Bells Milk Bar started out as a small confectionary store called ‘F. Fenton Confectioner’ in 1892. The original building was situated on the same site that Bells now occupies. Frederick Fenton was also a cordial maker. At some point, Mr Fenton hired John Joseph Longman as his apprentice.
By 1908, Fenton had expanded and was managing another store the Duff Street Shops, and Longman was left in charge of the Patton Street store. When he passed on, Fenton left the business to Longman.
Les Bell’s mother, Minnie Pearl Davis joined the business in 1903, as an apprentice cordial maker, and later married Mr Longman.
Minnie Pearl had three children to Longman: Eric, Robert and Eunice. In 1917 Longman was killed in France in the First World War, leaving Minnie Pearl to run the shop on her own.
Although she remarried on the 7th March 1923 to Les Bell, a toolmaker on the South Mine, Minnie Pearl was the true pioneer of Bells, running the shop solo as Old Les continued working on the mine.
At a time in history when women were far from raising a corporate kafuffle, Minnie Pearl showed remarkable levels of customer service. One story of Minnie’s commitment to the store mentions her practice for closing. Legend has it that she would stand out in the street until it was devoid of a single soul before closing; Thus ensuring that no one was ever denied the opportunity to purchase one last special Bells drink.
The ‘Milk Bar” first appeared in Australia around 1936 in Sydney. Though “Pearly Bells” as it became to be known, was already an old soda fountain shop of much renown, council records indicate a major re-development of the shop in 1938. This would have most likely been when it first became ‘Bells Milk Bar’.
As well as enjoying the atmosphere of the shop even back then, people came to taste Pearly Bell’s delicious drinks like the Green Lime or Ginger Beer Spider and Vanilla Malt Milkshake.
Pearly’s fourth child, Les Bell Junior, inherited Bells Milk Bar in 1953, when his mother retired and moved to Adelaide to live with her daughter, Eunice. In the proud Bells tradition, Mavis Bell continued the ‘doll-faced’ appearance adding a beehive hairstyle too. (It is said that Mavis was the first ‘outsider’ to ever work in Bells). The fifties saw Broken Hill thrive. The population was almost double that of today and Bells Drinks were in high demand, particularly over the sweltering Broken Hill summers. The fifties and sixties live on in Bells Milk Bar. After only 3 years as owners of the shop, Les and Mavis conducted dramatic renovations. Art Deco architecture meets the Jetson’s-style ‘Dancing Fruit & Aliens’ interior murals and the originality of the place is in tact. This version of Bells is still architecturally stylish today, and was ahead of it’s time in the mid 1950’s.
The 1950’s were the age of consumerism and everything was newer, bigger, and better. Les Bell was a perfectionist. He took his mother’s old recipes of the late 19th century and added the 1950’s ingredients to modernise them. The result can still be tasted today – the drinks served here are made from Les Bell’s famous secret recipes which he adapted from his mother’s old fashioned recipes. They taste ‘out of this world’ and are a fine example of the benefit of retaining the old traditions like small batch handmade syrups.
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