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An Old Whitechapel Bell

November 13, 2019
by the gentle author

This Thursday 14th November Tower Hamlets Planning Committee meet to decide the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Bring a bell and join the protest before the meeting at 6pm outside the Town Hall, Mulberry Place, 5 Clove Crescent, E14 2BG

‘Robert Mot made me’

This is one of the oldest Whitechapel Bells still in use, cast by Robert Mot in 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada and also the year William Shakespeare arrived in London. Yet, even though Robert Mot is remembered as the founder of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1570, he did not begin the industry of founding in this location since bells are recorded as having been cast in Whitechapel as early as 1360.

Adorned with the sparse text of ‘Robertus Mot me fecit,’ this bell declares its birth date of 1588 in delicate gothic numerals and indicates its origin through use of the symbol of three bells upon a disc – at the sign of the three bells – the Whitechapel maker’s mark.

I climbed the tower of St Clement Danes in the Strand to photograph this bell for you this week and discovered it shares a common ancestry with its fellows in the belfry which were also cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, but by Mears & Stainbank in 1958 – nearly four centuries later. Close examination reveals they also carry the symbol of the three bells.

With a diameter of two feet and a weight of just over two hundredweight, Robert Mot’s bell is relatively modest in scale yet a dignified specimen nonetheless with its broken canons (the hoops that used to be attached to all bells to attach them to a beam) emphasising the exotic vulnerability of its age – as if it were a rare metal flower plucked roughly from a mythological tree, long extinct.

Today, the old Whitechapel bell rings the Angelus and may be heard by passersby in the Strand at 7:55am, 11:55am and 17:55pm. Its earlier function as the clock bell may be the reason the old bell has survived, since the other bells were removed by Rector William Pennington-Bickford during World War II for safe keeping at the base of the tower.

St Clement Danes was established in 886 when Alfred the Great expelled the Danes from the City of London and they settled along the Strand. Escaping the Great Fire, the church was in a decayed state and considerably rebuilt by Christopher Wren in the sixteen-eighties, with a spire added by James Gibbs on top of the old bell tower in 1719. During the eighteenth century, St Clement’s acquired a literary congregation including local residents Samuel Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick but, by the nineteenth century, fashionable society had moved to the churches of the West End.

Septimus Pennington, Rector from 1889, set out to minister to the flower girls and street traders of Clare Market and Drury Lane, work continued by his successor and son-in-law, Rector William Pennington-Bickford in the early twentieth century. Unfortunately, Pennington-Bickford’s worst expectations were realised when St Clement’s was hit by more than twenty fire bombs on the night of 12th May 1941, reducing the church to a shell.

Fearful that looters might steal the fire-damaged bells and melt them down, Pennington-Bickford had them bricked up in the Rector’s parlour and died from grief three months later, only to be followed by his wife who threw herself from a window shortly after. Yet through all this, Robert Mot’s bell was safe, hanging up in the bell tower. Postwar, St Clement’s was rebuilt again to Wren’s designs and the damaged bells recovered from the Rector’s parlour, recast in Whitechapel and rehung in the tower in 1958. Today, it is the church of the Royal Air Force.

When I asked Alan Taylor, Bell Ringer at St Clement’s, his opinion of the sound of the old Whitechapel bell, he wrinkled up his nose in disapproval. ‘Bell founding was a bit hit-or-miss in those days,’ he informed me, shaking his head.

As the Sanctus Bell, Robert Mot’s bell was originally used to summon the congregation to prayer, but I imagine it could also have been rung at the time of the Spanish Armada. Ancient bells connect us to all those who heard them through the centuries and, given the date of 1588, this is one that William Shakespeare could have heard echoing down the street, when he walked the Strand as a newcomer to London, come to seek his destiny.

