The Old Bell Inn

1-3 Stoke Street
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell period1956 image
First a look at The Old Bell in in 1956: things have changed so dramatically, it is hard to believe that the row of shops and houses once stood on the left side of Vernon Street; the public house (called for many years The Silver Star) and the Methodist Mission Hall are all that remain standing here in 2013. You can see all the way up Bell Lane on the right, a view that is foreshortened by a block of flats today. Bell Lane might have been wider in earlier centuries and stands on an almost direct line from the old Stoke Bridge. Burrell Road disappears to the right. The relief caps of the pub name lettering, characteristic of Tolly Cobbold inns, is still in place and at that time there was the name 'COBBOLD' below. On the approach from the town centre to the area over Stoke Bridge, views are dominated by the large mature trees around the north side of the St Mary-at-Stoke churchyard, and by the modern flats on rising ground behind the Old Bell Inn - the massing of which serves to underscore the Inn's mediaeval scale - and the gables of The People's Hall.

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 1   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 52013 images
Until it closed in 2007, this was the oldest operating licenced premises in Ipswich. It is believed to date from the early 16th century and was first recorded in 1639. A Bell Inn is known to have existed in this area since well before the Civil War (1642–1651). The name may refer to a bell foundry which existed nearby before the inn was constructed; there's documentary evidence of this as far back as mediaeval times. The view above left shows the Old Bell from Bridge Street as it enters Vernon Street: the old public house, yard and outbuildings, now relatively isolated by a dual carriageway and busy traffic junctions. The Bell Lane access is marked by double yellow lines the size of which are emphasised by the otherwise small scale of the space. To the west side of the lane are single storey shops built in 1924 of no architectural interest and adjacent is a high brick wall with an overgrown unused site behind. The Bell used to be much bigger, but the section of the building to the left of the present corner door was demolished in the mid-19th century to make way for Vernon Street to provide easier access to Wherstead Road. This accounts for the feeling that the building looks 'sliced off' rather abrubtly.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 1a   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 1b2018 images
Above: The gold-painted relief characters once common on Cobbold tied houses with the panel of rendering below, distinct from the roughcast surface, which repaired the damage caused by the removal of the word 'Cobbold' (see the top photograph).

In the mid 19th Century, as land along Wherstead Road started to be developed and Bell Lane became too narrow for local traffic, a new road, Vernon Street, (initially called Harland St), was built to the east side of The Bell Inn. In the 1960s the land to the rear of the inn was comprehensively cleared and redeveloped for blocks of four-storey flats. In the late 1970s, the sense of enclosure (buildings crowded along narrow roads) around the inn was all but destroyed as buildings opposite were demolished to make way for the Stoke Bridge and Approaches Road Scheme, completed in 1982. The sense of former enclosure can only be appreciated on the west side towards The People's Hall.

Walking up Bell Lane, a narrow version of the main thoroughfare which once led to parts of Over Stoke and to Wherstead Road – it now leads to a car park behind flats – the jettied upper storey and timbered outer wall towards the rear of the pub are seen. Beneath the overhang is an example of a Tudor(?), glassless window, shown below. The narrow bricks and timbering seem to be 'original'. In 2013, with the whole building in a very fragile state we hear that it has been purchased and will be renovated by a funeral company. If it will bring the long-empty pub and yard back into use, then so be it.

Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 6
The corner post was carved by Mr Ringham, an eminent 19th century wood carver. It features a bell with clapper within at the top and lower down a cat-like creature, the back end of which becomes serpent-like. Is it too fanciful to think that this carving might be based upon: "Ding dong bell, Pussy's in the well"?
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 2   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 3

Bell Lane
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 4b2018 images
Bell Lane, once the arterial route from Ipswich to Over Stoke and (eventually) Colchester, this narrow lane lacks an official Borough nameplate. However, a rather smart homegrown street sign is fixed to the shop frontage of Danielle Hopkinson's stained glass studio at 5 Stoke Street – presumably above the original 45 degree corner door. If they created the street sign, kudos to them; incidentally, they very kindly sent images and information about (probably) the oldest example of lettering on this website: stained glass roundels from the original Holy Trinity Church, now to be found in a window in Holy Trinity Church in Back Hamlet.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 4b
Above the view of Bell Lane from Stoke Street with the corner-post showing the bell and cat carvings at the right.

