“Established A.D. 1570” the sign above the door proclaims proudly. That date alone makes the Whitechapel Bell Foundry the UK’s oldest manufacturing business. In reality, the company can trace its history back much further to around 1420 but as Alan Hughes, whose family have owned the foundry for generations, explains – “round here, we tend not to worry about the odd hundred and fifty years”.
Step beyond the Foundry’s magnificent oaken facade and you might as well have lost a couple of hundred years somewhere en route. Gone is the multicultural shabby chic of modern east London. Enter instead a Dickensian world of wood panelling, narrow stairwells and rickety floorboards. Waiting in Foundry’s front room, I spy an old pendulum clocking-in clock complete with name cards handwritten in beautiful italic script: It’s almost a surprise not to see one for Bob Cratchit. When Alan himself arrives, his striking resemblance to Michael Caine only reinforces the sense of being in some lavish period drama.
Although normally off-limits, on various Saturdays the Whitechapel Bell Foundry opens its doors to general public. Dates are announced in September for the following year and sell out almost immediately. The rarity factor helps: There are now just 8 foundries left in the world so anyone with a love of bells is hardly spoiled for choice. For many, however, the real attraction is the connection to one bell in particular: Big Ben, recast at Whitechapel in 1858. No sound defines London better than that beloved bell. Londoners lined the streets and cheered when Big Ben first made the journey from Whitechapel to Westminster by horse drawn carriage. All through the Second World War it rang, a symbol of defiance against Hitler. Even today if, on rare occasion, something goes wrong, it always makes headline news and countless column inches will analyse when we’re going to get our bongs back.
Even though large bells still account for the majority of Whitechapel’s business, nowadays they’re a more modest size than Big Ben’s mighty 13.5 tonnes: “Even if we could melt the metal, we couldn’t get anything bigger out the door!”. The metal, a mixture of copper and 22% tin, is heated in the foundry’s furnaces and then cast using a specially constructed loam mould. Large bell casting only takes place on a Friday as they need at least the weekend to cool down. Sure enough, the first mould we come across is still warm to the touch. ‘What’s the secret to successful mould making?’ someone asks, enjoying the heat. Good clay, goat hair and horse poo explains Alan with a grin. “Horse manure is porous so it helps to let any gases escape”. Hands are rapidly removed from the warm mould.
The size and shape of a bell has a significant influence on its tone. It is possible just to cast a bell and have done with it (a so-called “maiden bell”) but to achieve that aesthetic, harmonious bell sound, tuning is required. By careful removal of metal from the inside of the bell, the tuner can sharpen or flatten the various notes of the bell from the ‘strike note’, the sound the bell makes when it’s first struck, to the ‘hum note’, the lingering sound produced by the vibration of the entire bell (There are in fact five key notes the bell tuner is concerned with). Modern technology has helped considerably in providing precise sound analysis, so much so that someone tone deaf could now do a bell tuner’s job, but it still takes extraordinary skill to know exactly how much metal to remove and from where on the bell: “One mistake – We smash up the bell and start all over again”.
Given the precision of the work and the pristine world of modern manufacturing, Whitechapel’s workshop comes as quite a shock. It’s a riot of equipment, dust, debris and of course bells, which crowd every surface and every corner. Alan’s good humoured safety warning at the start of the tour suddenly takes on a level of seriousness : “There are literally dozens of ways to hurt yourself here: We’d prefer it if you didn’t!”. Conditions are so cramped in the upstairs area used for small bell production, the foundry can’t employ anyone there over 5ft8. I enjoy the momentary satisfaction of standing tall at 5ft 3 alongside my doubled-up tour companions.
Heightism aside, how does Whitechapel recruit? By comparison with pop star, astronaut or banker, bell making hardly seems a likely choice of career so it’s a real surprise to learn the foundry receives far more applications than it could ever have positions. With only 20 staff, the team is small, bordering on tiny, and people tend to stay – the nearby wall is covered with memorials to all those who’ve died or retired on the job. We’ve always been far more interested in people who actually want to join, says Alan. A passion for bells is far more relevant than previous experience. As if to make a point, he picks up a handbell. It’s a beautiful thing, all gleaming bronze and seductive curves, and the sound it makes is exquisite – rich, resonant, far removed from the shrill, tarnished cry that once summoned me to school assembly.
How rarely do we get the chance to appreciate a bell? For most of us, it’s simply the sound of order and obedience. Fire drill – leave now, door bell – open up, bicycle – step aside, a symbol of compliance. It makes a business like the Whitechapel Bell Foundry all the more remarkable. Nothing about it complies with the modern world. Arcane industry, family values, hand craftsmanship. By rights it shouldn’t exist. Then again, as the irreverent company motto puts it : “Nothing is impossible: For those who don’t have to do it themselves”.