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Hope For The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

May 30, 2021
by the gentle author


It was a dark moment when I heard the news that the Planning Inspector who oversaw the Public Inquiry into the future of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry had made a judgement in favour of the boutique hotel.

An even darker week followed as I awaited the news from the High Court of the verdict on Tower Hamlets Council’s decision to permit developer Crest Nicholson to dig up the four-hundred-year-old Bethnal Green Mulberry. With the Council’s decision upon the Truman Brewery’s application to build a shopping mall due in June, I feared I was presiding over a hat trick of catastrophes for the East End.

Yet Sir Duncan Ouseley ruled Tower Hamlets’ decision to grant permission to dig up the Mulberry tree was unlawful and the planning application for the bad redevelopment of the former London Chest Hospital was quashed. I was overjoyed and sat at my desk shedding tears of relief. The hat trick of catastrophes was averted and there is hope.

Under paragraph 175c of the National Planning Policy Framework, a veteran tree such as the Mulberry cannot be destroyed without ‘wholly exceptional reasons.’ In this instance, there are no ‘wholly exceptional reasons’ and, if the tree is dug up, the obvious risk of killing it cannot be denied. The law has been clarified at the High Court and, after four years of fighting, the Mulberry is now safe.

We expect Crest Nicholson to come back with a revised and better development plan but they cannot touch the Mulberry. We hope they will take public opinion into account and build with less density, more affordable housing, and not sacrifice mature trees. Developers’ generous profit margins are sufficient for their scheme to be entirely viable without the necessity of maximising to such an exploitative level.

The day after the news of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry decision was announced by Luke Hall, a junior minister in Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, there came a tweet expressing regret at the closure of the foundry from Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State, revealing that all was not quite as straightforward as first appeared.

In June 2020, Christopher Pincher MP misspoke on record in the House of Commons, saying that the Secretary of State had called in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry application to stop the boutique hotel. If, in October 2020, the Planning Inspector had made a judgement at the Public Inquiry against the boutique hotel and the Secretary of State had ratified it, then this would be open to the charge of predetermination. By deciding in favour of the hotel, the Inspector asserted the integrity of the Planning Inspectorate and avoided any exposure for the Secretary of State. Yet if Robert Jenrick supported the boutique hotel, he would not have called the Public Inquiry at all.

So this leaves an almighty mess which can only be resolved within parliament. There has always been strong cross party support in Westminster for saving the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, especially since it is where Big Ben was cast. In 2019, Sir Edward Leigh MP recognised the significance of the foundry, writing publicly to encourage Robert Jenrick to call the Public Inquiry and urging his party ‘as Conservatives’ to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Equally, John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor wrote, ‘London should never countenance the loss of such an iconic national and international business.’

In response to the recent decision, Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green, wrote, ‘It was a source of pride to have Big Ben and America’s Liberty Bell made right here in Whitechapel. This short-sighted decision destroys the hopes of it ever returning to a working foundry and is a tragic loss of a really important part of our local and national heritage.’

Two major projects already in the pipeline emphasise the need for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to cast bells that meet important moments in our cultural and political history, as it has done for centuries past.

Artist Grayson Perry has designed an ‘End of Covid Bell’ in support of our campaign which will be produced by Factum Foundation. We plan this will undertake a national tour to major NHS hospitals, starting in Whitechapel. Those who have been bereaved by Covid will be invited to toll the bell and leave a message in remembrance.

Whitechapel was where the Royal Jubilee Bells were cast which now hang in St James Garlickhythe. 2023 sees the 70th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation and we need the Whitechapel Bell Foundry operational again to cast the ‘Elizabeth Bell’ to celebrate this moment. At the time of the Diamond Jubilee, the bell tower at Westminster was renamed the ‘Elizabeth Tower’ and the Elizabeth Bell would be hung there, replacing a broken nineteenth century bell which has not chimed in over a century.

It is easily within the power of government to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for the nation and we hope that all those supporters in Westminster will come together to deliver this outcome.

Beyond the Mulberry Tree and the Whitechapel Bell Foundry campaigns lies the Battle for Brick Lane to prevent the corporate redevelopment of the Truman Brewery in disregard of the needs of the community. It is evident that the current proposal for a shopping mall is the thin end of the wedge and, if consented, would create a precedent permitting the transformation of the entire brewery into another Broadgate, Spitalfields Market or Fruit & Wool Exchange, with a plaza of large office buildings including possible towers.

Despite an all-time record of over seven thousand letters of objection, Tower Hamlets Council appear set on approving this development. At a recent meeting, the Development Committee considered the application but deferred their decision to allow further discussion of the 106 agreement, which outlines the community benefits of the scheme. Councillors recognised that there is a problem with the development driving out existing businesses in Brick Lane and the lack of any housing provision, which is the priority for the local community. Yet their superficially well-intentioned initiative attempts to placing a sticking plaster over a gaping wound.

