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.