Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Street entrance of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, London

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was a business in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. At the time of the closure of its Whitechapel premises, it was the oldest manufacturing company in Great Britain.[1] The bell foundry primarily made church bells and their fittings and accessories, although it also provided single tolling bells, carillon bells and handbells. The foundry was notable for being the original manufacturer of the Liberty Bell, a famous non-religious symbol of United States independence, and for re-casting Big Ben, which rings from the north clock tower (the Elizabeth Tower) at the Houses of Parliament in London.

The Whitechapel premises are a Grade II* listed building. The foundry closed on 12 June 2017, after nearly 450 years of bell-making and 250 years at its Whitechapel site,[2] with the final bell cast given to the Museum of London along with other artefacts used in the manufacturing process,[3] and the building has been sold.[4][5]

Following the sale of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the bell patents were sold to the bell-hanging company, Whites of Appleton in Oxfordshire, with whom the foundry has had a business relationship for 197 years, and rights to tower bell production are now under the ownership of Westley Group Ltd. Production of presentation and hand bells will continue under the name Bells of Whitechapel Ltd.[6]

History

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry company dates back to 1570. The last premises at 32–34 Whitechapel Road, backing on to Plumbers Row, dates from 1670 and was formerly a coaching inn called "The Artichoke" which had been damaged in the Great Fire of London.[7] The Artichoke ceased trading in 1738 and the following year the Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved into the premises. The foundry remained at the site until May 2017.[2][8] It was one of only two bell foundries left in the UK and had been in continuous production for almost 450 years.[4] The Master Founders (bell makers) of Aldgate and Whitechapel, however, can be traced back to 1420. The three bells manufacturer's mark can be seen on the bells and the three bells sign hung over the door of the Whitechapel site.[9] According to previous owners Alan and Kathryn Hughes, the foundry had been a family-owned company throughout its history continuing when Alan Hughes's grandfather bought the company in 1904,[7] until its sale to Westley group in 2017.[6]

The business has had to adapt throughout the centuries and in modern times, with new churches being built less frequently, produced handbells and doorbells. It responded to a surge in orders for table bells, following the popularity of the BBC period drama Downton Abbey, with a third of its sales going overseas.[10] In 2013 the foundry launched an online shop selling house bells, musical instruments and personalised merchandise.[10] The large bell business has been largely unaffected by periods of financial depression, partly owing to the fact that from enquiry to completion an order takes on average 11 years.[7] During World War II the foundry was used as a munitions production line where they made casings for the Ministry of War.[9]

The foundry was particularly busy after the war, replacing bells lost or damaged by fire in bombing raids across London.[11] Hughes said “Our business runs counter to the national economy. If the economy goes down and unemployment rises, we start to get busy. Last year was our busiest in thirty years, an increase of 27% on the previous year. Similarly, the nineteen twenties were very busy." Hughes also tells a story of an order requested of his grandfather in the 1890s which his father quoted again for in the 1950s and he himself gave a quote for in the 1970s. The order was finally completed in 1998.[2]

In March 2017 a consortium of heritage groups, including SAVE Britain's Heritage, The East End Preservation Society, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the Ancient Monuments Society and the Royal Academy of Arts attempted to have the foundry premises listed as a Grade 1 listed building as an asset of community value to preserve the historical importance of the building within the wider east end community.[12][13]