Bellamy’s

John Bellamy: mezzotint (1814) by Charles Turner after painting (1808) by J.T. Smith. copyright Trustees of the British Museum (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license.)

Bellamy’s was the name commonly used for a set of rooms in which tea, coffee, alcohol and light meals were served close to the Commons chamber in the pre-fire (before 1834) Palace of Westminster. Managed by two successive John Bellamys, both of them deputy housekeeper to the House of Commons, it is usually remembered for two reasons. One is the alleged deathbed remark of Pitt the Younger (‘I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s pork pies’), which is attributed to a doorkeeper and, one might speculate, could have been an invention of Bellamy himself. The other is the sketch by Charles Dickens originally published in the Evening Chronicle in 1835 and subsequently amalgamated with a separate piece to become a chapter of Sketches by Boz. In it he described ‘the refreshment room, common to both houses of parliament, where ministerialists and oppositionists, Whigs and Tories, Radicals and Destructives, Peers and Reporters, strangers from the gallery, and the more favoured strangers from below the bar, are alike at liberty to resort’.  

Dickens’s description hints at the distinctive place that Bellamy’s occupied in the late Georgian and early Victorian political world. This was one of the places where different worlds collided. Not just politically different worlds, but socially different ones too: the high political society monde, and the political journalism demi-monde, dukes and prime ministers together with doorkeepers, messengers and the almost random society of the strangers’ gallery. It is true that one of the rooms at Bellamy’s was set aside for members only. But descriptions of Bellamy’s make it very clear that visitors, staff and members of both Houses were often eating in the same room, sometimes even at the same table. It was an unrivalled opportunity to observe the political class at close quarters and at its most unguarded.

Bellamy’s is said to have been started in 1773, though this is not quite what is said in the probable source for this statement, the evidence given by John Bellamy the younger to a select committee investigating the murky business of the establishment of the House of Commons some sixty years later. ‘When my father came to the House, in the year 1773’, he said, ‘he was requested by some of the members to get some refreshments, which he, having only two rooms to do it in, was fearful could not be done. The subject was still pressed on him, and he contrived to meet it. The members fixed their own prices on the things. I am not aware that he ever altered the price of any article without having exhibited it before the members themselves. I have done so more than once myself, and exhibited a placard of the prices, and which the members themselves have either objected to or said that it would do’. Before Bellamy’s existed, it was evidently possible to have refreshments laid on close to the chamber: Lady Mary Coke, one of a group of female companions visiting the commons gallery in 1768 as guests of Lady Mary, the wife of Sir James Lowther , was treated to a full dinner of three courses – hot and cold – served in one of the committee rooms. But presumably this was exceptional, bought in for the occasion. There were also taverns and coffee-houses around the Palace, indeed, built against it and in some cases within it. These were private enterprises. The demand in the 1770s seems to have been for refreshment facilities as close as possible to the chamber, presumably so that members could be sure not to miss a division. The demand for Bellamy’s might perhaps be linked to the increased number of divisions during the 1770s.

Formally the serjeant-at-arms was housekeeper; the Bellamys operated as his deputies, responsible for cleaning the chamber and committee rooms, and collecting the various fees due to the serjeant from members, and others. Bellamy père retired in 1811 to Clapham, leaving (with the agreement of the serjeant-at-arms of the time) the deputy-housekeeper post and the refreshment rooms in the hands of his son. The handsome portrait of him sitting in an armchair, the Morning Chronicle in his hand and a bust of Charles James Fox glancing out from behind him, was painted in 1808. He died in 1816, two years after a mezzotint version of the picture was published, perhaps a sign of his fame.

