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The Old Bell Public House Totternhoe

The Old Bell in the 1960s [WB/Flow4/5/Tott/OB1]
The Old Bell in the 1960s [WB/Flow4/5/Tott/OB1]

The Old Bell Public House [formerly the Bell, then the Unicorn]: 29 Church Road, Totternhoe

The earliest reference to the Old Bell in any document held by Bedfordshire and Luton Archives and Records Service is in 1780 when Richard Mouse made his will [ABP/W1783/20]. He left his cottage "lately called the Bell, now the Unicorn" to his wife Sarah and, after her death, to his daughters Susannah and Sarah. He died in 1783. By 1820 the Unicorn was in the same hands as the Duke's Head - Thomas Burr, the brewer of Dunstable who redeemed the Land Tax on both properties in that year [Z172/5]. The copy certificate is endorsed on the back: "The original was delivered over to Mr. James Fowler, purchaser of the Old Bell".

In 1829, following the death of the Earl of Bridgewater, his estate in Totternhoe was surveyed [BW1004]. The survey also included every building in the parish, whether owned by the estate or not (and at that date most were not). At that date the Old Bell was owned by Luton brewer, Edward Burr and occupied by Samuel Heles, the premises standing in 25 poles of land.

A similar survey was carried out in 1840 and by that date the occupier was Robert Scott. The 1841 census shows that Scott was about 35 and lived with his wife Mary, aged about 30 and their children Robert, 8 and James, 5. Also living with them was eight year old Hannah Osborn.

In 1840 Robert Scott and his wife were robbed by some customers. He gave a deposition to the court when Samuel Gatward and John Barratt were charged with felony: He keeps the Bell Public House at Totternhoe. On Monday 14 October 3 persons from Luton came to his house a little after 7am and asked for a pint of beer. They then asked for another which he drew for them - he has to draw his beer in the cellar. When he brought the 2nd pint one of the 3 persons was coming out of the parlour. They sat in the kitchen to drink their beer. His wife came downstairs and one of them asked "what do you think of us mistress?" She said "I think you are 3 blackguards by the discourse which I have heard whilst getting up". They said it was "very hard for customers to be called blackguards, we'll go". Before his wife came downstairs they had a 3rd pint of beer. As he brought it up he saw another of the three men, a short man, a bricklayer, coming out of the parlour (not the same man he had seen coming out before). He thought by their discourse they were bad characters and were looking to see how they could break in another time.

Soon after, the man he saw brought out of the cage today (who was the man he first saw coming out of the parlour) and the bricklayer went out of the house together. They returned in about 10 minutes and finished the beer. All three left the house together. At about 10pm he went to bed and heard his wife accusing the servant girl with the loss of some spoons. His wife had lost 5 spoons and a pair of sugar tongs out of the parlour. He told her not to accuse the girl as two of the bricklayer chaps had been in. They had said they were going to Slapton for work, and as he was going to Leighton the next morning he would look after them. He found Bradshaw and the tally man at Slapton at work at the canal. He accused Bradshaw of taking his spoons. He denied it. On 20 November at the Red Lion at Dunstable he saw a person from Luton named Bland who told him there were some men in the cage at Luton and in consequence of this conversation he came to Luton and saw Mr Lees the policemen who showed him 5 teaspoons and a pair of sugar tongs and a table spoon - the teaspoons and tongs were his property, the tablespoon was not. They are called German silver. Samuel Gatward is the same man he saw coming out of his parlour as he was coming out of the cellar with the 2nd pint of beer. [QSR1840/1/5/19/h]

An abstract of mortgage of Burr's Brewery of 1841 reveals that the Unicorn had now been renamed as the public house is referred to as: "a messuage, first called 'The Bell', then 'The Unicorn', and then again 'The Bell', in Totternhoe Church End" [BH407]. It is possible that the change of name was linked in with a rebuilding of the premises as the current house does not look 18th century. By 1841 Thomas Burr's brewery was in the hands of Edward Burr who put it up for sale in 1843 [BH409]. Lot 37 was the Old Bell which comprised: "large Club Room, Tap, Wash-house, Cellar and four Bed Rooms, Large Yard with Well of Water therein, and Garden, Stable for four Horses, Coal-house, Cart Lodge and Barn. Two Common Rights for one Cow each, or one Horse together, belong to this Lot". Robert Scott was in the occupation and paid £8/8/- per annum in rent. He also leased a piece of arable of about two acres in the common fields for £4/12/- per annum which comprised Lot 38. The sale particulars are not annotated but, given the reference to James Fowler in 1820 it seems likely that this was the date of his purchase of the Old Bell. His brewery was in Woburn at the former public house now called The Birch at Woburn.

