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Hope For The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

June 21, 2018
by the gentle author

Commemorative wall to workers at Whitechapel Bell Foundry

It was in these pages that I announced the pitiful loss of the historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry – the world’s most famous bell foundry – which closed a year ago when the building was sold, all the staff lost their jobs and the equipment was auctioned off. At that time, ten thousand people signed the East End Preservation Society‘s petition to Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry which was delivered to Downing St by Dan Cruickshank, without any response.

Last June, the building changed hands, sold first by bell founders Alan & Kathryn Hughes for £5.1 million to East End property developer Vince Goldstein who resold it on the same day to Raycliff Capital, the company of the American plutocrat Bippy Seigal, for £7.9 million. Subsequently, Raycliff have acquired two additional sites at the rear of the bell foundry and plan to redevelop the entire location as an upmarket boutique hotel with the foundry itself becoming a restaurant.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust, an independent charity under the founding patronage of His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, have announced a partnership with Factum Foundation, a global leader in the use of technology for the preservation of cultural heritage and a multi-disciplinary workshop which manufactures sculptures for some of the world’s most famous artists. Together, they have the resources to buy the buildings off the developer at market value and re-open them as a foundry, re-equipped with up-to-date machinery, for the production of small bells and art casting.

This project would become an international focus for digital casting alongside traditional methods – merging old and new technology –  and develop an apprenticeship and training scheme for bell-making and tuning in partnership with the Prince’s Trust. Installation of an electric furnace can deliver a zero-emission workshop with the heat produced being channelled to deliver power to a new building at the rear, providing affordable live-and-work spaces for local artisans. Many of the original foundry staff would regain their jobs and there would be increased public access.

Factum, founded by Adam Lowe, has pioneered the use of digital casting and famously cast a replica of the oldest oak tree in Windsor Great Park, which was commissioned by the Royal Academy and presented to the Queen as a gift for her ninetieth birthday in 2016.

The UK Building Preservation Trust is celebrated for buying the Burleigh Pottery Factory – one of Britain’s oldest potteries – in Stoke, after it closed a few years ago. They re-established the pottery as a commercially successful business, saving the employees’ jobs and contributing significantly to the regeneration of Stoke. This remarkable success makes them the ideal organisation to take on the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

Thus we arrive at a watershed moment, offering a stark choice between a reinvigorated foundry with a sustainable future as an asset for London or yet another luxury boutique hotel. Raycliff commence their public consultation in a week’s time, displaying a model of their hotel in the foundry workshop. UK Building Preservation Trust and Factum have already won the support of heritage bodies and consulted with Tower Hamlets Council. Recently, a conversation between Raycliff and the partnership of UK Building Preservation Trust and Factum has been initiated.

In order to proceed, the developers require permission for change of use, from bell foundry to hotel, from Tower Hamlets Council and it is essential that this is not granted if Britain’s oldest manufacturing business, which can trace its roots in Whitechapel back to 1363, is to be saved.

The widespread disappointment at the closure of the bell foundry revealed the scale of feeling among the general public and the deep affection in which this venerable institution is held by Londoners, but now declarations of support from major political figures in the capital are required – speaking out on behalf of the people.

Internal courtyard of the Bell Foundry in snow (photograph by Derek Kendall)

Handbell workshop at Whitechapel

Bell cast for the memorial to commemorate the 9/11 attacks (photograph by Kieran Doherty)

Casting bells at Whitechapel in 1997 with the traditional loam and green sand method

Working on a bell for St James’ Church, Chipping Campden, in 2004

Members of East End Preservation Society deliver their petition (photograph Sarah Ainslie)

“The world famous Whitechapel Foundry is a landmark – both for its splendid use and its fine historic buildings. Bells cast at the foundry have sounded in cities around the world for hundreds of years. For many, that sound represents the heart and soul of London, and in the case of Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster it is the sound of Freedom. The existing buildings deserve the highest level of recognition and protection as a unique and important part of our heritage.”

Dan Cruickshank

You may also like to read about

Royal Jubilee Bells At Garlickhythe

The Most Famous Bells in the World

An Old Whitechapel Bell

A Visit To Great Tom At St Paul’s

A Petition to Save the Bell Foundry

Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry

46 Responses leave one →
  1. David Donoghue permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Remarkable and inspiring story!

  2. June 21, 2018

    It would be wonderful if the foundry could be saved. Good luck to all who are concerned. Valerie

  3. ja woolf permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Pitiful of the ex owners too. Not only were they gulled out of £2m they also sold off everything.

  4. Sandra Hetherington permalink
    June 21, 2018

    This would be great news for London. Such dedication by all those involved to reverse the tragic decision to close the Bell Foundry.

