So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry
It is with deep regret that I announce the closure of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the world’s most famous bell foundry and Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Below you can read my interview with Alan Hughes, the last in a line of bell founders stretching back to 1420, who will retire next year at sixty-eight years old when the foundry closes in May 2017 and the building is sold – meanwhile, negotiations for the future ownership of the business are underway.
Arthur Hughes, Master Bellfounder from 1904
Albert Hughes, Master Bellfounder from 1916
William Hughes, Master Bellfounder from 1945
Portrait of Alan Hughes, Master Bellfounder from 1972 by Sarah Ainslie
“We have made this decision with a heavy heart, but in response to the changing realities of running a business of this kind. The Bell Foundry in Whitechapel has changed hands many times, but it has always been a family business. My own family has owned the foundry since 1904, but other families have run the firm through its history, which stretches back to 1570. The business has been at its present site over two hundred and fifty years. So it is probably about time it moved once again. We hope that this move will provide an opportunity for the business to move forward in a new direction.” Alan & Kathryn Hughes
If I confide that my favourite sound in all the world is that of bells pealing, you will understand why the Whitechapel Bell Foundry became such a source of fascination to me over all these years. Every time I walked past the ancient foundry walls (the oldest manufacturing company in the land – founded in 1570), I wondered about the alchemical mystery of bellfounding taking place inside. One day as I passed, walking down from Spitalfields to the Thames, the steel doors at the rear were open and, peeking in from the harsh sunlight outside, I was afforded a tantalising glimpse of huge bells glinting in the gloom of the engineering shop.
So you can imagine my excitement when I received the invitation to meet the current master bellfounder in an unbroken line of master bellfounders that stretches back to 1420. Stepping inside, out of the rain in Whitechapel Rd, I found myself in the foundry reception lined with old photographs and compelling artifacts, like the wooden template (displayed over the entrance as if it were the jaws of a whale) that was used when Big Ben was manufactured here. Among all the black and white photos, my eye was drawn by some recent colour pictures of a royal visit, with Her Majesty in a vivid shade of plum and Prince Philip looking uncharacteristically animated. I was thinking that the bell foundry must work a powerful magic upon its visitors, when a figure emerged from the office and I turned to shake the hand of Alan Hughes, the master bellfounder. Alan’s great-grandfather Arthur Hughes bought the business in 1884, which makes Alan a fourth generation bellfounder.
A sense of awe filled me as I shook hands with this unassuming man in a natty blue suit but I composed myself as best I could, while he led me through a modest office where two people worked behind neat desks and one of those fake cats dozed eternally in front of the stove, to arrive in the boardroom where a long table with a red cloth upon it occupied the centre of a modest but elegantly proportioned Georgian dining room. We drew up chairs and commenced our conversation as the Whitechapel drizzle turned to dusk outside.
Alan’s fine manners and levity kept me guessing whether everything he said might actually be a proposal, as if he was simply trying out thoughts to see how I would react. I took this as an indication of courtly assurance. Alan wears his role with the greatest of ease, as only someone born into the fourth generation of an arcane profession could do, and I wondered if the royal visit might have been an occasion for mutual recognition between those born into long-standing family businesses.
Up above, I could hear music. It was Alan’s daughter and her friend, both music students, practising the piano and the trumpet. The prevailing atmosphere was that of a work place yet it was domestic too. When Alan’s predecessors set up the business on this site, before the industrial revolution, they attached the factory to the house so they could walk from the dining room into the foundry at their convenience. The feeling today is akin to that of the quiet living quarters of an old college or liturgical institution.
Alan has worked here over fifty years and, describing the changes he has seen, he glanced over my shoulder to the window several times, as if each time he glanced upon a different memory of the Whitechapel Road. The East End was a busy place in the nineteen fifties, as Alan first recalled it, not only because of the docks but because of all the factories and the manufacturing that happened here. “Whichever way it was blowing, you got this lovely smell of beer on the wind – from Trumans or Watneys or Charringtons or Courage or Whitbread…” Alan told me, explaining the locations of the breweries at each point of the compass. In the nineteen seventies and eighties, when the docks and factories closed, Alan found the place desolate, he peered from the window and there was no-one in the street. “And then things started getting trendy. Instead of closing they started opening – and now, suddenly, it’s ok to be in Whitechapel!” said Alan, clasping his hands thoughtfully on the table and looking around the room with a philosophical grin, “But this place hasn’t changed at all. I always find it vaguely amusing.”
Tentatively, I asked Alan what it meant to him, being part of this long line of bellfounders. Alan searched his mind and then said, “I don’t think about it very often. I would like to meet some of those people, Thomas Mears (master bellfounder from 1787) who would know the place today and Thomas Lester (master bellfounder from 1738) who had this part built. It would be nice to have a conversation with him. He would recognise most of it.” Then the gentle reverie was gone and Alan returned to the present moment, adding, “It’s a business,” in phlegmatic summation.
“Our business runs counter to the national economy,” he continued, “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.” I was mystified by this equation, but Alan has a plausible theory.
“Bell projects take a long time, so churches commit to new bells when the economy is strong and then there is no turning back. We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after forty-three years of negotiation. That’s an example of the time scale we are working on – at least ten years between order and delivery is normal. My great-grandfather visited the church in Langley in the eighteen nineties and told them the bells needed rehanging in a new frame. They patched them. My grandfather said the same thing in the nineteen twenties. They patched them. My father told them again in the nineteen fifties and I quoted for the job in the nineteen seventies. We completed the order in 1998.”
Alan broke into a huge smile of wonderment at the nature of his world and it made me realise how important the continuity between the generations must be, so I asked him if there was pressure exerted between father and son to keep the foundry going.
“My great-grandfather never expected the business would outlive him. He had three sons and the sale of the business was arranged, but my grandfather refused to sign the contract, so the other brothers left and he took over. My grandfather ensured his sons had good jobs and even my father wasn’t convinced the business could succeed, so he studied foundry technology for four years at every foundry in the south – thinking he could work for them – but every single one of those has now closed.” Then Alan looked out the window again, gazing forward into time. “As a master bellfounder, you never retire. We go on until we die. My grandfather, my father and my uncle all died of a heart attack at eighty.”
The implications of Alan’s conclusion are startling for him personally, even though he has many years to go before eighty. “You’re a very eloquent man,” I said in sober recognition, “No, I’m not!” he retorted cheekily. “You have such interesting things to say,” I replied lamely, “No, I don’t!” he persisted gamely, obstinately raising his eyebrows. Nevertheless, Alan’s life as a bellfounder is remarkable to me and maybe to you too. Seeing his life in comparison to his predecessors, Alan embraces the patterns that prescribe his existence, for better or worse, and his personal mindset is the result of particular circumstances, the outcome of four generations of bellfounding. Alan has my greatest respect for his immodest devotion to bells.
Photographs copyright © John Claridge