Jason Zeloof, owner of the brewery, is proposing that he will discount 10% of his workspace to local businesses and offer 20% of his shops to independents. Yet the reality is that the cost of his expensive development will require high rents, which even at a discount will be unaffordable for local businesses, and that his shopping mall will be 80% chain stores.

The increase in land values in Brick Lane resulting from the redevelopment of the Truman Brewery will mean a rise in business rents, driving out the independent shops and the curry restaurants which give the place its identity. Additionally, the rise in already high housing rents will drive out all but those on the highest incomes. Brick Lane is the heartland of British Bangladeshi culture but this development will mean the death of this community in Spitalfields.

For centuries, Brick Lane has been the point of arrival for migrants, representing centuries of struggle by generations of people seeking to build a life and belong, creating the multicultural Britain of today. In this sense, it is of the greatest cultural significance as the closest we have to an ‘Ellis Island’ in this country and it needs to be protected.

Tower Hamlets Council must reject the current application and commission a Planning Brief for the entire brewery site, based on local consultation, which responds to the needs of the community, especially for genuinely affordable housing and workspaces.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the Bethnal Green Mulberry and the Truman Brewery have been fundamental to the identity of the East End for centuries, and we cannot let them to be taken from us and destroyed for the sake of exploitative corporate monetisation.


Visit The accompanying exhibition is open at 25 Princelet St from noon-6 each weekend.


Grayson’s Perry maquette for his ‘End of Covid’ bell

30 Responses leave one →
  1. May 30, 2021

    Wow. It was such a depressing thought that the bell foundry was going to be turned into just another hotel. It is encouraging that there is still hope for the continuation of this venerable and unique business.

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    May 30, 2021

    And a Wow from me too, but this time about Grayson Perry’s bell design! It looks amazing and will be a real challenge to cast…

    Let’s just hope that a re-instated Whitechapel bell foundry will be doing the job, as well as casting the Elizabeth bell.

    And wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Queen were to pay another visit to the working foundry as part of her Platinum Jubilee celebrations?

    Dream on…

  3. Sally Bernard permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Thank you for explaining the situation so well

  4. Milo Bell permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Is this a time for cautious optimism? I hope so.

  5. May 30, 2021

    You have been pivotal in securing support for this catalogue of woes..
    Thank you for this glimmer of hope GA.
    Grayson Perry’s bell looks wonderful, I hope it becomes a symbol of good luck to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

  6. Barbara permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Thank you so much for this encouraging post, when it seemed all was lost. You have worked tirelessly to prevent these devastating losses and explained the situations with clarity. I have signed petitions and written letters and am prepared to do it all over again if need be! Thanks again.

  7. Paul Loften permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Where there is Spitalfields Life there is hope. The Battle of Cable Street was fought and won here. The Battle for the Bell foundry has just begun . To destroy this site which has such great potential for London , tourism and the future is an act of madness No major city in the world would contemplate such a short sighted decision with their own unique history We have to rally and fight this and wake up London

  8. May 30, 2021

    I am so glad there is still some hope for the foundry. Keep on keeping on with your activism. You are making a difference.

  9. May 30, 2021

    Considering the current number of empty spaces in the historically retail focussed West End it make absolutely no sense to continue to create spaces designed to encourage Retailers to move East – the focus should be on preserving the diversity & layered history of existing commerce & culture in the East End and encouraging mainstream & high street business back in those those borded-up buildings lining Oxford St.

  10. May 30, 2021

    And another wow from me. This looks extremely hopeful and could be pivotal for other things, such as the Truman development. While I accept change as necessary and can even embrace it, it needs to make sense and benefit more than just the property developers. I learned a lot from the Battle for Brick Lane talks – primarily that the landlord is the sit-back beneficiary of their tenants’ efforts. It seems obvious but hearing that really clarified things for me. All of the comments here are right on!

  11. Lesley Russell permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Wonderful to think there might still be a chance this historic enterprise might be saved. It is so much more than just the building. We have our own link to the foundry here in Western Australia. When the 12 historic bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields were gifted to the City of Perth in 1988, they were retuned and restored at Whitechapel and six extra bells were cast there from metals mined in Western Australia to join them at the same time as 12 replacement bells were cast for the church using a reciprocal gift of Australia-mined copper and tin.

  12. Linda Granfield permalink
    May 30, 2021

    And a ‘Wow!’ from Canada. A spark of hope that may light a new blaze of concern and interest–and a vote to save the Foundry.

