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Nigel Taylor, Tower Bell Production Manager

October 7, 2020
by the gentle author

Today the hearing into the future of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is paused while the Inspector undertakes a site visit. The Public Inquiry will continue on Thursday at 10am when live-tweeting @savethewbf will resume.

To watch the inquiry, email elizabeth.humphrey@planninginspectorate.gov.uk

“I do not want to see all the things that England once held dear just die, especially the crafts and industries that we once had” – Nigel Taylor

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Perhaps no-one was better placed to bear witness to the tale of the closure of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – the world’s most famous foundry – than Nigel Taylor, who worked there for forty years and was the senior foundry man. It was said that the closure of the foundry was inevitable due to the decline in demand for church bells, but Nigel Taylor has a different story to tell.

His is a sobering account which reveals that the shutting of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was avoidable. Nigel asserts that it was a deliberate act by the bell founders who chose to sell up and sacrifice twenty-five jobs, rather than take action to modernise and ensure the survival of Britain’s oldest manufacturing business. Yet Nigel’s testimony also contains hope by asserting his belief that the foundry can have a viable future as a living foundry, rather than be ignominiously reduced to a bell-themed boutique hotel as has been proposed.

Nigel has been consumed by the culture of bells since early childhood and he is a passionate spokesman for those who make bells, those who ring bells, and all those who love bells.

“I am a Londoner, born in Hampstead. When I was a boy, my grandparents lived in Warwick, so as a small child I often heard the eight bells of St Nicholas. I was fascinated by the sound. I heard the sound of the bells of St Mary’s in Warwick as well. When I was five years old, I identified that they had ten bells not eight and they were a lower pitch. So my passion for bells was already there.

When I was six, we moved to Oxfordshire and the bells at Chipping Norton had not been rung for many years but they were rehung by Taylors of Loughborough. A friend of mine said, ‘They’re trying the bells out tonight, let’s go and listen.’ They told us, ‘You can’t learn to ring until you’re eleven.’ So when we were eleven, we went along to ring and my friend is still ringing the bells in that tower. Once I started to ring bells, I never looked back.

When I left school, I wrote to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and asked, ‘Do you have any vacancies?’ I had an interview with Douglas Hughes – father of Alan Hughes the last bell founder – and he said, ‘We’ll start you off in the moulding shop.’ I had no experience. There were no college course in loam-moulding or anything like that. You could do an apprenticeship in an iron foundry in loam-moulding and some of the bell founders did that after they left school. But I learnt everything I know at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

My feelings about it were quite mixed when I arrived in 1976. I had to get used to a lot of bad language which was not tolerated at school in those days. There were an interesting variety of characters, some ringers and some not. I started off making up the loam which is a mixture of sand, clay, horse manure and all the rest of it. I was the one that introduced Jeyes Fluid into the mix, just to kill off some of the bugs. Then I made moulding bricks, using loam, and dried them in the oven. They acted as packing between the moulding gauge or template and the cast iron flask, filling the space between them. Then I started making cores and, after the head moulder retired in 2003, I got to do the inscriptions. I did the lot and I was running the entire foundry production by that stage as Tower Bell Production Manager, managing the making of the bells, the casting of the bells and the tuning of the bells.

I really liked doing the inscriptions. To begin with I made white metal copies of the inscriptions on old bells to transfer to the new ones when they were recast. Later, I made casts of inscriptions in resin and stamped them into the new mould while it was still damp. We also had various letter sets in different sizes, decorative lettering and stock friezes. We often put friezes on bells, at least one if not two or three. It was a very satisfying job, because a bell is likely to last for centuries. I used to put headphones on and listen to some music while I was working and I thought, ‘This is going to outlast me.’ I have lost count of how many bells I have made. I could count how many bells I have tuned because I have kept my notebooks, so I could go through and count them. It must be thousands.

Just before the Whitechapel Bell Foundry shut, we had an order for some bells from Thailand which required a special stamp. So rather than make it the old fashioned way, I went to a 3D print shop in Canary Wharf and they printed the design for one fifth of the cost of how we did it before. It was a highly significant moment, three months before the foundry closed down.

I want to see the Whitechapel Bell Foundry re-opened as a foundry. I believe it would be economically viable. The previous business could have been economically viable with the right kind of marketing and the right kind of management.

I would like to see local people involved in foundry work, because there are no other buildings in this locality which are suitable for this purpose. I would like to see apprenticeships and training in all aspects of casting – pattern-making, moulding, fettling, machining, polishing and tuning. There are a whole range of different skills to be taught and there would be employment for those people.

I would like to take an advisory role with regard to how best to make use of the building and set up the various workshops, and especially in the design and making of patterns for bells. The previous furnaces were oil-fired but my preference is for electric which would lower the emissions considerably.

I am in favour of modernising the foundry for the twenty-first century. In the last few years, it became increasingly difficult to obtain traditional materials. Quarries which supplied sand were becoming landfill sites, so we struggled to find sand that was suitable to produce loam. If you discard that system and use resin-bonded sand instead, the strength of the mould is no longer reliant upon which quarry the sand comes from and you can have a much higher success rate with your castings. It is cleaner too. We used to have clouds of loam dust floating around everywhere – it was a dirty job.

