Tag Archives: Westminster Abbey

Inside the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Spitalfields Life reports that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is to close. This is one of London’s oldest companies, founded in 1570 and based at its present site for 250 years. I met the owner of the foundry in 2015, and wrote this piece for Completely London magazine.

“The world is full of bells,” says Alan Hughes, and he should know. Bells are in his blood. Hughes is the fourth generation of his family to be master bellfounder at Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in the United Kingdom. Operating since 1570, the foundry has cast some of the most famous bells in the world. Big Ben was one of theirs, as were the bells at Westminster Abbey, the cockney bells of St Mary-le-Bow and America’s Liberty Bell. “I feel more like a caretaker than the owner,” says Hughes. “It’s so old. It was started by somebody walking these streets when Shakespeare was alive and Elizabeth I was on the throne. The world was unrecognisable. Yet it’s the same business, doing the same thing, essentially the same way.”


In 1738, Whitechapel Bell Foundry moved to their present site on Whitechapel Road, having been founded up the road at Aldgate. The shop front is discreet and the Georgian offices modest. A display area depicts highlights from the past 445 years, such as cuttings from the Queen’s visit in 2009 and, hanging above the door, a gigantic moulding gauge, which looks like a pterodactyl’s wishbone and was used to create the mould for the 13.5 tonne Big Ben. They are proud of their history at Whitechapel, but past a small internal courtyard comes a clanging reminder that this is a living enterprise. Here is the foundry’s workshop, a large space filled with old bells, new bells, castings, moulds, metal dust, furnace bricks, and the damp thick smell of clay. In one corner, a tuner stands turning a bell on a lathe, gradually shaving off the rough interior metal by millimetres until he gets the right tone. It’s a busy, dirty, noisy place, which is why the foundry’s popular tours don’t take in the factory floor. “It’s lovely to be involved in a company that actually makes things,” says Hughes. “Here we are surrounded by bankers and financial services and I’m sure that’s very necessary and profitable but there’s nothing tangible, there’s no nuts and bolts.”

The foundry makes around 35 tonnes of bells each year, of varying sizes and for all occasions, exporting as far as Australia. They make church bells, hand bells, tiny bells for instruments like the calliope (a sort of steam organ) and ornamental bells using methods unchanged for centuries. “The fundamentals haven’t changed in 4,000 years,” says Hughes. “You create a mould, which means you make a space, the shape of which is the exact shape of the cast you wish to create, and you pour in liquid metal. That cools and the mould is then broken. Our moulding material – called the loam – is sand, bound with clay, hair and horse manure. What has changed is that we have far tighter control of technique and purity, and greater understanding of acoustics. We can produce bells that sound better, are better tuned, are better made and will last longer.”

That’s some claim given that even old bells are extraordinarily durable. “The demand for bells has been falling steadily since the 19th century and the fundamental problem is that once you have a well-made bell, you never need to replace it,” says Hughes. “There are two at Westminster Abbey that we cast in 1583. They are rung once a day every day and there’s nothing wrong with them. The oldest bell we’ve worked with are in North Kent and from the 1200s. There’s nothing wrong with them. Providing they are used sensibly, a bell will go on forever.”

Hughes was introduced to the family business – his great-grandfather purchased the company in 1904 – at a young age, going on tower inspections with his father during school holidays. “I’d sit at the top of the tower and write down measurements that he shouted out at me,” he recalls. Hughes “drifted” into working at the foundry, starting in the workshop in 1966. Now office based, he still keeps his hand in. “Nobody here can do everything,” he says. “We have loam-moulding, sand-moulding, tower bell tuning, handbell tuning, leatherwork, carpentry, joinery, fitters, turners, blacksmiths, bell hangers, steel fabricators. I started in the loam shop and still have the record for the greatest number of loam hand-mixes in one day, I did eight – the closest anybody has got is six. I have done frame building and bell hanging and I am currently the blacksmith’s mate. I enjoy the physical work. You end the day thirsty, dirty and exhausted but can fix it with a beer, bath and bed.”

Running the bell foundry is, Hughes suggests, tiring but satisfying work. “I like the idea that I am involved in creating things that will still be operating not only years after I have died, but possibly centuries,” he muses. “Not many people are in such a fortunate position that they will leave something behind that will outlive them so long.” No wonder the foundry seems timeless. Back outside, the 21st century continues. Upon leaving the foundry, a tiny bell above the door chimes clearly and with pride.


James Watt’s workshop at the Science Museum

This piece was originally published in World of Interiors in December 2011.

