This much-loved Broken Hill icon is frozen in time, somewhere in the 1950s.
Mention Bells to any Broken Hill local and their face will light up. While the great Aussie milk bar may have well and truly had its day, Bells remains intact and aesthetically unchanged from its 1950s heyday. Fitted out with retro chrome furniture alongside genuine 50s relics, the spiders and milkshakes served here still use the same handmade syrup recipes concocted by pioneer Les Bells more than 60 years ago.
There are more than 50 flavours to choose from, all made in small batches on site as they always were. Add a selection of cakes, ice creams and light meals, and you’ll be blissfully toe-tapping along to the 50s tunes cranking from the jukebox while sucking back a malted butterscotch shake, or something equally delicious.
While the present day Bells is a wonderfully preserved love letter to mid-century Australian milk bar culture, the shop’s roots go back much further.
It began life on the current site in 1892 as a small confectionary store run by Frederick Fenton, who was also a cordial maker. His apprentice, John Joseph Longman, took over the business around 1908. Les Bell’s mother, Minnie Pearl Davis, had been employed as an apprentice from around 1903. She and John married and had three children, but when John was killed in France in the final weeks of World War One, Minnie was left to run the store on her own. At that time, it became known as Pearly Longman’s.
Minnie remarried in 1923, to Les Bell, who worked at the South Mine. The shop then became known as Pearly Bell’s but ‘Old Les’ continued to work at the mine, leaving Minnie Pearl to run the shop. She was the true pioneer behind Bells and a famously hardworking woman who wouldn’t close the shop if there was a thirsty-looking soul on Patton Street.
Milk bars first appeared in Australia around 1932; council records show a major redevelopment of Bells in 1938, which is likely when it became Bells Milk Bar.
Minnie Pearl had had another son from her second marriage – Les Bell Jr – and he took over the shop in 1953 with his wife, Mavis. The pair renovated dramatically in 1956, and today that 50s architecture remains intact.
Famous for its drinks, Bells was soon equally well-known for Mavis, whose doll-like appearance and immaculate beehive hairstyle became local legends. Back then, the population of Broken Hill was double what it is today, and in the long hot summers the queue for refreshing drinks regularly spilled out the door and down the street.
But if Mavis was the beauty, Les was the brains. He adapted his mother’s old-fashioned syrups using modern ingredients and the proof of his recipes’ success is that they’re still in use today.
Now well and truly woven into the social fabric of Broken Hill, many locals cherish dear memories of Bells – first dates, after-school gossip, taking home ice cream in a billy can to eat on the front lawn, Les Bell’s never-ending supply of jokes – many not fit for children – and the fact the shop was always immaculately presented, as was the glamorous Mavis.
Current owner and milk bar aficionado Jason King has carried out some renovations of his own, opening up the back rooms (formerly the Bells’ home) as a museum and gallery celebrating not just all things milk bar but 50s culture in general. There are antique features from Bells as well as other milk bars around the country. His passion for Bells and love of the history is evident and, together with his wife and young children, it’s safe to say this Broken Hill darling is in very safe hands.
A fun and nostalgic meander down memory lane, Bells Milk Bar is an absolute must-do when visiting Broken Hill.
Bells Milk Bar is located at 160 Patton St, Broken Hill, NSW. Click here for more information.