In the past, patterns were made of wood but now we can design the profile of a bell and digitally print the pattern in high-density polypropylene, which can be reused, making the process far cheaper. You can do it in one day instead of over a matter of weeks and you can make dozens of bells with one pattern that way. It is a huge difference.

There was a dip in sales around 2012/3 as a result of government spending cuts. I think bell founders Alan & Kathryn Hughes misinterpreted this as a terminal decline in bell founding, so when the market picked up they were not ready for it. It was obvious to me that they needed a good marketing strategy, but I saw them carry on with their old policy regardless and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry began to decline rapidly while Britain’s other bell foundry, Taylors of Loughborough, picked up the lion’s share of the work due to aggressive marketing. The Hughes incurred debts in the region of £450,000 but they were thrown a lifeline by the offer of purchasing the building. By then, the building was worth money and the business was worth nothing. So they took the lifeline and foundry closed in 2017.

In my estimation, Alan & Kathryn Hughes ran out of puff. They had two daughters who were not interested in the business. After three generations of ownership, it seemed the Hughes could only see it as a family business, so if no-one in the family was going to run it that was the end of business. That was certainly how it appeared to us, the staff, and it became apparent in the way the Hughes allowed the business to collapse.

I knew the Whitechapel Bell Foundry needed to put in more competitive quotes and carry out free inspections for prospective jobs. We were the only firm in the business that charged for quotations. It cost us a lot of work. We needed to introduce proper marketing, concentrate on their products and skilled staff – not the fact that it was a family business which was the oldest manufacturing company in England. Customers cared more about whether we could do a good job and how much it was going to cost. The Hughes might have introduced some new directors to bring fresh ideas but their notion of a family business prevented that.

So they did none of these things and twenty-five jobs were destroyed. I think the Hughes tried to block out their responsibility to their employees. I saw how Alan Hughes allowed circumstances to decline until they passed a point of no return. He once said to me, after he had announced that the foundry was going to close and we were all going to lose our jobs, he said ‘It’ll be quite interesting to dismantle it.’ It suggested he had formed a barrier to the emotions that must be inherent in anyone whose is going to close a business that has been in existence for over four hundred years.

In my opinion, the closure was avoidable. With the right strategy, I believe the foundry could have survived, or they could have sold the building and the business when it was a going concern and walked away with a nice amount of money in the bank. But their actions revealed they could only contemplate it as a family business. At present, there is a lot of work about. The bell market and the art foundry market are both very buoyant and I believe the new proposal is perfectly viable.

I am District Master of the Essex Association of Bell Ringers, and I still ring bells at least three nights a week and quite a lot at weekends. I am a traditionalist, I do not want to see all the things that England once held dear just die, especially the crafts and industries that we once had.”

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Click here to sign our petition to Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

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You may also like to read about

The Opening Of The Public Inquiry

So Long, Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The Secretary of State steps in

A Letter to the Secretary of State

Rory Stewart Supports Our Campaign 

Casting a Bell at Here East

The Fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Save Our Bell Foundry

A Bell-Themed Boutique Hotel?

Hope for The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

A Petition to Save the Bell Foundry

Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Adam Dant’s Bells of Whitechapel

14 Responses leave one →
  1. paul loften permalink
    October 7, 2020

    . The architects and experts assured us that the cladding on Grenfell Towers would never catch fire and that all the precautions of heavy fire doors would stop the fire spreading ,Yet one fridge freezer caused an inferno that killed 72 people trapped in a tower block. Barely 3 years later we have architects and planners reassuring us that a Hotel with hundreds of guests and casual diners are safe despite the immediate proxinity of furnaces , molten metal splilling , torches with bare flame in use , acids, machinery , fumes , gasses . electric sub stations. The word fireproof is an illusion when you are dealing with temperatures at 800-1000 degreees . Everything melts, catches fire and disintergrates given the temperature becomes hot enough . A
    raging fire and lethal fumes , fueled by the materials that would be necessarily present, even in a small foundry could spread in a matter of minutes This is a reckless venture, We have had reasurances before. This building has stood as a foundry for hundreds of years .There are 37 million churches in the world and they need bells. There are mor than enough hotels where you can get a good night sleep and enjoy breakfast in the morning without worrying about the foundry downstrairs.

  2. October 7, 2020

    Huge-est of thanks to GA for doing what you do.

    Without you, the back story, which is of course the real story, it would never be heard.

    My first studio was nearby, so it feels like it’s in my (makers’) bones and DNA, if only a little.

    I won’t be the first this morning who’ll be reading this, going back and forth between rage and joy.

  3. shelley permalink
    October 7, 2020

    well said. what a sad unavoidable ending to a wonderful business

  4. October 7, 2020

    A very interesting – and useful – interview. I hope his wish comes true.

