UK Parliamentary
Division and Count Bell system


In the UK, Parliament, like many other Commonwealth countries used external bells to call Members to the vote in a Division or a Count. 

Votes in the House of Commons or the House of Lords are known as a division.  The moment a division is called, members have a specified time (which can change over the years) and not a second longer, to make it to the voting lobbies in person.  At the end of the specified time the lobby doors are locked and nobody can enter.
 
As soon as a division is called by the Speaker the bells were originally sounded for 30 seconds, which means the vote will after the specified waiting time.  The bells on the Parliamentary estate give a sedate ring and not the harsh sound produced by most bells.  The Principle Door Keeper, operates the bells and used a Transmitter which is located in a box next to his seat by the entrance to the House of Commons chamber.  Bells were installed in the Palace of Westminster and the surrounding area.  MP's, not in the House, therefore have to rush to Parliament which means the bells are approximately located in a one mile radius around Parliament.
 
The bells can be in Pubs, Restaurants, Hotels, Government Departments etc and even in private homes.  The number of bells changes over the years but in 2014 there were 384 in the Palace of Westminster and 172 outside the Parliamentary estate.  In 2014 it was estimated that there was 11 km of Division bell cabling in the Palace of Westminster.
 
The first Division bells were trialled in 1853.  The GPO treated this apparatus as Telegraph equipment.
 
The bells on the Palace of Westminster estate operated at 3.5hz and in 1904 the Bell No. 25A (1 ohm) was introduced.  In 1913 the system was updated and the bells beyond the parliamentary estate operated at 25hz. 
 
In 1913, due to failures of the external bells, the GPO were asked to install updated testing apparatus to the existing Division bell system.  The new equipment, which is documented in wiring diagram TG212, consisted of a wall board with two galvanometers, a press button, a change over switch and eighteen two way switches.  The two way switches connected the external bells, with one switch feeding a bell fitted in the Parliamentary Post Office lobby for testing purposes.
 
The two way switches allowed the external circuits to be isolated for testing purposes.  The galvanometers showed when a circuit was faulty.  Each of the 18 circuits were tested daily at a set time, outside of Parliamentary hours.  This testing system was powered by 18 Cells Dry Y.
 
As no documentation is available on the 1913 system it is assumed that the new equipment was activated by the existing division bell transmitter.
 
A "Transmitter, Division Bell" (originally called a "Transmitter, Duplex") controlled whole system and on activation operated the internal bells directly and the external bells via the switch board.  This transmitter would operate the bells for a period of time which could be changed by adding or removing weights on the pendulum.  An existing exchange ringer was used to energise the external bells and this was switched by a "Switches, 6-Bar".  This Transmitter was originally introduced circa 1904 and probably operated all the bells, directly, be they internal or external until 1913.
 
The external bells were fed via the GPO external cable network to each location and would have originally been a Bellset No. 1.  A switch would be fitted either on the Bellset itself or adjacent to the Bellset to switch the bell on and off.  The switch placed a short circuit across the bell ringer.  Over the years the bells were replaced by modern equivalents.  If a Bellset No. 26 was provided it was fixed to a wooden back board (12" x 7") and a Switch, Tumbler No. 1M (see picture) or Switch No. 11A fitted under the bell.  In the 1960's the Bellset No. 26 had the Bakelite cover replaced with a plastic version (Cover No. 71A).  In this case a hole could be drilled in the case and a Switch, Snap Type CD265 fitted.
 
The bells only used required a single wire connection and rang to earth via a capacitor.  As the bell only required one wire the copper pair was bunched.
 
By the 1950's the system the code of ringing was, for a Count, ringing for a period of 25 seconds; for a Division, four periods of ringing of 25 seconds each, with intervals of 10 seconds.  The most serious disadvantage of this system lay in the fact that some 35 seconds had to elapse before members could recognize whether a Division or Count had been called.  MP's had 6 minutes to reach the Division Lobbies.
 
There was confusion over the bells, but a reluctance to change the system.  The GPO then offered a revision of the system in early 1958 which was demonstrated to Parliament.  The use of different frequencies was not acceptable and it was then agreed that the bells would ring 4 seconds on and 2 seconds off for a Count and 55 seconds on, 10 seconds off, 55 seconds on for a Division  The bell test facility and supporting batteries were retained, but the original transmitter was replaced with a lever-switch, a display installed at the Serjeant-at-Arms position and two new transmitters, which were located in the telephone apparatus room.
 
The system went live on the 19th May 1958.
 
 
Around 2008 a new control system was installed by Resilient PLC.  This system operated by means of a push button (shown to the right) and not the Transmitter or lever, although it looks like the original Transmitter is still in situ alongside the more modern button.  The Principle Door Keeper still operates the system and the original bells are still in use in the Palace of Westminster.  Other parliamentary buildings are connected via this control system and play the division bell sound through the voice messaging system speakers for each building.
 