Cast in 1588 by Robert Mot, Founder of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Whitechapel bell cast in 1958 by Mears & Stainbank

Panel in the bell ringing chamber

Old church board, now in the crypt, indicating this was once the church for Clare Market & Drury Lane

Nineteenth century photograph of Clare Market (Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

Nineteenth century photograph of Drury Lane (Courtesy Bishopsgate Institute)

St Clement Danes – Robert Mot’s bell is in the belfry above the clock

You may also like to read about

Save Our Bell Foundry

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

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    November 13, 2019

    Come on, GA! London desperately need more stupidly-themed boutique hotels! Why, the others are overflowing at present (40% average occupancy rate), and it isn’t as if the city’s been around long enough to have a heritage worth preserving.

    Oh, no, wait a minute …

  2. Audrey permalink
    November 13, 2019

    This needs to stay put it is part of east London heritage

  3. Mary G permalink
    November 13, 2019

    Best wishes to all attending the rally and council meeting tomorrow night, I will be there with you in spirit if not body.
    Whatever the decision made by the Council Planning Committee there are many questions to be answered about the relationship between Raycliff Capital and Historic England throughout this sorry business. I also wonder what communications have taken place between Historic England and the Planning Committee. Perhaps Channel 4 “Dispatches” could investigate and broadcast?

  4. November 13, 2019

    Thank you for this & also for the piece about Saturday’s demonstration outside the Bell Foundry. I was there on Saturday with my mountain sheep’s bell, ringing heartily. I’d much like to do the same tomorrow outside the Town Hall, but almost certainly can’t be there : for everyone who is there, the Council should know there are others who can’t physically be, but in spirit very much are. If my mountain sheep’s bell seems inappropriate, it is utterly not the case : LBTH is a place of historic migration & my grandfather migrated to London from the Italian mountains where he was a shepherd & I’ve lived in Shadwell for over 40 years now. I wish the Bell Foundry would remain what it always has been. The wonderful culture of bells is international & it would look good for LBTH (as well as bringing & conserving local jobs), all bests Stephen

  5. Amanda permalink
    November 13, 2019

    Thank you GA for all this amazingly detailed history which has so many personal poignant links for me in one article.

    My English ancestors hailed from the City, Clerkenwell + Bethnal Green.
    l attended Burlington School originally founded in 1699 in Piccadilly by Irish Lord Burlington – the first for children of servants. Later a Grammar School
    This twinned with St Clement Danes School in the 1970s.
    (l did not attend in 1699 ; -)

    My Irish pop served in the Royal Air Force so the dedication of St Clements Church was meaninful.
    And l visted Ireland attempting to find traces of our Spanish ancestry from the Armada and beyond, to reconcile our black hair + dusky looks and why l magically speak Spanish as a second language as easily as English.

    Since moving back to England from Spain l have missed their warmth and affection, but l note the readiness to chat and to help others is still tangible across the cultures in the East End and l love being there too.

    Long live the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and all its neighbours.

    Mary G above has sadly hit the nail on the proverbial.

    A “boutique” hotel is such an insult to our ancestry and heritage but if they have more dosh and drive than any other interested parties to buy the plot, that will be sadly all that counts.

    l am unsure of Historic England’s purpose.

  6. Hilda Kean permalink
    November 13, 2019

    Your article is excellent since it is not just focussed upon the physical location of Whitechapel Bell Foundry but relates its existence and status to aspects of the history of London. That is, it is not just about ,say, one particular church but a plethora of similar buildings existing throughout the town – and over centuries.

  7. Su C. permalink
    November 13, 2019

    I will be here in Oakland California (w)ringing my White Chapel Bell Foundry table bell at 10 am in support of the correct decision that should be made, and which I hope wholeheartedly is made.

    Good luck.

  8. November 13, 2019

    The contempt shown by Tower Hamlets Council, led by Mayor John Biggs, has echoes of the Poulson corruption in the 1960’s ( ) .

    Far better there is full disclosure of all the facts now, with the recent request under the Freedom of Information Act dismissed/ignored, why?

    The Planning Committee should be made aware of their liability to the Courts, in the future, if any wayward practices are disclosed, and the decision should be suspended until full disclosure occurs.

  9. Jan permalink
    November 13, 2019

    I wish you all success. Thank you for the photographs of these beautiful bells.

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