  5. John Barrett permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Do save this foundry for what a tourist attraction or as a production unit I have commented on this foundry before. Yes I support a reopening for production, training and tourism the brand Whitechapel Bell Foundry must be saved probably on a reduced scale. John Barrett Poet Bristol

  6. Laura Williamson permalink
    June 21, 2018

    I hope so much that this wonderful and important piece of the fabric of London can have the future it deservcs

  7. VANDA HUMAN permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Hope the foundry is saved. This is a historical building, why oh why must another hotel be built, for goodness sake there are so many hotels in and around London as it is. To all those involved in saving the Bell Foundry, thank you and good luck.

  8. June 21, 2018

    The best news ever!

  9. Angela Morgan permalink
    June 21, 2018

    I hope the foundry can be saved. I signed the original petition. Big Ben & Liberty Bell – what a shame their birthplace could be lost forever.

  10. Colin Allen permalink
    June 21, 2018

    I had the privilege of visiting the foundry on several occasions over the years and thought, as time went on that I detected a slow losing of interest by the owners, (who acted as guides) . It would be unthinkable and totally unacceptable for this building, let alone the business to end up as a boutique hotel. Tower Hamlets Council need to do right by Londoners and protect our precious, and growingly vulnerable heritage. Bring back the foundry , AND it’s workers. It cannot end up as” Established 1356 to “continental or full breakfast madam?”

  11. Nobody permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Wonderful, as usual. Thanks for your great work!

  12. christopher long permalink
    June 21, 2018

    how can we help? :-)

  13. June 21, 2018

    Amazing news…thanks to all those involved

  14. June 21, 2018

    A glimmer of hope then that this remarkable and much loved old building can be saved and its’ walls echo once more with the sound of skilled workers and artists.
    Please Tower Hamlets Council………make the right decision.

  15. Heather Potter permalink
    June 21, 2018

    In April 2016 my family took part in the BBC 2 living history programme The Victorian Slum
    Televised in 5 episodes in October 2016
    We were The Potter Family the poorest of the contributors living at the top of a the slum building. My husband grandad potter spent a day working at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry
    As my ancestors would have done. The east end of London is very dear to my heart as all of my ancestors came from Bethnal Green, including Huguenot silk weavers living in the old nichol in the 1700s.
    We will never forget Graham’s day. At the Bell Foundry and were devastated to hear of the sale
    If we can help in any way please let me know.
    Heather Potter of the east end Windsor Family going back 8 generations. xxx

  16. Nick Harrison permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Details of, and links to, the hotel planning application and how to comment/object would be very useful in support of the alternative, foundry, proposal. Wide distribution of these links is essential

  17. June 21, 2018

    I was so moved by this, I cried! But it should NEVER have been allowed to go in the first place. and even if the application to change use class designation fails (and is not successfully appealed) the developers hold the whip hand and could refuse to sell. Or demand too high a price. On the plus side, proof of ongoing viability of the current use class designation helps the cause at the planning determination level.

  18. Jane Jones permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Fingers crossed that the alternative project goes ahead. Does London really need another ’boutique’ hotel?

  19. June 21, 2018

    Surely the East End Preservation Society can establish a new petition to at least get pressure on Tower Hamlets council to reinforce the traditional approach towards the bell foundry?

  20. June 21, 2018

    So glad you are keeping this issue alive by writing about it. It will be a David and Goliath fight worth political and public support. Thank you. Deborah

  21. Sue Mayer permalink
    June 21, 2018

    I signed the original petition to save this historically important building.

    I hope it can be saved.

    I travel to London about once a year and I am always saddened to see historical buildings dwarfed by concrete modern buildings. Why do we want to destroy so much of our heritage?!

  22. Paul Loften permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Its important to keep us informed . Its at a crucial stage

  23. Adele permalink
    June 21, 2018

    This place holds a special spot in my heart. I have access to almost 4,000 ex and current EastEnders on Facebook. Other than post this story, what else can I do to encourage support? Is there an email contact I can post?

  24. Kristine permalink
    June 21, 2018

    For all of the tireless warriors who continually go to bat to save these irreplaceable buildings, thank you! Not only are you saving a place that is important to the community in which you live, you are also preserving a very important part of history for anyone who loves England and its wonderful history. I wish you every success.

  25. June 21, 2018

    I wrote a chapter in a book called ‘Established: Lessons from the world’s oldest companies’ published by Unbound earlier this year. It was based on visits and conversations with Alan Hughes a year earlier. The book came out and the foundry closed – extremely distressing. If there is hope of saving it as a foundry, it will enhance London life again as it has for centuries – far more valuable than a luxury hotel. Let me know what I might do to help.

  26. June 21, 2018

    I wonder how the Hughes family feel about basically being fleeced out of £2.8 million by the developer they sold their asset of national heritage to?

  27. Caroline Dickinson permalink
    June 21, 2018

    We need to keep places like this going, so future generations learn its trade and show off their skills. Do we really need a boutique hotel in its place, no, we need to shout to keep our customs, trades and skills going, to show others our history and how a community past on its knowledge.

  28. Kathy O'Brien permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Is really important to maintain this wonderful building. Fed up of everything being knocked down to create even more flats and exorbitant house prices. Keep history safe – you cannot remake it if we lose it!