If external bells were replaced on the 2008 system then the replacement was a Bell No. 50E.
 
On the 2008 system the bell cadences are:-

House of Commons
• 55secs ringing
• 10secs pause
• 55secs ringing
• Stop

House of Lords
• 35secs ringing
• 20secs pause
• 35secs ringing
• 20secs pause
• 35secs ringing
• Stop

The bells outside the Parliamentary estate used the BT lease line service and as this is being discontinued by BT, the bells are currently (as of 2021) being phased out and replaced by a mobile network connected system.
 
But many of the disconnected external bells are being left in situ and they can still be seen in certain pubs and hotels around the Westminster area of  London.
 

Length of divisions in the Commons (Information from the House of Commons Enquiry Service)
The amount of time Members of Parliament have to participate in a division developed simply on an ad hoc basis and has varied over the years depending on how many Members of the House there have been and also where their offices are based.  Since the expansion of the Parliamentary estate, with Members of Parliament having offices further from the Division lobbies, the amount of time allowed for a division has increased.  In 1975, the time was increased from 6 minutes to 8 minutes.

The time allowed for divisions was extended in late March 2020 to allow for procedural changes to how business in the House of Commons has been conducted due to the Covid pandemic.

  • On 23rd March 2020, the Speaker announced that divisions may take between 30-40 minutes to ensure all MPs who wished to participate in divisions could do so in a Covid-secure manner.

  • On 30 June, the time was reduced to 15 minutes, with subsequent divisions, 12 minutes.

It is expected that the time allowed for divisions will return to being 8 minutes when the House returns in September 2021 after the Summer recess and this would be decided by Mr Speaker.

 
 
Documentation
Provision of external bells - Diagram N615
Bell No. 25A - Drawing 90013
Transmitter, Division Bell - Drawings 1378 and 1379 (1906)
Wiring of switch board with test facility - Diagram TG212 (1912)
Description of the 1958 system update - POEEJ Volume 51 Part 3
 

Additional Information

Newspaper cutting from 1853
 


Cost of the system in 1982
Taken from BT Tariffs and Conditions, G0060

HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT DIVISION BELL SYSTEM CONNECTION CHARGE ANNUAL RENTAL
1. Internal Division Bell System (a)

POWER PLANT
   
House of Commons/House of Lords (common to both Houses) (b) 472.00
Norman Shaw North Building (b) 1704.00
     
COMMON EQUIPMENT AND TRANSMITTERS    
House of Commons (b) 4640/00
House of Lords (b) 1965.00
Norman Shaw North Building (b) 2752.00
     
PER DIVISION BELL    
2. External Division Bell System (c) 15.00 20.00

NOTES
(a) These division bell systems are entirely within the precincts of the  Houses of Parliament.  Service is provided on the basis of agreement in correspondence.

(b) Connection charges will be re-assessed as and when the need for new equipment arises.

(c) External division bells in other premises in the vicinity are charged at normal tariff rates for bells and circuits.

 

Numbers of Bells and locations

Bell locations in Westminster
By Adam Dant

 
 
List of known external bells as of 2019
(may not be accurate)
 