    Could there be a column specifically about the “End of Covid” bell? I’d like to learn about the sculptor and the symbolism of this intricate piece.
    Many thanks!!

  13. Ron Bird permalink
    May 30, 2021

    The bell foundry at Whitechapel must stay, there are plenty of other places for a boutique hotel, we must keep some of our heritage, especially with this sort of historic value

  14. Pauline Taylor permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Thank you GA for the very interesting update on this situation, let us hope that protection of our national heritage will prevail and that it will, at last, be realized that the destruction of venerable sites, such as the bell foundry, cannot ever be reversed and we are removing something that it really is essential to preserve for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. This is a pivotal moment in the history of the UK and we just cannot afford to let all these things, which are so precious to most of us, be destroyed. Thank you for all that you do in the fight for better things, we need people like you in every aspect of our lives now as these are very dangerous times when government ministers are so visibly behaving in a corrupt manner Robert Jenrick, sadly, being one of them.

  15. Lucy permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Very good point made by Jo. So shortsighted to make all areas of London the same.

  16. May 30, 2021

    Just one MORE reason to be an appreciator of Grayson Perry!

    Onward and upward.

  17. May 30, 2021

    Thank you for being instrumental in bringing about an awareness of so many destructive plans – it is such good news about the Mulberry Tree being saved.
    Perhaps this is an omen of further good news.

    Grayson Perry’s bell looks fantastic!

  18. May 30, 2021

    I really hope that the people that care about the East End’s history win through. I lived in Poplar in the 1950s, and it was the second world war and then the council that destroyed a fair amount of buildings. Hope these buildings can be saved!

  19. Su C. permalink
    May 30, 2021

    My goodness. What a roller coaster of emotions! I can’t imagine living in it – it is hard enough seeing it from California! I love the East End and hope it is spared the insult of tearing down/converting neighborhood staples so those ‘from without’ can claim the new trend in housing and shopping! A mall of stores, in this day and age? Really.

    Thank you for the glimmer of hope for the foundry.

  20. Bertie permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Wow, I’ve been so depressed about this, what an extraordinary turn up. Maybe the Foundry’s time is not up. It gets frequent mentions on Bells on Sunday!

  21. Robin permalink
    May 30, 2021

    Is it time for another letter-writing campaign aimed at Jenrick? At Whitechapel Bell Foundry supporters in Parliament?

  22. mlaiuppa permalink
    May 31, 2021

    I was hoping that some miracle would be pulled from a top hat and the foundry would be saved. If those supporters in Westminster are going to do anything the pressure needs to be put on them by the public and kept on them. The media needs to keep this in the public forefront until the foundry is well and truly saved. The fight is not over. Developers wait until the pressure is off and the public is distracted and that is when they swoop in and the war is lost.

    The Truman Brewery is what we call the camel’s nose. Once a camel get’s it’s nose in the tent, before long the entire camel will be inside. You are correct in that if the developers get the brewery, it will set precedent and so many would followed, being toppled by greed at the expense of history.

    What’s the point of there being any sort of protected status if it doesn’t truly protect?

  23. May 31, 2021


  24. May 31, 2021

    A glimmer of hope indeed – politicians always need our votes – maybe that would have an effect if they thought they might lose them. Would approaching the owner of Truman Brewery be of any use by appealing to his sensitivity and making him feel good about himself. How about dangling a Knighthood in front of him if he does the right thing !!!

  25. Kelly Holman permalink
    May 31, 2021

    Wishing you the very best of luck.

  26. Ann V permalink
    May 31, 2021

    I echo all the responses you already have. Our heritage is precious and must be protected. Let’s all hope the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, as well as other pieces of our heritage can be kept and preserved. Thank you for what you have done so far.

  27. June 1, 2021

    Some good news about the Mulberry tree, and even, dare we hope, the Bell Foundry! With regard to the shopping mall, I thought these were going out of fashion post covid. In other places local authorities seem to be thinking about changing some of them into local housing….!
    I do not live in London, but I do have family connections with the Thames and also Rotherhithe, so am always very interested in the sort of things The Gentle Author writes about. Such a brilliant blog! Thank you!

  28. Dee permalink
    June 1, 2021

    Very well said! I do hope a copy of your writing here could be sent to the PM. It is important that Government realise the importance of these historical places to the value of the British people and our culture. As a bell ringer of some years the thought of the future Without the Foundry is very dire indeed.

  29. June 2, 2021

    Thanks for not giving up on these family are from the east end and none of us wants the proposed changes, especially the bell foundry.
    This article suggests there is hope.
    This has made my day.
    Kind regards
    Kay Harding

  30. June 9, 2021

    Fab news and an beautiful piece by grayson. I agree, it would be good if grayson Perry could perhaps write a bit about the bell he has made and the about the details on it.

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