Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London E1 is Britain’s oldest existing business. Above the door it says 1570, but recent research indicates it may have been operating in the 1420s, and perhaps even earlier. The foundry’s business, quite obviously, is making bells. Church bells and hand bells mainly, but whatever your bell requirements, this is the place. This factory not only manufactured Big Ben and Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell, but has supplied thousands of churches in Britain and throughout the anglophone world. It also does a brisk business in maintenance, giving old bells a new lease of life and plenty of TLC.
Yesterday a group of London Historians took one of the foundry’s legendary tours. Our host and guide for the day was the the assured Alan Hughes, a consummate presenter whose persona reminded me a little of Edward Woodward: a man full of acumen, confidence and knowledge, he kept us spellbound throughout. Authoritative and humourous with it.
Starting with church bells, Alan took us through the process. How moulds are made, what they comprise (sand, goat hair and horse poo, mainly), how they are shaped; the furnaces, one which can boil up to two tons of liquid bronze, the other up to six tons; the painstaking process of harmonically tuning each bell, which involves shaving metal from the inside surface of the bell – over and over again – until it is just right (fewer than 20 people in the world know how to do this); the workshop where the paraphernalia of hanging each bell is is assembled: the attachment assembly, the wooden wheels (comprising oak ash and birch) and the framed superstructure – thousands of nuts and bolts required; on to the cramped carpentry shop in the cramped loft of the building where the bell wheels are made (motto: Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself).
After that, we had a tour around the small stuff: the hand bells. Hand bells are made from the same bronze composition as their church bell brethren. The business of tuning them is less painstaking. But they are seen by the public, so they must gleam – the buffing and polishing go through many stages. Then they have their handles attached – these are made of leather – I never knew that.
As a finale, Alan swung the demonstration church bell in the garden. It is LOUD.
For about six centuries and possibly longer, hundreds – probably thousands – of craftsmen have been manufacturing bells in Whitechapel. None is apprenticed, so officially the Foundry’s staff are unskilled labour, though there cannot be a more skilled workforce anywhere. Our tour, I cannot emphasise enough, was an utter delight.
Because Whitechapel Bell Foundry is a working factory, it is only open to the public on Saturdays through the summer. Tickets are snapped up fast (I ordered ours last September). But at time of writing, they have about 140 tickets available for the rest of this year. I’d highly recommend you book yourself on a tour asap, or it’s 2013 for you. We, London Historians, will most definitely do this again next year.
Here are rather more photos than I normally post, justifiably so.