Northern Belle, Margate
Northern Belle, Margate

A History of the Northern Belle

An extraordinary history!

A little history of the Northern Belle

Northern Belle has an extraordinary history. There has been a public house on the site since 1680 During the Georgian era, from 1714 to 1830, Margate was transformed from a small run-down fishing village into a high end seaside resort. The area attracted the great and the good from London as bathing among other things became seen as a tonic for the hectic pace of London life. 

It was in these early days of Margate’s renaissance that Keats first visited the town staying in the The Drunken Cod (the pub that would go onto become the Northern Belle). 1n 1821 It is said that he penned the early drafts of his poem Happy is England while staying in rooms on the second floor:

 

Happy is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own;
To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent:
Yet do I sometimes feel a languishment
For skies Italian, and an inward groan
To sit upon an Alp as on a throne,
And half forget what world or worldling meant.
Happy is England, sweet her artless daughters;
Enough their simple loveliness for me,
Enough their whitest arms in silence clinging:
Yet do I often warmly burn to see
Beauties of deeper glance, and hear their singing,
And float with them about the summer waters.

‘Sweet her artless daughters’,  is not thought to be a reference to the young ladies of Thanet, who it is understood he was quite fond of.
 

In 1857 the American ship, The Northern Belle, sank off the coast of Thanet and many of the town’s families rowed out to the wreck to salvage what they could from the sinking ship. It was during this time that metal and wood from the ship were incorporated into the rebuild of the pub. From that point on the public house was known as Northern Belle.

In 1876 a young 23 year old Dutchman sailed from Rotterdam to Harwich, took a train to London and then another to Ramsgate via Canterbury. Although Van Gogh lived in Ramsgate, he was also very fond of the Harbour in Margate where he would come to sketch the seas and the skies and the fishermen he found there. He was also partial to a drink or two and it is said that Northern Belle was a favoured haunt

By the 1880’s other artists were traveling to the area to paint and it was around this time that a child named Turner first visited Margate with his family. It was during one of these trips that Turner first encountered a boy, a little older than himself named Montaque (Monty) Huckstep. Huckstep would go on to become one of Margate’s most notorious publicans. 

By the early 1890’s the Northern Belle hosted many of London’s West End theatre crowd including Wilson Barrett and his producer friend Henry A James. After the success of their play ‘The Hoodman Blind’, Barrett, James, a rather dubious theatrical agent named Arthur Dingwall-Fordyce and his social climbing wife, Florence Wilkinson descended upon Margate and made ‘La Belle’, as Wilkinson named it, their regular home away from home, taking rooms on the second floor. This is where they first met Huckstep who was not yet the owner but who at 17, had a clear plan for his future. Huskstep challenged Barrett to a knife throwing contest. Barrett, drunk and believing he could throw a knife as well as the character he played in The Hoodman, accepted. Huckstep won the contest and with the proceeds began his opium smuggling business. Which in turn lead to him purchasing of the Northern Belle.

Huckstep ran a bawdy shop, with drunks regularly rolling out of the bar and straight into the harbour waters. But Huckstep was interested in more than just ale and it was common local knowledge that he promoted secret gambling rooms above the public bar. Huskstep was also a renowned opium addict himself, trading discretely in the drug smuggled into the small Cinque Port by foreign traders.

Despite his loss, Barrett and Huckstep became firm friends and it was a couple of years later that Florence Wilkinson, on a secret trip with her lover, Sir Hector Hay, a wealthy Scottish Baronet in his late seventies, introduced Huckstep to a local girl she had adopted, Sophia Booth. Sophie would later set up a boarding house across the road by the sea and it is there that Huckstep introduced Sophia to his friend the accomplished painter JMW Turner. 

It was not long after this that Wilkinson’s husband Arthur took a rather funny turn and died. It is said the body remained in La Belle for a good 48 hours before the coroner was called. The actual cause of death was never fully determined. Dingwall-Fordyce was 42 years of age. & years later, Florence married Sir Hector and in doing so inherited about one third of Scotlands arable land.

Turner painted from his room on the second floor (No.5, now our store room) on his many early stays to Margate until he moved across the road to the boarding house ran by Sophia Booth.

With the turn of the 20th century more artists arrived in Margate. John Betjeman while strolling in Margate wrote the lines: ‘As soft over Cliftonville languished the light/Down Harold Road, Norfolk Road, into the night'. A visit to Cliftonville, part of Margate's later Victorian and Edwardian expansion, is a must. As is a trip to the Grand Walpole Bay Hotel Dating back to 1914, 

Throughout World War 2, British Military Intelligence held offices in the building but despite numerous bombing raids on the area, Northern Belle remained unscathed. It is said that during the bleakest nights of the war, various members of the intelligence services held parties in pitch darkness attracting much of the small bebop community of musicians who had escaped Paris during the war and were in no mood for the London Blitz

By the 1950’s the Pub, the curved bar above and its few private guest rooms were again a hub of social and creative activity. Rock and Roll replaced Jazz as the local music of choice and many of Rock and Roll’s early ambassadors would play private parties after their gigs at the Winter Garden. This is a tradition that continued tuntil the 1970s with artists such as Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Mose Allison said to have picked up a guitar on the pub’s first floor.

Many of the film community have also spent time here. The director of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Alexander Mackendrick lived here for some time and it is believed that Fritz Lang stayed here and may have written the final scenes of his masterpiece ‘M’, in the building before departing for the United States and an extraordinary Hollywood career. Additionally, many British Film stars have either stayed here or regularly frequented the bar, including Charles Laughton, Diana Dors, Peter Sellers, Arthur Askey as well as Americans such as Burt Lancaster, Dan Dureya and William Bendix.

The Northern Belle, is still a hub for writers, directors, architects, actors, poets and musicians. It is also a home for all the creative souls of the Thanet area who appreciate South East Asian food at competitive prices, fine wines, ales and cocktails.