James Watt was not a tidy man. Inside the Scottish engineer’s eighteenth-century workshop, shelves are thick with dust and overlapping objects of marvellous obscurity. It’s chaotic, but it is the past, a life perfectly preserved. Almost 100 years ago, this attic room was moved from Birmingham and reconstructed at the Science Museum, but the public have only recently been readmitted. It’s a delightful and very human sight. Unlike the modern scientist’s sterile laboratory, items are stuck to wall and floor, or piled harum-scarum on shelves, desks, tables, lathes and huge wooden machines of curious design. There are 8,434 objects all told, each lovingly listed on an exterior wall. Pincers, mallets, drawer knobs, hacksaws, charcoal, ladles, a frying pan, washers, broken thermometers, bent wire, drills, bradawls (six without handles), packages of chemicals wrapped in yellow paper and tied with brittle string, lumps of metal, fossils, half-finished statues, cogs, pieces of wood, barrels full of plaster of Paris and a clock key. There’s even, or so it says, a sea horse tooth. Nothing thrown away. This is the testimony of a life in science, and it looks exactly as Watt left it almost 200 years ago.

Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland in 1736. For several years, he quietly sold scientific instruments, musical instruments and toys from a shop in Glasgow but he had a curious mind and was an inveterate tinkerer. In 1776, he completed a steam engine that used a fifth of the coal of the existing engine. Factories and mines all over the country were soon powered by Watt engines as Britain surged into the steam-driven Industrial Revolution. Watt became a hero, as crucial to the national identity as Wellington and Nelson. On his death in 1819, he was the first engineer to have a statue in Westminster Abbey, although it was later removed as it was grotesquely large. His legend was international. In Japan, the state dispensed prints of Watt to promote the British values of industry, resilience and ingenuity that he embodied.

Watt began work on the steam engine in 1764 and moved to Birmingham ten years later taking with him the tools, fixtures and fittings he had accumulated in Glasgow. In 1790, he settled in Handsworth where he had his final workshop, a garret room where he could work undisturbed. In this dark space, Watt drilled, sawed and chiselled, experimented with chemicals, and developed a variety of extraordinary devices, including a perspective drawing machine, a letter-copying press and a sculpture-copying machine. He often had to make for himself the tools he needed for his inventions, including what Science Museum curators think is the oldest circular saw they’ve ever seen. The impression gained is of somebody who loved using his hands, and was always looking for ways to improve production, to make more things, and faster. He was a solitary soul. To ensure he could work without interference, Watt built a shelf outside the door on which the maid could leave his dinner. When he was ready, he would bring it inside and warm it on the stove. There’s a hint of sadness too. In one corner lies a chest full of things that belonged to his son Gregory, who died of tuberculosis in 1804. It seems Watt kept it here, close by, for 15 years until his own death.

At which point, the door was closed and the room left untouched. Even as the house was occupied by new families, the workshop was kept as Watt had left it for more than a century, with drawers full of half-made thermometers wrapped in wax paper and surfaces strewn with rusty hinges. It became a shrine. One visitor commented, ‘the dust lay so thick it was like walking in soft snow’. One pilgrim was Bennet Woodcroft, who ran the Patent Office Museum, part of the South Kensington Museum. Woodcroft was acquiring key artefacts from the Industrial Revolution and in the 1860s registered an interest in the room. However, it was not transferred until 1924, by which time Woodcroft was dead and the Patent Office Museum had become the Science Museum.

They took everything– not just the furniture and contents but the floorboards, door, window frames, fireplace, stove and flue – and reconstructed them on the ground floor of the museum. Workman even asked if they should remove the dust. The public would peer through a window above Watt’s workbench and observe a scene almost identical to the one painted by visiting artists in 1864 and 1889. But by the 1970s, it had become a museum relic. The room was moved to the mezzanine, where it was ignored for another couple of decades before being ignominiously boarded up. Staff could still reach it if they took the wrong door out of the admin office, but the public would never know it was there.

So it remained until earlier this year, when the room was returned to the ground floor and made the centrepiece of an exhibition that examined Watt’s life in the context of the Industrial Revolution. In an act of domestic archaeology, objects were removed from drawers where they had been invisible for centuries as curators resolved to explore every nook and cranny. These were then replaced exactly where Watt had left them.

The exhibition shows that Watt was a scientist but also a workman, constructing by hand the very machines that made mass production possible. Years later, William Morris would reject the industrialised world that Watt had created, but the two had something in common in their love of forming things by hand. However, Watt’s inventions meant things no longer had to be created at such labour and expense, and people could choose for themselves the design and furnishing of their home rather than rely on what was passed on to them by their forefathers. It was the start of the consumer age, making Watt was partly responsible for many of the decorative items that can be studied at length next door at the V&A Museum. When Woodcroft visited Watt’s workshop, this relationship between industry and design would have been more apparent. The South Kensington Museum was essentially the Science Museum and the V&A combined, and had been created partly to inspire the working class with technique as well as design, showing not just beautiful objects but also how they were made. Now cause and effect, science and art, are divided by the bustle of Exhibition Road. But enter Watt’s workshop, and just for a moment the two become one.