An Alehouse, the Old Sod, the Hub

image-2“The Pothouse Parliament”

Ballantine Brewery was probably America’s premier ale brewery of the period 1840-1971. But there were many other ale brewers, before and after Prohibition, including in the old city of Boston. They tended to predominate in New England and environs, a natural circumstance given the ethnic stock of the original settlers.

Recently, I surveyed a c.1900 publication from Ballantine which, in an increasingly anti-alcohol atmosphere, looked back to an earlier day. Conjured was the time the brewery had been established in Newark, NJ (1840), when the alehouse and tap-room inherited from Colonial America and beyond that, Britain, still flourished. The brewery used this device to swath the ale tradition in gauzy, romantic dress, no doubt hoping to fend off the moral arbiters who campaigned for closing the saloons and indeed the end of all beverage alcohol.

Certainly, Ballantine’s evocation of the old American alehouse and its typical denizens was idealized. Still, can we conclude there wasn’t an element of truth in it? That the English beer house transplanted to new sod far away by people of the same blood didn’t by and large have its place in the community? That it wasn’t, at day’s end, of positive value or at least benign in effect?


The survival of the public house in England and the appreciation of its best virtues show that the pub has a deep taproot so to speak in English-speaking societies. This is even as the movement to save pubs in the mother land from redevelopment can assume outsized proportions to the non-Briton, bemused by such dedication. (Weren’t all old pubs of burnished oak or thatchy roof new at one time, the concrete-steel-glass parvenus of their day? What did they replace?).

So too in America appreciation of the ale house and its stock in trade of ale and porter never died although the enthusiasm was diluted in exile. They survived the tsunami of lager in the country after 1850, the pre-Pro temperance movement and fallow time of Volstead, and the post-Prohibition “bar”, an amalgam of influences, notably the old saloon, the 50s rec room, and post-1933 liquor regulation.

In consequence, numerous alehouses survive in the country which are regarded as historic and worth preserving. Many have been catalogued by Jay Brooks in his excellent “oldest bars” piece some years ago, hereSome have yet made the pages of literary journals, McSorley’s Ale House in New York is a prime example.

A venerable such establishment exists in Boston (among others), The Bell In Hand, established in 1795 by a Scot named Wilson. It is not in the original location, there have been three moves by my count. Yet the current bar and restaurant is in a direct line of descent and still displays the famous bell-ringing sign as its bush. It derives from Wilson’s occupation as town crier.


It is rare enough to find a paean of the old-time alehouse – or any drinking place – in bluenose America of 1900-1920. It startles one familiar with the censorious era to note The Bell In Hand received two.

One was in 1915 in the pages of the trade journal The Western Brewer: and Journal of the Barley, Malt and Hop Trades. The other was in a New York-based literary and political magazine, the Caledonian, in 1911.

Trade journals such as the Western Brewer focused resolutely on bottom-fermentation and the perfection of lager. Ale and porter by the time of WW I had only a small sale in the U.S., but many of the old concerns continued and some advertised in various media. Of course too some ale brewers, including Ballantine, had started making lager, so had stakes in both camps.

The Western Brewer was perhaps motivated by nostalgia and devoted almost a page to The Bell In Hand. The story discussed the imminent move from the bar’s second location, at “Pi Alley”. This was a nickname for a dark alley called Williams Court. The “pie” derived either from meat pie shops in the original area, or “pied type”, used by printers in the district, no one really knows.

Among the expected bits of history such as the prints and art festooning the walls and details of rooms and furniture, was a reference to the beer served – ale. There are no less than three references to handpumps in the article. It is claimed the second owner brought them from England in 1851 and they were the first in use in America. The story is a rare admiring look, by an industry then intent on modernization and light lager, at an older tradition, one which endured but was being increasingly squeezed by a newer drink made by a newer generation of Americans.


The second eloge of The Bell In Hand is in the Caledonian, from 1911, by Robert E. May. This piece is written from a literary standpoint but is no less appreciative of the merits. Indeed I can now see that it was a progenitor of Joseph Mitchell’s famous article of 1940 in the New Yorker on McSorley Ale House.

May stresses the enduring British character of the place, still evident in 1911. It was reflected not just in the bar’s layout, furnishings, and in the ale sold, but also the very patrons: more than half in this period were actually from the U.K.

May noted a riot of Britannic accents all competing and joining in the general but peaceful affray over politics, art, business and more. Unlike some bar depictions which are pleased to paint those who express opinion as bigmouths, this writer felt the speakers knew what they were talking about. In part this was because the bar was a resort of lawyers, writers, businessmen, politicians – people working in the fields being debated.

The place closed early then, about 8:00 p.m. – appropriate for a city always considered of top-most propriety but one which evidently had room for more expansive traditions, of long veneration.

The Bell In Hand carries on, its long heritage living happily with ranking regularly in Boston’s top 10 bars. It still has an English look I think, from the outside anyway, as some parts of Boston do still. I hope the handpumps are still there, but it’s good to see Sam Adams’ and numerous other genuine ales being served. How appropriate, given Sam Adams’ evident connection to Boston and that it has made ale from its inception, along with its better-known lager, as a charter member of the beer revival.

That’s the Bell In Hand, the Hub. From 1795. Check it out.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from HathiTrust. The second from Jamaica Plain Historical Society, here, the third from Tabelog, here, and the last from The Bell In Hand’s website, here. All intellectual property therein or thereto belong to their lawful owner or authorized users. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.