At the front of the building are two doorways; to the right, one with a curved top with one surviving carved spandrel. A slat of wood features the lincensee statement:

'Carol Ann Sharman
Licensed to sell intoxicating liquor of all kinds for consumption on or off
the premises.'
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 4
The Suffolk CAMRA (see Links) entry for The Old Bell shows the licensees: 1952- Stanley Chas. Sharman; 1956- Stanley Chas. Sharman, so this sign perhaps refers to his widow, who took on the licence?
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 4cClose-up of the spandrel
[UPDATE 2.11.2013: "Hello.....just a small correction to your very interesting site. Ref the licensee sign and the name 'Sharman'. Carol Sharman was the last licensee and the sign , even though it looks old and hand painted, was made by Danielle Hopkinson, Who runs the stained glass studio at 5 - 7 Stoke Street, in about 1999.  I don't know if she was a relative [of the earlier Sharmans] but she was in her early forties at the time. Hope this helps. You may also be interested to know that our premises at 5 Stoke Street was a pub called the Maltsters in 1837. With a Cobbold and Tollemache connection.We have a huge pile of the original deed documents dating back to this time and up to current day. These were passed onto me by prettys solicitors when I purchased the building in 1998 approx. Ian Davies. the stained glass studio."
Many thanks to Ian for the information.]
Suffolk CAMRA (see Links) tells us that The Maltsters Beerhouse (on the site of the blue-painted building in the long shot above), previously known as Maltster's Arms, stood on the corner of Bell Lane and Stoke Street. Earliest records found show it operating from 1861; it
closed January 31, 1912. "Must have stood in Bell Lane, as the Borough Police licensed premises register shows that beat bobby number 9 would walk past the Old Bell, then the Maltsters, Little Wonder, New Anchor and on to the Boar's Head. This is confirmed by an article in the East Anglian Daily Times (March 2012) which mentions it standing on the corner opposite the Old Bell (though confusing the beerhouse with the Maltsters' Arms which was actually in Quay Street)."
[UPDATE 27.12.2017: "I have just seen the film Showman, and it brought back memories of dancing with my friend Sally Sharman of the Bell Inn, on the benches in the bar area, around the year 1948-1950. My mother had a baby shop in Vernon Street at the time. Nice to see the pub still standing, but lost touch with Sally Sharman about 1955.  Would be interesting to know where the family went to.
I have lived in  New Zealand for many years now, but return to Suffolk about every two years. Regards, Gillian Johncock (née Jill Firman )." Many thanks to Jill for getting in touch.]
[UPDATE 23.9.2018: 'The above was passed to me by a friend who thought it would be of interest to me, as indeed it was. I was Sally Jean Sharman, now Sally Kitching. My late brother and I lived at the Old Bell with my parents, Stanley and Edith Sharman; they took the licensee from my grandparents, Thomas Prentice, in 1947 and remained till the late sixties. My grandparents moved to the Bell mid-thirties. It was an interesting and detailed article regarding The Old Bell and deserved the coverage because of  its age and history. I believe it’s mentioned in the the ‘Margaret Catchpole’ book which involved smuggling in the late eighteen hundreds in and around this area – an interesting read. I was given this book in 1953. There is no connection with our family and the previous licensee, Carol Sharman: just a coincidence. Sally Kitching.' Many thanks to Sally for another piece in the Old Bell jigsaw.]

The Old Bell finally closed its doors in 2007. The door to the right features a frosted glass panel.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 8   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell 7
This example of wording and decoration on glass might have been quite common on taverns and inns where there was a 'Jugs' entrance/counter (a feature of The Duke Of York on Woodbridge Road until refurbishment) for off-sales and an entrance for on-premises drinking. It is possible that the door was a stable-type where the top could be opened, perhaps to serve beer to those who wanted to drink while overlooking the river.

From Vernon Street
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell Vernon St
Above: the view of The Old Bell from Vernon Street, opportunity snatched between rapid traffic flows. The corrugated structure at the left is at the rear of the pub yard. In the background rises the roof of The People's Hall in Stoke Street. The structures forming the L-shaped Old Bell can be seen most clearly here.
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell Vernon St sign 1   Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell Vernon St sign 22014 images
The east wall of The Old Bell, that is the wall created after demolition of part of the pub, bears a road sign in negative (see also Dogs Head Street and Parliament Street). The white characters on black ground boast a superior 'T'.
Other examples of lettering in Vernon Street include the
Vernon Street Methodist Room, the Vernon Street Co-op and Uncle Tom's Cabin.

[UPDATE 19.9.2014: the image below shows the long-awaited beginnings of work on the rear roof of the Old Bell. By late 2016 the premises were open for business as a funeral director's.]
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Old Bell repair 2014

See our Stoke Hall page for early maps of this area. On Pennington's map of 1778 one can see St Peters Street leading into Bridge Street which descends southwards from the town centre, past Stoke Mill, over Stoke Bridge, crossing the junction of Stoke Lane (now Stoke Street) and Dock Lane (now Dock Street) with The Old Bell marked 'Bell'.

See also The Duke Of York for modern pub lettering on glass and
Fore Street for a frosted former chemist's door. Stained glass pub lettering can be found on The Golden Key.
See also the Pubs & Off-licences page and the Tolly Cobbold House & Brewery pages.

Web-pages relevant to this one:
College Street
The Mill
Bridge Street
R. & W. Paul maltings
Burton, Son and Saunders
Stoke Bridge
Stoke Bridge Maltings
Trinity House Buoy
Old Bell

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