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Pearl Binder At The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

March 10, 2019
by the gentle author

Artist & Writer Pearl Binder (1904-1990) came from Salford in the twenties to live in a hayloft in Whitechapel while studying at Central School of Art. Subsequently, she published ODD JOBS in 1935, a series of illustrated pen portraits including this account of a visit to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which was introduced to me by her son Dan Jones.

This week the Association of Heritage Crafts designated bell founding as craft in critical danger of being lost forever in this country, which makes Pearl Binder’s account especially poignant and emphasises how essential it is that we save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to preserve these skills for future generations.

‘Casting bells is a similar process to making puddings and just as tricky’

In more primitive times, owing to the difficulty of transport, bells had to be cast right outside the church for which they were intended. The bell-founders, like gipsy tinkers, travelling with their tools from one place of worship to the next. As roads and vehicles improved, however, it was found more practical to cast the bells in a static foundry.

The present Whitechapel Bell Foundry dates from 1570 and was built on the site of the old Artichoke Inn. During the last three centuries, carillons of every size have been cast here for churches and cathedrals all over the world – also orchestral bells, fire bells, ship’s bells, cattle bells, hand bells, and even muffin bells. The famous Bow Bells came from here and in 1858 Big Ben was cast in the middle foundry.

During the Great War the foundry ceased to cast church bells and made gun cradles instead.

Today, like any other commodity, bells have to be turned out at cut price to keep pace with modern competitive methods. Nevertheless, the standard of work Mears & Stainbank is still very high.

The head moulder, who has been with the firm over forty years, came to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a boy of fourteen to be apprenticed to the head moulder of those days, who himself in the eighteen-seventies had started work in a colliery at the age of eight, beginning every morning at six, with a score of other children, under the supervision of a foreman armed with a whip.

Within living memory one outstanding craftsman has emerged from the crowd of workers employed at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. A moulder developed extraordinary skill in designing metal founts for the lettering and ornamental devices for the bells, cutting and casting the letters himself in the foundry. These founts are still in use today, long after his death.

A common labourer, Tom Kimber, taught himself in his spare time to draw armorial bearings with exquisite precision. By rights such a man should have been attached to the College of Heraldry. However, he died as he lived, humbly hauling dirt by day for his weekly thirty shillings and copying inscriptions from the bells in the evenings.

For many years, after his ordinary day’s work, he copied the blazon on every bell sent to the foundry for repair, puzzling out for himself the Latin inscriptions. In this way he compiled in several big albums an invaluable record of centuries of ecclesiastical heraldry. Here are a few inscriptions.

This is from a tenor bell twice recast:

JOHN OF COLSALE MANOR MADE MEE IN THE YEAR OF OUR LORD 1409

This is from from an Essex village church:

PRAY WITH GODLY MIND FOR US, O VIRGIN MARY

This is from Berkshire in 1869:

I MOURN THE DEAD, CALL THE PEOPLE AND GRACE FESTIVALS

This is from from Peasenhall Suffolk in 1722:

IN THIS ROOM NOW GABRIEL STRIKE SWEETLY

And this from a Norfolk village:

GODAMENDWHATISAMESANDSENDLOVEWHERENONIS 166

It is good to recall that John Bunyan was a bell ringer.

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You enter the Whitechapel Bell Foundry through a sunny courtyard. On a window sill a green plant is thriving in an old bell mould.

The first room is the tuning department. Etiquette ordains a bell shall be cast well on the large side to allow the scraping involved in the process of tuning to be carried out without stinting metal, otherwise the tone would be sharp. The diameter and thickness of the bell determine the tone, a twenty-ton bell having as much as one ton removed in the course of tuning.

A workman guides the knife edge which scrapes the sides of the dish bell (the trade name for orchestra bells) on a revolving platform. With a loud grinding noise, metal chips fly off, glittering like tinsel.

With a hammer encased in felt and several hundred tuning forks, the senior tuner painstakingly tests the pitch of the completed bell before it is passed as perfect.

