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Pearl Binder At Whitechapel Bell Foundry

October 26, 2020
by the gentle author

The Bell Foundry Public Inquiry resumes with open submissions at 10am tomorrow (27th October), with live-tweeting at @savethewbf. If you feel there are important things that have not been said, email to register to speak.


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.

‘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:


This is from from an Essex village church:


This is from Berkshire in 1869:


This is from from Peasenhall Suffolk in 1722:


And this from a Norfolk village:


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



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 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

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Rajan Naidu permalink
    October 26, 2020

    Dan Jones, the son of Polly Binder, a talented and prolific artist in his own right, a veteran atalwart of Amnesty International UK, lifelong campaigner for human rights and social justice, will be 80 years old on 27 October 2020 🙂

  2. ken permalink
    October 26, 2020

    i recall Pearl Binder from student days – fine work. rang the changes

  3. Leana Pooley permalink
    October 26, 2020

    What a talented person Pearl Binder was. This was a fascinating piece to read, beautifully written and the illustrations are terrific. She had an interesting name.

  4. paul loften permalink
    October 26, 2020

    I can’t speak for anybody else but personally, it is thrilling to read Pearl’s description of the works and processes inside the Bell Foundry. The foreman with a whip!. Looking back at my younger days I somehow wish that I could have had one over me. I lacked discipline and was rebellious and probably would have ended up punching him in the face however It may have helped to perfect my skills to a much greater degree. I shall be following the remainder of the inquiry.

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