BELL STREET is one of Henley's four main central streets, running southwards from Northfield End on the town's outskirts to the central crossroads with Hart Street and the Market Place (see map). With Duke Street, it forms part of a major north-south route from Oxford and Marlow through to Reading, and its line probably pre-dated the creation of the planned town in the 12th century. In the Middle Ages it was called North Street. Its later name derived from the Bell Inn at the street's northern end (technically at Northfield End rather than Bell Street), which by the 17th century was one of Henley's most important inns.
Modern Bell Street is a narrow thoroughfare flanked by shops and other commercial premises, though as it widens out beyond New Street there are some handsome Georgian houses such as Rupert House and Countess Gardens. These lend its northern end a very different character, which continues along Northfield End. Also along the stretch beyond New Street, hidden behind later facades, are remains of some high-status 15th-century timber-framed houses, built probably for wealthy merchants. One (at Nos 74, 76 and 78) has been dendro-dated to 1405, making it one of Henley's earliest surviving domestic buildings. Further south, the street's commercial character was well established in the Middle Ages: in 1341 there was a shop at the south-east corner with Hart Street, with another one adjoining it to the north. The street also acquired some relatively early inns. The Bear (77-79 Bell Street) was an inn by 1666, and has a medieval hall at the back which has been dendro-dated to 1438. The Bull (57-59 Bell Street) may have been an inn by the 16th century, and the Duke of Cumberland on the opposite side (renamed Ye Olde Bell in 1920) opened in the mid 18th. Part of the building (at the back) has recently been dendro-dated to 1325, making it the earliest domestic building so far found in Henley. The 19th-century censuses (see Assets below) confirm that shops and services comprised the majority of premises along Bell Street. A flourishing draper’s business was situated on the south-west corner by the Market Place (1-3 Bell Street), giving it the name Monk's Corner well into the 20th century. There were several grocers and butchers, always a fishmonger, chemist, and tailor, and a pastry-cook-cum-confectioner, catering for relatively well-off patrons either living in the town or passing through. A short-lived beer house called the British Workman had metamorphosed by 1901 into the British Workman’s Coffee House. Further north at the high-class residential end of Bell Street were several households 'living on their own means' (i.e. enjoying a private income), and at various times there were two surgeons or general practitioners, Mr Jeston and Mr Egerton Baines. In 1901 Baines (aged 54) occupied Rupert House (90 Bell Street) with a household of ten, including his immediate family, a visitor and a boarder, and 3 servants. On the west side of the street behind the modern frontages of Nos 5-7 (Boots Chemist) was Goffs Yard, one of several cramped, insanitary cottage yards scattered around the town in the 19th and early 20th centuries. .