This week we have a guest contributor, Volunteer Council member Moses Gates. After recently taking a trip to London, he has written a blog post about his tour of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Thousands of bells, including Big Ben, have been cast here by hand since 1570. 

 

New York is one of the oldest cities in the United States, dating back almost 400 years to the original Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam. The history here is amazing, of the kind rarely found in other cities in North America. But still, compared to other continents, it’s still a baby. Recently, I got a chance to visit a factory founded 55 years before there was even such a city as New Amsterdam – the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in Aldgate, East London, which dates back all the way to 1570. It is the oldest factory in continual existence in the world. The foundry offers tours some Saturdays, which are almost always booked up months in advance. Luckily, I had my dates in England set early enough I could reserve a tour. As might be expected from a business that hasn’t changed much in 400 years, all reservations are by phone, and I got a hard ticket in the mail all the way from across the pond. Due to track work on the District and Circle lines, I ended up being 20 minutes late for the tour. Luckily, the receptionist was still there and escorted me in to meet the tour. The first thing she escorted me by were six giant bells that had just been cast, and were still cooling in their molds. Two were labeled “Philip” and “Elizabeth.”

Diamond Jubilee Bells

“These are for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee,” the receptionist told me, before handing me off to our guide, a droll British man who doubled as the foundry’s blacksmith mate. The Foundry is the only place in Britain that still does industrial metal casting work by hand – and as such, can be said to have the only remaining two blacksmiths in England. The bells themselves are cast from an alloy of 77% copper and 23% tin. After cooling, the molds are removed and the bells are tuned by removing small amounts of metal from the inside by means of a lathe. Since removing metal makes the bells’ tone flatter, the bells are cast to be about a half-tone sharp, and tuned downward. You can always make a bell flatter, but you can’t make it sharper. If you overshoot the correct note, you have to melt down the bell and recast it.

On the lathe

Once a bell is cast and tuned, it’s mounted. Most church bells are mounted on wooden wheels (also made at the foundry), which makes them easier to swing around and ring.

Our guide explains the mounting wheels

During our visit, we saw a bell in for refurbishing. It was from the 17thcentury. The problem with bell founding is that there’s no repeat business – bells will last for hundreds of years.  As a result, most bell foundries have long since gone out of business, as there are not a great deal of new churches needing new bells. One of the foundry’s busiest periods of its history was in the aftermath of the London Blitz of WWII (during which the foundry was converted into a munitions factory), when several London Churches – and their bells – were destroyed. One way the foundry stays in business despite a lack of demand for its main product is by diversifying a bit by making hand bells for concerts.

With our guide in the handbell workshop

A set of concert-quality hand bells will run you about 8000 British Pounds – considerably less than the 275,000 British Pounds a full set of the largest church bells will run you. If you want them custom inscribed (like the one below), it’s an additional 3 pounds a letter.

Custom Inscription

The smithing part of the foundry is on the ground floor, while the hand bell, and other craft areas are up a narrow flight of stairs. The foundry isn’t very large, and even the attic is in use.

The Attic

One of the walls of the attic is dedicated to former workers who have died. Workers, our guide told us, tend to stay at the foundry for life.

Workers' Wall

Also in the attic are dozens of wooden plaques.

Plaques

Each is in a different language, but they all say the same thing:

As we made our way back down the stairs, through the hall, and into the courtyard we saw several huge bells lying in the hall and courtyard.

The largest bell ever cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was Big Ben, which was first rung in 1859.

Outline of Big Ben on the front door

For the British, this is the pinnacle of the foundry’s output, but for Americans, its most famous product is our very own Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, rung at the birth of our nation – and cast a little over 200 years after the foundry first came into existence (The Whitechapel Bell Foundry takes the position that its famous crack resulted from either the bell being damaged in transit or was the fault of an inexperienced bell ringer).

Tours are Saturdays only and must be booked in advance, although the lobby and gift shop is open during regular business hours. For tours, orders, and other information visit the Foundry’s website.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry
32/34 Whitechapel Road
London

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