  29. Ruth Levitas permalink
    June 21, 2018

    Tower Hamlets Council should not only refuse planning permission for change of use, but if the potential developers refuse to sell at a reasonable price should consider a compulsory purchase order to secure the property for public benefit. I believe this is what happened to Arnos Vale Cemetery in Bristol, a historic site though not as historic as Whitechapel’s Bell Foundry.

  30. Madelaine Pierson permalink
    June 22, 2018

    I always feel fearful when we’re expecting ‘big business’ to do the right thing and sell but perhaps this idea could appeal to them from a PR perspective, it would make them look good if they sold it on to someone else for a greater cause…

    It’s a shame that the original owners didn’t announce their intention to sell more publicly so charitable trusts would have had time to draw up alternative plans…

  31. Andy permalink
    June 22, 2018

    I hope that common sense prevails here. The business should never have been sold in the 1st place. We must keep traditions alive annotated allow them to become history. Sadly, money and greed are devastating. Good luck with your quest, please post links to petitions or funding pages.

  32. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 22, 2018

    And yes – please keep us informed about progress…

  33. Carol Franklin permalink
    June 22, 2018

    This is such exciting news; I do hope the foundry can be saved. It would be shameful to lose this important part of London’s history and heritage for yet another hotel.

  34. Shawdian permalink
    June 22, 2018

    A disgrace that Downing St ignored the petition that my family & I & over 10,000 people signed to save the World Famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry, part of Londons Heritage & Trade: Not Good Policy. What a great opportunity for the UK’s Historic Buildings Preservation Trust to show ‘Bells over yet another clothes shop, hotel & yet another new building’, This is about Jobs, Tradition, Preserving Traditional Skills & what an oppertunity to implement these new skills now avaliable (Zero Emission Workshop) and Stop bulldozing perfectly good buildings that need nothing more than ‘Common Sense Care’. These buildings should be used not abused. Thank you for keeping readers up to date. My family I wish to show our support, so please advice what more we can do & who.

  35. Sarah permalink
    June 22, 2018

    GA could you let us know if we need to petition/sign anything in support of this plan to save the bell foundry. Do we know yet how Tower Hamlets views the hotel project?

  36. Robert Daulton permalink
    June 22, 2018

    I’ve driven an walked past this place so many times whilst working in London it always gave me a warm feeling inside of me to think this trade continued in our City & stretches back to the very origines of us our way of life.

  37. Maureen O’Brien permalink
    June 22, 2018

    I hope that the foundry will continue to cast bells – big, stupendous, glorious church bells. We need places like this – no place on this planet needs more boutique hotels, high end restaurants or luxury housing.

  38. Claudia Funder permalink
    June 23, 2018

    Doing a tour of the Foundry was in my bucket list for years and I went, finally, in 2010. The workers there were wonderful, each describing their job and getting on with it. The history, engineering, technology and musicianship of these people was awe inspiring. My favourite staffer was the guy with perfect pitch who tuned the bells with a metal file, by ear. He’d tried various electronic tuning technologies but the human ear was more accurate for warmth of tone, clarity and the overall quality of the ring. Please bring back the foundry.

  39. Andrew Whibley permalink
    June 23, 2018

    Go and see the architect plans for the new hotel. It is rare to see plans so poor, I’ll-thought through, lazy, and disrespectful of the area than these. We must save the heritage of the foundry in a worthy redevelopment, not this hideous insult.

  40. Julie Knight permalink
    June 24, 2018

    Come on Tower Hamlets save our heritage fro greedy developers.

  41. June 25, 2018

    What can be done now to encourage the establishment of the new foundry?

    Thanks for keeping us informed, GA.

  42. Kate permalink
    June 25, 2018

    It was fantastic that 10,000 people signed the petition to keep the foundry and if those 10,000 people also contacted their local church and joined their local bell ringers, they could help keep this amazing and worthwhile tradition alive.

  43. Keith Billinghurst permalink
    June 25, 2018

    Dear Sirs,

    What an enlightening article to read at the start of a new week. Your work follows in the tradition of Charles Robert Ashbee’s 1894 Survey of the Memorials of Greater London and is to be applauded. Could you promote an on-line petition that interested people (including those not resident in the borough) could sign ahead of the council’s change of use vote (SurveyMonkey for example)? I will be forwarding your email to Len Duvall, member of the London Assembly for Greenwich and Lewisham as well as other bodies in my town of Eltham who I would expect would support your plan.

  44. Peter Cobb permalink
    June 25, 2018

    Why wasn’t the complex made a listed building??

  45. John Walters permalink
    June 25, 2018

    This would be such a good solution. I had watched – and contributed to the cost of – bells being cast and recast for the parish church of my home town where they are now rung regularly. The loss of the old foundry with its incredibly long history felt terrible. I really hope that the plan succeeds and send my best wishes to those involved.

  46. Geoff Parcell permalink
    June 26, 2018

    Who can we write to to add our support to retain the foundry?

    Thanks

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