Once a bell is perfectly tuned, it cannot get out of tune. What does happen is the sides of the bell get flattened by the constant impact of the clapper, and the clapper must be changed around so it hits another spot.

The next room is dimly lit. Here old bells affected by climate are sent to have their corrosion chipped off. Woodwork is painted with lead paint, ironwork with red oxide, and holes are drilled in certain defective clappers and filled with rubber to bring out the note. Here also the strickles (wooden shapes) and the disused moulds of all the old bells are stored.

On the waist of each mould an inscription and the destination of the bell are engraved. When the bell is cast the letters will appear in relief. That monster strickle attached to the high ceiling belongs to Big Ben.

This notice is pinned to the board:

Leading out of this room is the dusty, whitewashed foundry where the biggest castings are made. Those heavy oak beams supporting the ceiling came from Queen Victoria’s Great Exhibition in Hyde park, now mouldering peacefully in Crystal Palace.

In the opposite corner to the big furnace is the drying kiln, carefully watched so that no damp may remain in the moulds.

Purposeful litter crowds this foundry: heaps of coal for the big furnace, heaps of coke for the pot-holes as the small furnaces are called, sanguine bricks, clay burned yellow by repeated firings, empty baskets, piled trestles, sieves of all sizes, spades, casings, and the inevitable earthenware teapot.

Big Ben, which took shape in this room, was actually cast in a clay mould, but for over sixty years now metal casts – perforated to allow the gases to escape – have been in use here. Yet the ancient process of ‘beating’ – softening the clay by continually hand beating with a metal rod – still survives.

Casting bells is a similar process to making puddings and just as tricky. You may use exactly the same ingredients in exactly the same manner as last time, yet the result is by no means calculable. The metal used in casting bells is composed of one part of tin to four parts of copper, a greater proportion of copper rendering the bell softer, a greater proportion of tin making it more brittle.

A carillon of eight bells can ring 5040 different changes. One ringer to one bell is the rule, although there is on record one phenomenal bellringer who could actually ring two different bells at the same time.

At the end of the last workshops glows a row of crucibles used for all except the largest castings.

A secret flight of worn stone steps leads down below to a chain of mouldering windowless cellars where the pot-holes are stored. From the construction and disposition of these cellars, their site on the notorious highway to Colchester in what used to be a notorious neighbourhood of crimping dens, and from the fact that Dick Turpin frequented the old Red Lion Inn, less than a stone’s throw away, it seems reasonably certain that they were once used as a coiner’s den.

The casting is most beautiful to watch. First the molten bell metal is lifted in its vessel from the crucible by ten men pulling steadily together. The orange-hot vessel is tilted, pouring the liquid metal in a dazzling pool into a large beaker and showering bright sparks like fireworks in all directions.

The workmen, in caps, leather aprons, and heavy gloves, stand ready, their serious faces lit by the radiance. Not a word is spoken. They move without instruction, grouping and regrouping with natural unison.

The large beaker is wheeled into the foundry, hoisted into position by pulleys, and tilted to the required angle by manipulating the control wheel. One of the workmen swiftly removes surface cinders from the liquid, as one removes tea leaves from a cup of hot tea, and the glowing metal pours slowly into the bell mould until the bubbling at the riser (hole) indicates that the mould is full.

The laden bell mould is set aside to cool. In a couple of days the emerging bell will be scraped, polished and tuned. And half a century hence perhaps it will wend its way back to the foundry again.

Pearl Binder (1904-1990)


You can help save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as a living foundry by submitting an objection to the boutique hotel proposal to Tower Hamlets council. Already we have lodged over six hundred letters of objection but we aim to deliver over a thousand. If you have not already done so, please take a moment this weekend to write your letter of objection. The more objections we can lodge the better, so please spread the word to your family and friends.

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HOW TO OBJECT EFFECTIVELY

Use your own words and add your own personal reasons for opposing the development. Any letters which simply duplicate the same wording will count only as one objection.

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1. Quote the application reference: PA/19/00008/A1

2. Give your full name and postal address. You do not need to be a resident of Tower Hamlets or of the United Kingdom to register a comment but unless you give your postal address your objection will be discounted.