MOD, Main Building,Whitehall, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HB
National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HE
DEFRA, Noble House, 17 Smith Square, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JR
BEIS (was DTI), 3 Whitehall Place, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HP
Selborne House ( LCD ), 54-60 Victoria Street, London. SW1E 6QW
City Hall, 64 Victoria Street, Westminster, London. SW1E 6QP
DEFRA, Noble House, Room 607, 17 Smith Square, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JR
Cabinet Office, 70 Whitehall, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AS
PCH Division, Bell Starter Circuit.
Norman Shaw, South Division Bell Starter Circuit.
7th floor, Selbourne House ( LCD ), 54-60 Victoria Street, London. SW1E 6QW
Caxton House, 4th floor, Tothill Street, Westminster London. SW1H 9NA
BEIS, Rooms 8E14, 8G25, 8E22 ( DTI ), 3 Whitehall Place, Westminster London SW1A 2HP
UCC, outside room77
Kundan & Co, Horseferry Road, Westminster, London. SW1P 2AW
Dept of Education, Sanctuary Building, 7th Floor, 20 Great Smith Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3BT
Dept of Education, Sanctuary Building, 7th Floor, 20 Great Smith Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3BT
Treasury, Room 2/13, Great George St, 1 Horse Guards Road, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HQ
DEFRA, Noble House, 17 Smith Square, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JR
Dept for International Trade, 3-8 Whitehall Place, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HP
DEFRA, Noble House, 17 Smith Square, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JR
Conrad London St. James (was Inter Continental St ), 22-28 Broadway, Westminster, London. SW1H 0BH
DECC, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, 1 Victoria Street, Westminster, London. SW1H 0ET
Treasury, 1 Horse Guards Road, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HQ
Scottish Office, Dover House, 26 Whitehall, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AU
Dept of Education, Sanctuary Building, 7th Floor, 20 Great Smith Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3BT
Treasury, 1 Horse Guards Road, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HQ
National Liberal Club, 1 Whitehall Place, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HE
DEFRA, Dept of Environment / Climate Change, Noble House, 17 Smith Square, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JR
MOD, Horse Guards Avenue, Whitehall Westminster, London. SW1A 2HB
Foreign & Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AH
The Cinnamon Club, 30 Great Smith Street, The Old Westminster, London. SW1P 3BU
The Farmers Club (was Morgan Grenfell), 3 Whitehall Court, Westminster, London. SW1A 2EL
12 North Court, Great Peter Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3LL
Dept of Social Security, Caxton House, Tothill Street, Westminster, London. SW1H 9NA
Gold Room, Speaker's Residence
Foreign & Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AH
Dept of Education, Sanctuary Building, 20 Great Smith Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3BT
DSS, Richmond Terrace
Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, 12 Great George Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3AD
Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road, London. SW1P 4DR
Dept of Education, Sanctuary Build, 7th Floor, 20 Great Smith Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3BT
Welsh Office, Whitehall, Gwydyr House, 26 Whitehall, London. SW1A 2NP
Foreign and Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AH
DIUS, Kingsgate House, 66 Victoria Street, Westminster, London. SW1E 6SQ
BERR, Kingsgate House, 66 Victoria Street, Westminster, London. SW1E 6SQ
Home Office, 2 Marsham Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 4DF
Lamp Lighting Circuit, to Norman Shaw
Lord Advocate
Treasury, Room 2/04, 1 Horse Guards Road, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HQ
407 Richmond Terrace
Institute of Civil Engineers, 1 Great George Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3AA
DTI, 8th floor, 3 Whitehall Place, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HP
Foreign & Commonwealth Office, King Charles Street, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AH
Treasury, 1 Horse Guards Road, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HQ
Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road, London. SW1P 4DR
PUSS, 5th Floor, Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road, London. SW1P 4DR
DTI, 39 Victoria Street, Westminster, London. SW1H 0EU
Foreign and Commonwealth, Room K178, King Charles Street, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AH
Thames House (MI5), 12 Millbank, Westminster, London. SW1P 4QE
BEIS - Climate Change, 1 Victoria Street, Westminster, London. SW1H 0ET
Home Office, 2 Marsham Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 4DF
Frame Room, Test Bell,
Home Office, 2 Marsham St, Westminster, London. SW1P 4DF
DEFRA, Nobel House,17 Smith Square, Westminster, London. SW1P 3JR
Dept Transport, Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road, London. SW1P 4DR
Conservative Office, Mathew Parker Street, 4 Matthew Parker St, Westminster, London. SW1H 9HQ
Treasury, 1 Horse Guards Rd, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HQ
Home Office, 2 Marsham Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 4DF
DTI, 3 Whitehall Place, Westminster, London. SW1A 2HP
Room E1/199 - Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HOC, King Charles St, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AH
Room E1/138 - Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HOC, King Charles St, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AH
Room E1/128 - Foreign and Commonwealth Office, HOC, King Charles St, Westminster, London. SW1A 2AH
Marriott County Hall Hotel, London County Hall, Westminster Bridge Rd, Lambeth, London. SE1 7PB
The Royal Horseguards (was THISTLE HOTEL ), 2 Whitehall Court, Westminster, London. SW1A 2EJ
St Ermines Hotel, 2 Caxton St, Westminster, London. SW1H 0QW
St Stephens tavern, Bridge Street - This is a House of Commons bell
The Blue Boar, Tothill St
St. Germaine Restaurant
Shepherds Restaurant, Marsham Court, Marsham Street, Westminster London. SW1P 4LA
Lamico Restaurant.
Quirinale Restaurant, 1 Great Peter Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3LL
Quillon Restaurant, 41 Buckingham Gate, Westminster, London. SW1E 6AF
The Marquis of Granby Public House, 41 Romney Street, Westminster, London. SW1P 3RF - the bell is upside down!
The Albert Pub, 52 Victoria St, Westminster, London. SW1H 0NP
The Westminster Arms, Storey's Gate, Westminster, London.
The Red Lion Public House, 48 Parliament St, Westminster, London. SW1A 2NH
The Prince Albert, Victoria Street

 
 
 
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Last revised: November 09, 2021

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