There are a number of references to politicians such as John Wilkes and Richard Sheridan dining in the ‘coffee room over the House of Commons’ from the 1770s onwards, though whether this means Bellamy’s is unclear. The first proper description of the rooms I know comes in the probably spoof Pearson’s Political Dictionary of 1792, supposedly the peppery thoughts of a legendarily grumpy doorkeeper. Pearson referred to Bellamy’s as ‘a damn’d good house, up stairs, where I have drank many a pipe of red port. Here the members, who cannot say more than yes or no below, can speechify for hours to Mother Bellamy about beef steaks and pork chops. Sir Watkin Lewes always dresses them there himself—and I’ll be curst if he ben’t a choice hand at a beef steak and a bottle, as well as a pot and a pipe’. Bellamy, Pearson said, was making more money than he was out of tips (which would have made it a very great deal).

The earliest descriptions of these rooms are sometimes confusing and contradictory, but they do suggest a very constrained space. The account given of dining in Bellamy’s by the later editor of the Literary Gazette,William Jerdan, probably relates to the period at the beginning of his career, around 1807 and 1808, when he was writing reports of parliamentary proceedings for a succession of newspapers. Jerdan referred in his autobiography to a refreshment room for Members, with a ‘place appropriated for the refection of strangers’, just outside it. There, ‘on the landing at the top of the stairs, on a small table, they could have the most excellent cold beef and beetroot salad for three shillings and sixpence, whilst the luxurious legislators within, might indulge in veal pies, and the most admirable miniature steaks and chops, brought to them hot and hot from the gridiron before their eyes’. Occasionally, when this outside space was full, ‘individuals known to the servants’ were occasionally allowed into the dining room itself ‘as if by accident’: the newspaper proprietor William Jerdan mentioned that he shared a small table once with the Marquis of Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington and George Canning. An American visitor, Benjamin Silliman, who visited the Commons gallery in 1805 talked of two coffee rooms ‘under the same roof with the House of Commons’. Tired and with a severe headache after hours in the gallery, he left between midnight and one to find a cup of tea in one of them, but was stopped from going in, and had to take his tea in the lobby outside.

An 1825 account claims that Bellamy’s had ‘some of the best wine that you can drink in London, and some of the best chops and steaks that ever solicited to be cooked’, which could ‘almost console one for an hour or two’s previous imprisonment in a crowded, riotous, and mephitic gallery’. The chops and steaks were served by Ann and Jane, who were described in disconcertingly similar terms (‘so plump, and sleek, and clean’) as the meat and the port, sherry and madeira, ‘so exactly bodied for an Englishman’s palate, that now and then one had rather dine at Bellamy’s than at home’. The reporter described sipping port in the coffee room when the division bell went and members rushed off in disorder to vote. Watching members scramble down the stairs was evidently one of the great pleasures that reporters, at least, could derive from eating there: the author of this account described the animal rights campaigner Richard Martin abandoning his chop and shuffling off after the Tory chief whip, Billy Holmes, complaining bitterly about the interruption of his meal; Mr Honeywood, the wind taken out of his sails by the bell as he was making ‘small talk to the girls about his beagles, his pointers, and the independent freeholders of Kent’; and a ‘kilted highlander’ inquiring after Joseph Hume from the waiter, Wardle, who responded, ‘with tears of indignation starting from his eyes,’ ‘ “Mr Hume! He never was seen here in his life”’ . The main purpose of this account, published originally in News of Literature and Fashion, was to retail a story about one of the Irish members, who must be the Waterloo veteran Captain Standish O’Grady . O’Grady had apparently taken exception to the resident cat and carried out his threat to ‘nail her to the floor’ by throwing a knife at her ‘with a precision which would have done honour to Commodus, or any other gentleman of his own character’. One of the female servants who was deeply attached to it bore away ‘her murdered favourite, watered with the tears that bespoke all that her pity felt, and the loathing hatred which her humble station forbade her to express in louder terms’. (I have no idea if the story was true: if so, Bellamy’s knives must have been sharper than those usually found in restaurants, and the sneerily italicised ‘gentleman’ is one of many indications that the article’s author was unsympathetic towards Irishmen in general and O’Grady in particular.)