3. Be sure to state clearly that you are OBJECTING to Raycliff Capital’s application.

4. Point out the ‘OPTIMUM VIABLE USE’ for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is as a foundry not a boutique hotel.

5. Emphasise that you want it to continue as a foundry and there is a viable proposal to deliver this.

6. Request the council refuse Raycliff Capital’s application for change of use from foundry to hotel.

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WHERE TO SEND YOUR OBJECTION

You can write an email to

planningandbuilding@towerhamlets.gov.uk

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you can post your objection direct on the website by following this link to Planning and entering the application reference PA/19/00008/A1

or

you can send a letter to

Town Planning, Town Hall, Mulberry Place, 5 Clove Crescent, London, E14 2BG

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You may also like to read about

A Bell-Themed Boutique Hotel?

Nigel Taylor, Tower Bell Manager

Benjamin Kipling, Bell Tuner

Hope for The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

A Petition to Save the Bell Foundry

Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Fourteen Short Poems About The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    March 10, 2019

    Fascinating to read more about the actual process of bell founding and to learn a new word – strickle, and the etymology of pot-hole.

    I will continue to get the word out to as many people as possible – the foundry must be saved!

  2. Richard Pascoe permalink
    March 10, 2019

    Good morning everyone
    Interesting description and story of the Foundry by ‘ Pearl ‘
    Come on everybody , only 600 letters !
    Well done GA !!

  3. March 10, 2019

    What an amazing account by Pearl Binder reminding us all why we must do our utmost to save this unique and much loved building for use as a Foundry. Tower Hamlets Planners now have an opportunity to ensure that ‘half a century hence’ bells can once again be returned to be re-tuned by a new generation of skilled craftsmen/women who have been given the opportunity of serving an apprenticeship here.

  4. Laura Williamson permalink
    March 10, 2019

    A superb piece by Pearl Binder, a fascinating woman who was clearly as talented a writer as she was an artist. I’m sure I won’t be the only one moved by the picture of Tom Kimber spending his evenings meticulously and lovingly preserving the armorial bearings and inscriptions- what a great gift to the future.

    Thank you Pearl and thank you Tom, and thanks to the many others whose stories became part of the fabric of this remarkable place.

  5. March 10, 2019

    What an incredible history ! I cant quite believe that the foundry has closed and they are discussing putting a boutique hotel in its place. Any loccal authority with a pinch of imagination and enterprise and perhaps a soupcon of regard for history should be able to see that a fortune could be made from restoring the foundry as it was . Not only from the uniqueness of the trade but as a draw to visitors from around the world. The Bell Foundry is a one off that cant be replaced!.We do not need a boutiqiue hotel . We do need trade, enterprise and imagination to face the worrying challenges of Brexit I have written my letter of objection . I hope that Tower Hamlets Council pay attention to all the voices of protest.

  6. stephanie Janet pemberton permalink
    March 10, 2019

    As much noted, a very emotive topic as recently outlined in the Architect’s Journal: https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/news/31/44-architects-submits-plans-for-contentious-whitechapel-bell-foundry-scheme/10039736.article . I went to the last public discussion at the Foundry several months ago and spoke with both sides.

    I have an emotional attachment to the site as well as a reverence for the history and space. I Went on one of the last tours, having visited the museum/shop for several years whilst son had treatment at the hospital up the road. Last year I had a bell engraved for a much missed friend.

  7. Sonia Murray permalink
    March 10, 2019

    Thank you for a fascinating article. London is over-endowed with boutique hotels; the foundry is unique, highlighting an ancient trade and the skills of the craftsmen who made Big Ben and so many other chimes that ring out over the city. It is an invaluable part of our nation’s heritage and most certainly should be preserved.

  8. Gary Arber permalink
    March 10, 2019

    I have just typed my one out,
    All hands to the pump
    Gary

  9. Nicola Johnson permalink
    March 10, 2019

    This was a fascinating article, beautifully written. This foundry so deserves a second chance.

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