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Peter Rayner, Baker, Bell Tuner & Train Driver

October 7, 2019
by the gentle author

Any readers who can give some spare time over coming weeks are invited to a meeting of the campaign to Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry at Bow Church, 230 Bow Rd, E3 3AH, this Thursday 10th October at 6pm. Plans are underway for a large public rally and march in Whitechapel in November.

Peter Rayner

It is rare that you meet anyone with such an array of practical skills and accomplishments as Peter Rayner. We met at the Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry meeting at East London Mosque in September and then I visited Peter at his home in Stratford where he told me his story.

“On my father’s side, I am an East End boy and, on my mother’s side, I am Leicestershire. They met when dad was in the army and mum was in the land army in Kent but although I was born and bred in Hertfordshire I consider myself an East Ender.

I always wanted to be a train driver but I left school and went into catering. My parents told me there would be more money in it. I had always been interested in making bread and cakes. I got all my qualifications and I worked for a small family bakers in Enfield but, when the old boy died, I was unemployed.

Through my bellringing, I heard there was a job going at Whitechapel Bell Foundry so I tried my hand there. I had learnt to ring bells at St Mary’s Cheshunt at the age of twenty.

I joined the foundry in October 1973 when I was twenty-four. My job was tuning bells, shaving metal off the inside. They normally cast bells sharp and by increasing the internal diameter you bring the note down in pitch to what you want. They taught me, the only place you can learn to make bells is in a bell foundry. The first job I worked on with Wallace Spragget and John Slater was the bells for All Saints, Worcester. Wally had worked Gillett & Johnston’s bell foundry which was in Croydon and, when it shut down, he transferred to Whitechapel. He had spent his life tuning bells and he took me under his wing and taught me.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was an old world place, still in the Victorian era, but I enjoyed working there because there was so much history. When I was there they demolished the old chain shop which was a bit ramshackle and built the new extension on the back.

Apart from the odd spell when it was quiet, were always fairly busy. When people asked me how many people worked at the bell foundry, I used to joke, ‘Only about half of us!’ It was thirty-five people but about fifteen were only concentrating on the handbells, while the rest of us were doing the big bells, making the moulds, casting the bells, tuning the bells and building the frames.

The moulds are a mixture of London clay, horse hair, goats hair and various types of sand so when it is mixed up it is a form of black pudding, though I would not recommend eating it.

I liked working there because I have always enjoyed working with my hands. I was working on old bells coming in for retuning, because they did not know how to tune bells in the old days. Some would be five, six or seven hundred years old. It will be two, three or five hundred years before the bells I worked on need any further attention. Bells do not often wear out. They get dirty and covered in crap from pigeons. Generally bells come in because the frame and fittings are completely worn out.

I worked on the bells for Durham, Gloucester and Canterbury Cathedrals, and also Hexham Abbey, Barking Abbey and Romsey Abbey. In London, Chelsea Old Church, Wimbledon, St Leonards Streatham and St Clement Danes among others. So I can say I have left my mark in bells.

The largest bell I was involved with was the American Bicentennial Bell cast in 1975 for the celebrations in 1976 in Philadelphia. It was about seven feet in diameter and weighed five and a half tons. A big bell. We did replica Liberty Bells, I was involved in casting fifteen of them. The plan was to put one in every state of the union, but how far they got with that I do not know. They were still knocking them out when I left the foundry in 1987.

When I first joined the bell foundry, it was run by Douglas and William Hughes. Alan who became the next bell founder was Bill Hughes’ son. He took over the business when they retired. Douglas Hughes had been an army officer and if you did something wrong you got a tongue lashing, but that was the end of it. Bill Hughes was quieter and he did all the working inspections and paperwork, getting the estimates done. I got on alright with both of them.

After Wally Spragget died, I took over bell tuning but by then I was married with a mortgage and things were getting a bit tight financially, so I had to find a better paid job. I got a job as a guard on the Underground, it was double the wages. After I finished my training, I was based at Golders Green but after nine months I was transferred to the East End depots. I became a train driver on the District Line based in Earls Court and Parsons Green for ten years.

When the Jubilee Line opened I knew there would be a depot in the East End, so I put my application in and transferred to Stratford in 1997. I was a test train driver until the Jubilee Line extended and I was on it for about ten years, so I fulfilled my ambition to be a train driver. I had a really rough day once, one of those days when everything goes wrong on the tube and I got home home late. I slammed my retirement notice in next morning and got a full pension.

That was eleven years ago but I am still heavily involved in bell ringing and I have bought a canal boat and I do model railways. I do most of the cooking at home and, occasionally, I provide bread and cake for bellringers dinners and things like that.

I am very sad that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has closed because I spent more than ten years of my life there. Nowadays, I am on the canals and I have seen the example of what could happen at Middleport Pottery near Stoke on Trent. I am very impressed with what they have done. Every time I go past on my boat I stop there. When I was there three weeks ago, the apprentices were selling the stuff they made and we bought a complete dinner service.

The developers who want to turn the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel plan to have a foundry casting handbells in the same place where they serve the food, but the two will not mix because of the air pollution. I do not think the hotel will work because there are already lots of hotels in Whitechapel.”

Peter Rayner tuning a bell at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the seventies

You may also like to read about

A Bell-Themed Boutique Hotel?

Nigel Taylor, Tower Bell Manager

Benjamin Kipling, Bell Tuner

Four Hundred Years at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Pearl Binder at Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Dorothy Rendell at Whitechapel Bell Foundry

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

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 7, 2019

    Good to read an insider’s story about working at the bell foundry and amazing to think that his tuning work will still be appreciated many centuries from now..

    I hope there is a great response to the Save the Bell Foundry campaign rally!

  2. Paul Loften permalink
    October 7, 2019

    What a superb set of skills . It is only places like the foundry that can give future generations the opportunity to learn and acquire handcrafts. I shall try to be a the meeting and this time I would like to see the GA on the stage and speaking. Surely the organizers must realise that hardly anybody would be there if it wasnt for this blog!

  3. Mary permalink
    October 7, 2019

    Please let us know when the rally will be held in November as I have every intention of being there.

  4. October 7, 2019

    Am unable to attend on Thursday but hope to make the November rally, we must do everything we can to stop the Boutique Hotel nonsense.
    A lovely personal insight from Peter about working at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
    He’s certainly had an interesting career path!

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