A parliamentary guide published in the 1820s and early 1830s mentioned ‘Bellamy’s coffee-room’, ‘at which both members and strangers visiting the gallery occasionally dine and sup’. It referred to the relatively restricted menu of ‘rump steaks, mutton chops, veal pasties of superlative excellence, cold roast and boiled beef, pickles of all sorts, and Stilton cheese’, with a wine list consisting ‘of wines of all the countries of the earth, of the finest quality and flavour’, as well as porter, coffee and beer. ‘Strangers must not be surprised if they are here treated with less ceremony than the members’, it added; ‘they are, in fact, admitted only by courtesy; but they fare not the worse because they have not an MP attached to their names.’

It is possible that Bellamy’s had by now expanded beyond its original extent. A comprehensive 1834 plan of the Palace shows a suite of refreshment rooms on the first floor, roughly on a level with the House of Commons and House of Lords galleries and the Commons smoking room. They were conveniently located among the committee rooms, in the building range that now roughly equates to the current St Stephen’s entrance of the Palace, roughly opposite the King Henry VII chapel of Westminster Abbey. The plans show three rooms, or perhaps four: a Members’ Dining Room, a Kitchen and Refreshment Room, and a Store Room, but the latter divided by a partition, part of which is marked ‘tea room’. When Bellamy gave evidence to the Select Committee on Rebuilding the Houses of Parliament shortly after the fire, in 1835, he explained the arrangements: he had two sitting rooms and two bedrooms in the attic for his own private use, four rooms for the servants, and there were two rooms used as prison rooms – for people detained by order of the House. Downstairs there was a kitchen, a dining room, a scullery, ‘a large store room for general purposes, candles, soap and other things (a portion of which also held the tea-service which was prepared for the members)’, a pantry and larder. The kitchen doubled up as a dining room. Only members were supposed to dine in the dining room, but Bellamy told the committee that many of the members ‘who attend upstairs’ (in committees) ‘decidedly prefer the kitchen to the other room during the winter’. They must have been regularly sitting with the messengers and doorkeepers, whom Bellamy said he encouraged to go upstairs to get their refreshment ‘at so moderate a price that they should not have an inducement to go elsewhere’.

The 1834 fire destroyed the refreshment rooms, and Bellamy’s apartment in the attic. The rooms Dickens described in his article, written only six months later, must either have been renovated very quickly, or have relocated elsewhere in the Palace. You would, he wrote, go up a narrow staircase from the interim Commons chamber (it had been the House of Lords before the fire). To your right, he wrote, you would find a couple of rooms set up for dining; and on the left was the kitchen, up another half-flight of stairs. There was a window in the kitchen opposite St Margaret’s church, which suggests that Bellamy’s was now occupying a range of rooms slightly to the North of its previous location, above the law courts built in the 1820s. Before you reached the kitchen there was ‘a little bar-place with the sash windows’, where the butler, Nicholas (presumably the ‘Wardle’ of 1825), ‘the steady, honest-looking old fellow in black’ stood, having ‘held the same place, dressed exactly in the same manner, and said precisely the same things ever since the oldest of its present visitors can remember’. ‘A queer old fellow is Nicholas’, wrote Dickens, ‘and as completely a part of the building as the house itself’; so attached he was to his post that it was remarkable that he had ever been dragged from it as it was consumed by flames.

Dickens’s article was really about the kitchen, and the kitchen was probably what people really meant when they talked about Bellamy’s. There was, he wrote, a large fire and a roasting jack at one end of the room, with a table ‘for washing glasses and draining jugs’ at the other. It had a bare floor, deal tables, wax candles, and damask table cloths. Dickens sketched a few clearly identifiable members hanging around in the room, waiting for the next division: Sir Andrew Agnew; George Byng, Thomas Duncombe, John Gully, William Hughes Hughes, Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorp, Thomas Wakley, and John Richards. There is also a portrait of one of the two female servants – the shorter one of the two, Jane, ‘the Hebe of Bellamy’s’, ‘as great a character as Nicholas in her way’, whose ‘leading feature seems to be a thorough contempt for the great majority of her visitors; her predominant quality, love of admiration’. (Jane was perhaps the person who was really running the place, ‘a most worthy person’, according to Bellamy, who ‘conducts if very well; I superintend it, but I know but little of the minor arrangements’.)