In 1881 Fowler's brewery and attendant licensed premises was put up for sale by auction and the Old Bell formed Lot 16. The house comprised a bar and bar parlour, a tap room "in front", club room, kitchen, cellar and five rooms above. There was a yard behind with a stable for three horses, barn, cart sheds and a coal store and 1. 5 acres of arable, part of a common field, in the rear. At that date it was let to Henry Lane at £18 per annum rent. Again, the particulars are not annotated with the name of the purchaser. Fowler's brewery was split up with brewers such as Allfrey & Lovell of Newport Pagnell [Buckinghamshire] and Charles Wells of Bedford each buying some properties. The Old Bell was later owned by Luton brewer J. W. Green so it seems most likely that they were the purchasers at the auction.

The Rating and Valuation Act 1925 specified that every piece of land and property in the country should be valued to determine its rateable value. Totternhoe, like much of Bedfordshire, was assessed in 1927 and the valuer visiting The Old Bell [DV1/C101/54] found it occupied by Sarah Bonner who paid £12 tied rent to J. W. Green Limited. The brick and slate building comprised a tap room, living room, kitchen and shop with four bedrooms and a boxroom above. Outside was a brick and tiled stable for three horses, a weather-boarded and corrugated iron barn, two pig sties and two brick and tiled cart sheds. Sarah also rented a field of nearly two and a half acres for a further £13 per annum.

Trade was a barrel of beer, a dozen bottles of beer, a pint of spirits and two dozen bottles of minerals per week. The valuer was clearly not impressed, commenting: "Rotten. Internal decorations bad. Tap room a fair size. Tenant not very energetic".

The Old Bell was still a public house in the 1960s as a photograph taken in the decade exists and is shown at the head of this page. By then the pub was owned by Flowers Breweries Limited who had merged with J. W. Green Limited in 1954. In 1962 Flowers was taken over by Whitbread. Today [2010] the former public house is a private house; information from local resident Adam Brejza indicates that the public house closed in 1995.

The former Old Bell Public House January 2010
The former Old Bell Public House January 2010


  • ABP/W1783/20: will of Richard Mouse, victualler: 1780;
  • Z172/5: certificate of redemption of Land Tax: 1820;
  • CLP13: Register of alehouse licences: 1822 - 1828;
  • BW1004: Totternhoe Estate survey: 1829;
  • BW1006: Totternhoe Estate survey: 1840;
  • BH407: abstract of mortgage: 1841;
  • BH409: included in sale particulars of Dunstable Brewery: 1843;
  • PSL6/1: Register of Alehouse Licences - Luton Petty Sessional Division: 1872-1901;
  • WL1000/10/1/1: included in sale particulars of James Fowler's Brewery: 1881;
  • WB/Green5/5/1: register of successive tenants: 1887-1926;
  • Z1100/1: merger of tithe rent charge: 1919;
  • PSL6/2: Register of Alehouse Licences - Luton Petty Sessional Division but without Luton Borough premises: 1929-1954;
  • WB/Green4/2/4: negative photocopy certificate of title to J. W. Green properties: 1936-1952;
  • WB/Green6/4/1: J. W. Green Limited trade analysis ledger: 1936-1947;
  • WB/Green4/2/8: schedule of deeds and documents of J. W. Green Limited to various premises: c. 1949;
  • WB/Green4/2/13: schedule of deeds and documents of J. W. Green to various premises: c. 1949;
  • WB/Green4/2/5: list of J. W. Green Limited licensed houses: c. 1952;
  • WB/Green4/2/16: letter as to title of various J. W. Green Limited properties: 1952;
  • WB/Green4/2/17: trust deed with list of properties securing J. W. Green Limited debenture stock: 1952-1972;
  • WB/Green4/2/19: schedule of deeds and documents of J. W. Green to various premises: c. 1954;
  • WB/Flow4/5/Tot/OB1: photograph: 1960s.

List of Licensees: note that this is not a complete list. Italics indicate licensees whose beginning and/or end dates are not known: 

1780: Richard Mouse;
1820: William Seabrook;
1823: Samuel Heles;
1840: Robert Scott;
1847: Edmund Rollings;
1864: William Gadsden;
1872: Amy Gadsden;
1872: William Turvey;
1875: Philip Bird;
1877: John Brinklow;
1878: Thomas Ward;
1879: William Bates;
1880: Henry Lane;
1885: Arthur Janes;
1905: Henry Bonner;
1907: John Bonner;
1916: Sarah Bonner;
1930: Philip Arthur Olney;
1932: Henry Edward Winch;
1949: Cyril Robert Norris;
1975: John and Olive Millard;
1975-1977: Ron and Peggy Draper;
1977-1981: Gordon and Liz Michie;
1981-1984: Moran and Yvonne Rix;

1984: Michael Desmond Rowsome;
1986: Robert Charles Hugh Saul and Charles Joseph Palmer;
1987: Frederico Saccoccio and Monika Renate Saccoccio;
1990: David John Nolan and Julia Ann Nolan.
Public House closed 1995