  5. James Wyburd permalink
    October 7, 2020

    The issue hinges around who owns the foundry. Was it the family who had kept it going for three generations or was it, de facto, the state. In a fair society, the family are entitled to market value for the site. If the state (the people) considers the site should remain a foundry, then the state should buy the site at market value.

  6. Georgina Briody permalink
    October 7, 2020

    Intriguing insight, perhaps the owners should have listened to Nigel.

  7. October 7, 2020

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, that is a very realistic assessment by Nigel Taylor about the impending demise of the Bell Foundry.

    “I knew the Whitechapel Bell Foundry needed to put in more competitive quotes and carry out free inspections for prospective jobs. We were the only firm in the business that charged for quotations. It cost us a lot of work.”

    One enticement that is universal in advertising for services – “FREE ESTIMATES!”

  8. Linda Granfield permalink
    October 7, 2020

    What an articulate man and heartfelt piece.

    I hope Nigel will be installed at the Man in Charge of the newborn Whitechapel Bell Foundry when the proceedings are complete.

    It’s unfortunate his vision for the future wasn’t implemented years ago.

  9. October 7, 2020

    To be perfectly honest, I never gave any thought to where/how/when bells are made.
    (sad but true) Sure, I thought the sound of a magnificent church bell was uplifting and resonant. And sure I had visited the Liberty Bell, like any other Pennsylvania school kid.

    But it was through reading Spitalfields Life that I got to know the real story about bells, and how they are made. And, even better, I’ve been introduced to the people who work in this specialized profession.

    Consider me part of the cheering section. I hope there is a positive outcome for the Foundry and all the workers. Thank you, GA, for shining a light — and ringing that bell.

  10. Amanda permalink
    October 7, 2020

    The GA’s unique forum has afforded Nigel what must be a huge release via an eloquent outlet to express his circumstances for all to understand.

    Important to also acknowledge that each human can only function to the best of their capacity and some find themselves suddenly out of their depth and fearful due to any type of change to their environment or health, unable to even make a wise decision, let alone continue.
    It has happened to most of us.

    My own father was in partnership with a person who was blinkered + frugal.
    The partner very suddenly sold up for the price of the building.
    After the initial hurt, shock
    and financial worry came the silver lining : less money but happiness without the daily battle of wits.
    A new door soon opened.

    Nigel’s interview serves as a poignant lesson for all businesses, for would be partnerships and employees
    ie not to expect a gallon from a pint person, or team with someone who may not share one’s own vision + work ethic.

    It is mind numbing to invest 40 years of work to find that sudden unbridled changes bring those efforts to a halt unecessarily, albeit at present we all hope it has merely been a long pause to herald a fantastic new ‘improved’ enterprise that was truly meant to be.

    It appears that every step of the foundry’s recent wobbly history has served to bring together the necessary dynamic characters capable of supporting an exciting 🔥 inspiring renaissance.

    l, too, so wish for all that Nigel wishes for our heritage, for the local community, for the LONDON BELL FOUNDRY and for all who sail in her.

    ((🔔))

  11. October 7, 2020

    Thank you Nigel Taylor, for sharing a lifetime’s knowledge and a very solid perspective.

  12. October 7, 2020

    It is vital that such a rare and ancient part of our history be preserved. And not just preserved but continue as a unique and viable business the outline of which Nigel describes so convincingly. His passion, dedication and expertise are to be applauded and one would hope and wish he has the backing of our parliamentary representatives.

  13. mlaiuppa permalink
    October 8, 2020

    That was very powerful and significant testimony.

    If they allow the developers to have their way, there won’t be a foundry. An excuse will be concocted, either cost or safety, for their boutique foundry for tourists idea to never see fruition. That space will be a gift shop or small cafe. The only remains of the foundry will be a few framed black and white photos on the wall. In a few years, those will be replaced.

    That area doesn’t need another boutique hotel. And a few B&W photos aren’t going to draw the tourists in. So they’ll sell that hotel and it will be remade again and all remnants of centuries of history will be gone.

    I hope the out come of this is to turn the foundry over to the society/groups that are going to make it viable again.

  14. David Godwin permalink
    October 8, 2020

    Alan Hughes was a businessman pure and simple. He had little genuine passion for bells and bell founding, I mean he can’t even ring! My experience was of him being a very blinkered individual who basically wanted his pension come what may and cost 25 skilled workers their jobs.
    Nigel on the other hand is passionate about bells and founding, having vision and prepared to explore new technologies and put them to use in what is an ancient art of casting bells.
    The Hughes family should have taken a leaf out of the book of Harrison & Harrison the Durham organ builders. It had been a family business until no one wanted to carry it on, so the Harrisons created a board of directors and a team of passionate people dedicated to excellence in the field of organ building run the firm very successfully, bringing about developments and embracing new materials and technology where appropriate.
    I strongly believe that a team lead by Nigel could have easily taken on the running of the WCBF and made it very successful enterprise, even bringing in 21st century technology to progress the art of bell founding.
    Sadly as all the equipment was sold off and the workers dispersed but I wish him good luck in trying to right the wrongs the Hughes family inflicted the workforce of the WCBF.

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