Bellamy told (sceptical) select committees in the 1830s that he made no money out of the refreshment rooms. It had, he said ‘hardly ever realized me any profit whatever… it rarely happens that that is ever a profitable trade, from the number of servants that are required and kept on during the whole year, which is necessary to be done’. Questioned about whether he could provide a more extensive service, he thought it would only be possible on a club basis – with members paying a regular subscription to cover the costs: ‘at present it is a matter of so great uncertainty, that I think nothing but a beefsteak or chop could be provided without a serious loss to the person providing it’; if ‘a dinner of soups and stews’ was wanted, ‘a different dining room would be necessary, and then a subscription to ensure a certainty would be necessary.’ He was challenged with the apparent success of Alice’s coffee-house, which by now seems to have been based in Westminster Hall. He explained that Alice’s was run on a sort of club basis: it ‘had the advantage of the gowns and wigs of the lawyers, who paid a large subscription for the purpose, and was kept open the whole year; whereas the refreshment rooms of the house of commons are only open during its sittings’. Bellamy did almost certainly make a lot of money though. Startlingly enough, he told the committee on rebuilding the house in 1835 that ‘under the House of Commons… I have a stock of £2000 worth of wines for the express use of the House of Commons, at present under the building’. It isn’t said whether this had survived the fire (which seems highly unlikely) or bought afterwards, and whether it was under the old House of Commons, or the temporary one. ‘Bellamy and Kew’ are listed in trade directories from at least the 1790s as ‘wine merchants’, at first from Old Palace Yard, and subsequently in Bridge Street. Bellamy seems to have had a royal warrant for supply of wine to the royal court as well before 1820. Supplying and selling that much wine to the Commons probably brought a substantial profit; and the availability of storage under the House of Commons was no doubt an advantage.

The committee on the establishment of the House of Commons, to which Bellamy gave evidence in 1833, had been set up with the aim of doing away with replacing the antiquated system of remuneration for parliamentary staff by fees with a straightforward salary structure. The emoluments received by the deputy housekeeper ‘proceed from so many sources, and are in some particulars so improper in principle, that the committee propose to abolish the whole of them’. Instead of all the fees and allowances, perquisites and gratuities, ‘or other emoluments for use of rooms or otherwise’, the committee decided that the deputy housekeeper would receive £700 a year, out of which he would pay the cleaning staff. Unlike other staff previously in receipt of fees and gratuities, the committee did not propose that Bellamy should be compensated with a salary. Bellamy stayed on, nevertheless, until his resignation in 1842. He died, in his house in Woburn Square, in 1846.

His resignation was probably the occasion for a reorganisation in the serjeant’s department. The post of deputy housekeeper was split, with a deputy housekeeper, and an assistant, William Bellamy, in charge of the refreshment rooms. This might have been the man who had previously occupied the position of lower doorkeeper, who must have been John junior’s brother, rather than his son, for he died in 1849, only three years after John, at the age of 62. Or it might have been John’s son, who had worked as his father’s assistant. There is a reference in a 1863 report to the appointment ‘on Bellamy’s death’ of a Mr Woodhouse, ‘late steward to the Duke of Beaufort’ as keeper of the refreshment rooms at some point between 1848 and 1852, which perhaps suggests that the current Bellamy was the former of the two; or it might be a confused reference to the death of John Junior in 1846.

But even before this, the days of the refreshment rooms as a family business were numbered. In the mid-1840s the catering arrangements for the new, rebuilt, Palace, were being considered. Asked in 1844 how he proposed to conduct the coffee-room in the new House, the serjeant at arms, Sir William Gossett, said that he had not yet made up his mind how the new coffee-room should be run: ‘I have a doubt, however, whether it would be advantageous for a committee of the House of Commons to manage it’ (Q. 624). Four years later, the House established a Standing Committee on Kitchen and Refreshment rooms, with predictable results.

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