Whitechapel Bell Foundry
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is a business in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, and is the oldest manufacturing company in Great Britain. The bell foundry primarily makes church bells and their fittings and accessories, although it also provides single tolling bells, carillon bells and handbells. The foundry is notable for being the original manufacturer of the Liberty Bell, a famous non-religious symbol of United States independence, and Big Ben which rings from the north clock tower at the Houses of Parliament in London.
The Whitechapel premises are a Grade II* listed building. The foundry will close in May 2017, after nearly 450 years of bell making and 250 years at its present site. The building is to be sold, and owners Alan and Kathryn Hughes are looking for a buyer who could continue operation at another site.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry company dates back to 1570. The present 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. The Artichoke ceased trading in 1738 and the following year the Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved into the premises. The foundry will remain at the site until May 2017, its future uncertain. It is one of only two bell foundries left in the UK and has been in continuous production for almost 450 years. 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 hangs over the door. According to present owners Alan and Kathryn Hughes, the foundry has been a family-owned company throughout its history continuing when Alan Hughes's grandfather bought the company in 1904.
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. In 2013 the foundry launched an online shop selling house bells, musical instruments and personalised merchandise. 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. During the second world war the foundry was used as a munitions production line where they made casings for the Ministry of War.
|“||The government not only guaranteed the orders. They guaranteed good prices and they also guaranteed quick payment, which is something that the Church of England has never managed to do with us.||”|
|— Alan Hughes|
The foundry was particularly busy after the war, replacing bells lost or damaged by fire in bombing raids across London. 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.
Many churches across the world have bells cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, but arguably its two best-known examples are not in places of worship. In 1752 the foundry cast the Liberty Bell, which was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges, Pennsylvania's original constitution. As a result of damage sustained during its stormy passage across the Atlantic, the bell cracked in 1846 when it was first rung to mark the birthday of George Washington. Since 2003, the bell has been housed at the Liberty Bell Center near Independence Hall.
Big Ben, which tolls the hour at the Palace of Westminster, was cast in 1858 and rung for the first time on 31 May 1859. "Big Ben" weighs 13½ tons and is the largest bell ever cast at the foundry. This bell also cracked because too heavy a hammer was initially used. The crack and the subsequent retuning gives Big Ben its present distinctive tone. A profile template of Big Ben surrounds the entrance door of the Whitechapel Foundry, while the original moulding gauge is retained near the furnaces. The final bill for Big Ben came to £572.
Whitechapel has supplied bells to several cathedrals. Guildford Cathedral in Surrey had a peal of 10 bells (later augmented to 12), Canterbury Cathedral augmented its bells to a peal of 14 in 1981, and the National Cathedral in Washington DC in 1962. The foundry produced "Great Tom" at Lincoln Cathedral, the "Clock Bells" at St Paul's Cathedral, the bells of Westminster Abbey and the 13 bells located at Liverpool's Anglican cathedral, which are notable for being the heaviest change ringing peal of bells in the world, and where the bellfounder Albert Hughes is commemorated in a stained glass window in the nave.
Churches with bells from Whitechapel include ones as near as St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside and as far as the Armenian Church, Chennai, India. English examples include St Dunstan's, Stepney and St Dunstan's, Mayfield; St Michael's, Beckwithshaw; Church of St Thomas the Apostle, Killinghall. American churches in the Anglican Communion, for example St. Michael's Church, in Charleston, South Carolina. Australian churches include St Bartholomew's Church, Burnley, St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown; St Philip's Church and St James' Church, Sydney.
Following the September 11 attacks on the United States in 2001, the company made a tribute bell, the Bell of Hope, as a gift from the people of London to the city of New York. It is rung at 08:46 each year on the anniversary of the tragedy, the time the first plane hit the first tower. It was designed by architect Paul Byard and was rung for the first time on American soil by the Bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. Mark S. Sisk. The bell resided at Trinity Church (Manhattan), before being moved to St. Paul's Chapel. In 2005 it was rung again four times for the people killed in the 7 July 2005 London bombings.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry designed the Olympic Bell seen at the opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympic Games, although it was not cast on the premises. The furnaces at Whitechapel could not provide the 23 tons of molten metal required to make the bell, so it was manufactured at a factory in the Netherlands which normally produces ship's propellers. The Olympic bell has the lowest tone of any bell in the world at note B, is the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world and the widest bell in Britain. It now hangs in the Queen Elizabeth Park and is not rung because it is deemed too loud to be rung without disturbing local residents.
The names on this list are those that are cast into the surface of Whitechapel bells of different dates. Prior to Robert Mot, in 1574, the sign of three bells was often cast to indicate that it was a Whitechapel (or Aldgate) bell.
Mears Bell, St James' Church, Sydney waiting to be re-hung after repairs in 2011
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Whitechapel Bell Foundry.|
- Whitechapel Bell Foundry
- Index to carillons and chimes by Whitechapel
- Love's Guide to Church Bells of the City of London
- The Sound of Bells—Mears and Stainbank Catalogue