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Environment / Climate change

Tucked away in the East End, the bell tolls for a piece of London history

The final bell will be cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry this week.

The business was founded in 1420 by Robert Chamberlain, a church bells manufacturer based in Aldgate. It was moved to its present home on the south side of the High Street in Whitechapel in the mid 1740s. According to the Guinness Book of Records it is the nation’s oldest manufacturing company in continuous operation.

Heritage campaigners have stepped in to demand the preservation of the foundry but the owner, Alan Hughes, said that he expects to exchange contracts with a developer for the historic site “in the next couple of weeks”.

Henrietta Billings, director, at SAVE Britain’s Heritage, said the site should be Grade I listed to put it on the cultural map alongside St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge.

She points out that the foundry made the Liberty Bell, Big Ben and the clock bells for the city’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

America’s Liberty Bell was made at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Image: Bev Sykes

A bell commissioned by the City of London’s Lord Mayor was cast in July 2002 to commemorate the 9/11 attacks on World Trade Center in New York.

Ironically, the foundry’s busiest years came when bell manufacture was suspended during the Second World War, and the factory was converted into a munitions production line making castings for the Ministry of War. In the aftermath of the war, workers at the foundry worked around the clock to replace bells lost to fires and enemy raids. The work included making new bells for the “Oranges and Lemons” peal at St Clement Danes, in Westminster, and the great bell at Bow.

At the Foundry in East London. Image: Evo Flash

By the late 20th century, church building was in decline. A chime-bell music room and an online shop were opened in an attempt to find new revenue streams but the painstaking craft of melting metal, moulding it, and waiting for it to set, was unattractive in a more frenetic age.

Mr Hughes, whose great-great-grandfather bought the business in 1884, told Spitalfields Life, a local community website, that the gap between order and delivery was around 11 years meaning that the bells ordered by when the economy was thriving were invariably delivered, and invoiced, when budgets were tight.

The Foundry’s site in Whitechapel, in operation since the 1740s. Image: Stephen Craven

He said: “My great-grandfather visited the church in Langley in the 1890s and told them the bells needed re-hanging in a new frame. They patched them. My grandfather said the same thing in the 1920s. They patched them. My father told them again in the 1950s and I quoted for the job in the 1970s. We completed the order in 1998.”

Writing for Apollo magazine, Charles Saumarez Smith CBE, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, argued that purely commercial reasons ought not determine the future of the site: “So what will happen to the buildings? There is a rumour that the site may already have been sold in order to achieve its full development value.

“But if English Heritage has its wits about it there will be very heavy restrictions on what can be done to the historic fabric of the buildings. Ideally, the buildings would be maintained in some form of active use. Otherwise, there is a danger that some of the historic fabric will be retained, but neutered in a new development of flats.”

The Foundry also built the Big Ben bell in the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster. Image: Maarten Visser

Henrietta Billings says a model for the future of the site can be found in Staffordshire where in 2011, money from the Prince’s Regeneration Trust enabled Middleport Pottery to avoid closure because of the dilapidated state of repair of the buildings. The trust stepped in to save the buildings and began a £9million project to revitalise them.

She believes a similar initiative in the east end of London would garner support.


She said: “The response from people in London and across the country has been striking.

I would say that what makes a place special is its character and history. When you chip away at that it becomes a less interesting place.”

But unless a major donor steps forward at the eleventh hour, the family and staff will hold a small ceremony to mark the making of the final bell on Wednesday. The plan is to donate it to the Museum of London.

The new owner of the site will doubtless wish to ring the changes.

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