would strive to preserve this little piece of the ancient temple he loved, and to have it re-erected above his own inn, as a constant reminder of past and pleasant associations.

The connection between the Bell and parochial affairs goes back a long way. As has already been stated [32], this was one of the houses where the parish vestry met. In the nineteenth century it was the exclusive meeting place, both for the Vestry and the East Molesey Local Board, until the latter obtained offices of its own in Walton Road. The leasing of the parish lands was auctioned here annually, and was followed by a parochial supper according to a local custom of long standing [33].

The Bell was also used by working class organisations as well. In 1823 a friendly society, known as the "Union" was started [34], and another the "United Brethern", in 1838 [35]. An East Molesey Cooperative Society was established at a meeting held here in August 1872 [36].

During the latter part of the last century, when more and more public houses were opening up in East Molesey and vied with each other for custom, each pub put forward its own particular scheme to lure men to its bars. At the Bell a lodge of the Foresters was formed, as well as a Harmonic Society for the musically minded. In 1872 Mr. Perry, the then licensee, announced to "the public and his friends" that he has thrown the Billiard Room open for general playing. "The room", he adds, "is replete with evry convenience, and most delightfully situated; having a charming view over Lady Clinton's Park" [37].

Molesey's fortunate position just outside the Metropolis but still virtually at that time in the country, made it an ideal venue for Victorian Londoners seeking a day's escape from overcrowded heat and grime. Citizens who came en famille, or on staff outings. During the summer months almost every weekend saw Bell Road bustling with commotion as the horse brakes lumbered in and disgorged yet another complement of noisy excited cockneydom into the hostelry for their yearly beanfeast [38].

The Bell, too, or rather the space and road in front of it, was the centre of attraction on May Day each year for Molesey's own annual fair. A most memorable day in the calendar for Moleseyites, when the whole village, and many folk from beyond, gathered here on pleasure bent. There was something for everybody. Dancing around the maypole. Stalls loaded with goodies of every variety, but notably with gingerbread specially cooked by Dobson's the bakers from Thames Ditton. There were rides for the children on "Gipsy" Cooper's donkeys - "To Pennell's Corner and back, twopence" [39]. The last fair, alas!, was held in the 1880s [40].

The property embracing the inn and its surroundings was originally a part of the manor of Molesey Matham, and in the early nineteenth century was leased out by the lords of the manor to the family of Rowlls, the owners of a brewery in Kingston. In 1819 much of the manorial estate was put up for sale, and the Bell was purchased freehold by this company. The sale catalogue describes it as : "LOT VIII, A well-accustomed Public House, comprising six Sleeping Rooms, two Parlors, Tap Room, Bar, Kitchen, Pantry, and cellaring. A small shop adjoining. A range of buildings detached from the house, containing Coach-house, four-stall stable and loft, and Coal Shed. A good Garden and Yard". The whole, including two cottages, occupying almost half an acre, was sold for £590 [41].

In 1854 Rowlls Brewery was sold to William Frederick Hodgson [42], and became the well-known Hodgson's Kingston Brewery. It was merged with the Courage group during this century.

In 1969 the brewery sought to change the name from "The Bell" to "The Crooked House", a decision which was highly unpopular with local opinion. After a concerted campaign of opposition to the suggestion by the customers, the Local History Society, and other organisations, the company was prevailed upon to change its mind and dropped the idea. For to Molesey people the Bell had always been the Bell, ought always to be the Bell, and nothing else.

The list of innkeepers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries include:-

            1749 - Willaim Bonwick

            1753 - Ann Bonwick

            1770 - John Griffen

            1772 - William Constable

            1777 - John Goddard

            1791 - John Poulter

            1821 - Joseph Dix

            1835 - Philip Pitcher

            1870 - Samuel Macartney

            1871 - William Warren

            1872 - Mr. Perry

            1872 - William Pratt

            1876 - S.J. Scull

            1881 - Frederick Augustus Pinckney

            1895 - William Ball

            1895 - Henry Chart

Notes on some innkeepers:

WILLIAM BONWICK: Was the first landlord who can definitely be connected with the Bell. His main occupation was farming, and whilst it was his name on the license it was probably his wife who looked after the daily running of the pub, whilst he concentrated on the cattle and ploughing. He died in September 1749, and was buried in East Molesey churchyard [43].

ANN BONWICK: Took over both the Bell and the farm on the death of her husband, and ran both for some twenty years, till she was over seventy. She died in February 1770, and was laid in a grave immediately opposite to the public house and farm she had known for so long. The white headstone bearing her name may still be seen [44].

JOHN GODDARD: Moved to the Bell in 1777, after having previously been the licensee of the Swan (q.v.) just down the road. He served in several parish offices, including constable, churchwarden, and overseer of the poor.

PHILIP PITCHER: Was the landlord of the Bell for thirty-five years, at a period of great expansion in East Molesey. During which time he was one of the most outstanding personalities in the village. As we have seen he was the local postmaster and letter deliverer, and also acted as house agent for those people requiring accommodation. In his spare time he was a member of the East Molesey Local Board for over twenty years, and a churchwarden for a like period. He was twice married, and died at Easter 1893, in his ninetieth year. One of his friends wrote of him as "most solicitous for the welfare and success of the village which had been to him for upwards of sixty years the home of his adoption, he had conscientiously and earnestly devoted his best efforts, and his unostentatious example, to the promotion of every movement calculated to bring about such a desirable result" [45].

ALAN STAINER: From 1934 to 1958 the licensee was Mr. Alan Stainer, perhaps the most colourful host the Bell has seen. A former professional stage entertainer and conjuror, who had worked at one time with Maskelyne and Devant; a sporting enthusiast, playing in his youth with the Surrey Colts; and a competent artist in many fields. During his time the walls of the saloon lounge were almost completely covered from floor to ceiling with souvenirs and mementoes of all his varied interests. There were original drawings and paintings, which were personal gifts from many acquaintances, including such well-known artists as Heath Robinson, Strube, and H.M. Bateman, all at one time household names, but perhaps little known to the modern generation. There were signed photographs of a multitude of former music-hall colleagues. There were sketches and wood carvings by Mr. Stainer himself. There were sporting trophies, cricket caps, and even one of the oar blades used by the victorious British Olympic rowing crew of 1908. But, perhaps, the most remarkable decorations of all were relics of another of Mr. Stainer's manifold talents, his hobby of creating sculptures out of strangely shaped boughs of trees. Mostly unworked and with very little modification, he fashioned, varnished and mounted, realistic animals, frogs, prehistoric monsters, and mythical creatures of all sorts [46].

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