London hotels’ division bells ring at democracy’s heart
London hotels’ division bells ring at democracy’s heart
03 JUNE 2019 8:11 AM

Division bells alert Members of Parliament that a vote is imminent, and while many bells are placed around Parliament, several London hotels have housed them as well.

LONDON—With the United Kingdom’s Parliament seemingly voting on something—well, on Brexit—every 30 minutes or so, many viewers and commentators have been charmed or alarmed by the very British theatrics that go along with every passage of law.

When a proposed piece of law is presented to Parliament for a vote, after discussion, the Speaker of the House of Commons shouts “Division,” at which point Members of Parliament clear the debating chamber and a little while later either vote for the law, the “Ayes,” or against it, the “Nos.”

Phones and bells dotted throughout Parliament known as division bells ring loudly at every vote so that those MPs not in the chamber know they have eight minutes to come and cast their ballots.

There are approximately 200 bells outside of the Palace of Westminster, which contains the House of Commons, all connected by telephone line and some of which are in the private residences of Members of Parliament, but due to many politicians in the Victorian and Edwardian ages less likely to be at home or, indeed, in Parliament itself, bells also were placed around Westminster in eight restaurants, three clubs and two pubs.

There are at least four hotels in London that have been home to these division bells, including The Royal Horseguards Hotel; St. Ermin’s Hotel; St. James’ Court Hotel, a Taj Hotel; and the Conrad London St. James.* Here is the history of three of the hotels that have housed Parliamentary division bells.

The Royal Horseguards Hotel
On Whitehall Court in a Grade I-listed building that dates to 1884, the Royal Horseguards has been a luxury hotel since 1971. Since 2008, it has been owned and operated by Guoman Hotels.

The hotel still has its division bell in place, and according to interim GM Hilary Cross, it still rings from time to time.

Cross said over the past year, it has rung three times, and guests do enquire about its function, use and history when they hear it.

The hotel’s building has been the headquarters of intelligence organizations MI5 and MI6, MI6 being where fictional secret agent James Bond, 007, worked.

St. Ermin’s Hotel
Now part of Marriott International’s soft-brand Autograph Collection, the Grade II-listed St. Ermin’s is named for a monastery reputed to have been on the site before the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. That date is at least 149 years before the signing of the Magna Carta document, generally accepted as the first act of democracy in what was to become the U.K. St. Ermin’s became a hotel in the 1890s.

The hotel also is entwined with the world of espionage, being the birthplace in World War II of the Special Operations Executive, another official but secret organization. Infamously, it was where the U.K.’s most famous 20th Century double-agents Kim Philby and Donald Maclean allegedly handed over compromising material to foreign handlers.

“Our division bell, we think, was last used in the very early ’90s,” said Stuart Leckie, the hotel’s sales and marketing director.

It does remain in the hotel, though.

“The hotel was completely refurbished under new ownership in 2012, and we polished up the phone and were lucky enough to get Sir Winston Churchill’s grandson, Sir Nicholas Soames, to come and unveil the small plaque explaining the division bell’s purpose. Most people have no idea about why the bell was there,” Leckie said.

Hoteliers have memories of that bell in action.

“Our longest serving employee of over 40 years remembers well the bell ringing and the porters rushing into the bar, not shouting ‘division’ but having the word in capitals on a large piece of paper, so as not to disturb our other guests,” Leckie said.

Today, Los Angeles-based Sunrider International, whose main operations involve food products and herbal supplements, owns the hotel.

St. James’ Court, a Taj Hotel
Opened as a hotel in 1902, St. James’ is today owned and operated by The Indian Hotel Company’s division Taj Hotels Palaces Resorts Safaris, owned by Indian conglomerate Tata Group.

Unfortunately, its bell is now gone, according to its GM Digvijay Singh.

“The division bell was removed quite a few years ago from the hotel,” Singh added.

The buildings the hotel now resides in date back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I and also contain another Taj property, the Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites & Residences. They also have at one time contained five schools named for the blazers their students wore—Black Coat, Blue Coat, Brown Coat, Green Coat and Grey Coat.

*Correction, 11 June 2019: This story has been updated to add a fourth London hotel that contains a Parliament division bell.

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