If you could bottle the past, Bells Milk Bar has the recipe, with its authentic 1950s fit-out and nostalgic flavoured spiders and milkshakes.

Story By Therese Hall

Tucked away on Patton Street, Broken Hill, on the south side of the lode is Bells Milk Bar, a perfectly intact relic of the 1950s. For those old enough to have experienced milk bar culture at its bobby-socks height, entering Bells is like peeling away the past five decades. But for Broken Hillites, it’s the place to go on a sweltering summer evening to cool off with a green lime spider, a fruit tingle soda or a blue moon milkshake, as it has been since the 1930s.
While most milk bars have languished since their heady days as the social hub of suburbs and towns across Australia, Bells is thriving on a new-found love of nostalgia, thanks to self-named milk-bar crusader Jason King. Although not a local in the Broken Hill sense of the word (after nine years in town, Jason is still from ‘away’), he’s been embraced by the community of 20,000, which is pleased to see Bells flourishing again.
When Jason bought the milk bar in 2004 it was “on death’s door”. “It had gone away from the essence of the place and it was tired,” Jason says. Since the Bell family sold the business in 1980 it had lost its mojo, although fortunately it had hung on to its 1950s decor and the original recipes for the flavoured syrups that had made its shakes and sodas sing. When Jason rescued Bells from near-oblivion he didn’t so much change anything as revert to the milk bar’s original flavour. “Initially, we went for the funky cafe theme with painted tables and toasted sandwiches,” he says. “But that didn’t catch on. It was only when we went back to the 1950s theme that it started going really well.”
Bells Milk Bar specialises in sweet drinks, as it has from the very beginning. “Bells never did food, just confectionery and cordials,” Jason says. “We focus on the indulgent side of things – sodas, shakes and spiders, as well as ice-cream sundaes, hot waffles and apple pie.”
Opened in 1892 by confectioner and cordial-maker Frederick Fenton, Bells was loosely in the same ‘family’ for almost a century. In the early 1900s Frederick handed the business over to his apprentice John Longman who married fellow apprentice Minnie Pearl Davis. John was killed in France in World War I, leaving ‘Pearly’ to run the business on her own. When she married Les Bell, a toolmaker in the mines, in 1923 the shop became known as ‘Pearly Bells’.

This Story is from Issue #88

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2013