221 Watling Street, Towcester
The Bell Inn
John Wheeler's houseJohn Wheeler's house
Roman LampRoman Lamp
As you wait in Towcester at the Brackley Road traffic lights to join the queues in Watling Street you might like to reflect that you are passing over the foundations of several buildings that used to front onto Watling Street and which were demolished for road widening. The earliest known of these buildings was "The Bell Inn".

There are no illustrations of "The Bell Inn" known to exist . The Inn was part of the Earl of Pomfret's Estate and was occupied by Thomas Bull between 1796 and his death 1840. His successor, William Bliss, left before 1851 and was replaced Thomas Cooke. Bliss would have found the inn trade difficult because of the serious decline in coach traffic caused by the London to Birmingham Railway becoming fully open in 1839. Cooke would have found it very difficult to stay solvent with the struggling economy of the town. By 1859 the old inn was a demolished and the site was available for development.

John Wheeler, a builder from Whittlebury, saw the site as an opportunity to build his family a large residence in the town. He negotiated a 40 year lease of the site from the Earl of Pomfret in September 1859 at £15 per annum, on the condition he built a messuage, wheelwright's shop and two open sheds for storing timber costing at least £500 by September 1862. Construction commenced straight away and later that year that a complete Roman lamp made of Samian ware by the potter "Fortis" was found whilst digging the foundations for the cellar.

Wheeler used brick for the facade and constructed a large house; three storeys in height with a central doorway flanked by fashionable bay windows on the ground floor (see building on left side of the photograph). Two years later it was completed. In 1871 it was the home for Wheeler's extended family of his wife, three adult children and two grandchildren. It was there he lived until his death in 1880. His wife, Hannah, two of his children and one grandchild continued to live in the house but in order to obtain an income part of the house was divided off and let to John Butler, a horse keeper. Hannah's son Thomas, also a builder, continued to live in the house after Hannah had died and sub-let part to William Fiddler, the Baptist minister in 1891 and Edmund Eley, a book seller in 1901. In 1910 it was still owned by the Earl of Pomfret and let as two houses each with 2 reception rooms, 3 bedrooms and attics.

If any reader knows when this building was demolished for road widening or has any photographs of the building I would be very pleased to hear from you. The best surviving photograph of John Wheeler's house is shown above.

© Brian L Giggins 2009
Architectural Historian
Towcester January 2009
  1. My thanks go to Mary Taylor for her magnificent "Towcester families" website. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~towcesterfamilies
  2. The reference to the Roman lamp comes from the Northampton Mercury dated 7th June 1862
  3. The 1859 lease at the Northamptonshire Record office, Fermor Hesketh Box P, bundle I
  4. The 1910 reference from "Towcester Tenements - A survey of the Victorian Town" by Phillip Riden and Margaret Webb, Merton Priory Press, 2000. ISBM 1 898937 44 3.