Tucked away in the East End, the bell tolls for a piece of London history

Newly made bells lie alongside vintage items at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London, set to close this week. Image: Evo Flash.

The final bell will be cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry this week.

The business was founded in 1420 by Robert Chamberlain, a church bells manufacturer based in Aldgate. It was moved to its present home on the south side of the High Street in Whitechapel in the mid 1740s. According to the Guinness Book of Records it is the nation’s oldest manufacturing company in continuous operation.

Heritage campaigners have stepped in to demand the preservation of the foundry but the owner, Alan Hughes, said that he expects to exchange contracts with a developer for the historic site “in the next couple of weeks”.

Henrietta Billings, director, at SAVE Britain’s Heritage, said the site should be Grade I listed to put it on the cultural map alongside St Paul’s Cathedral and Tower Bridge.

She points out that the foundry made the Liberty Bell, Big Ben and the clock bells for the city’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

America's Liberty Bell was made at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Image: Bev Sykes

A bell commissioned by the City of London’s Lord Mayor was cast in July 2002 to commemorate the 9/11 attacks on World Trade Center in New York.

Ironically, the foundry’s busiest years came when bell manufacture was suspended during the Second World War, and the factory was converted into a munitions production line making castings for the Ministry of War. In the aftermath of the war, workers at the foundry worked around the clock to replace bells lost to fires and enemy raids. The work included making new bells for the “Oranges and Lemons” peal at St Clement Danes, in Westminster, and the great bell at Bow.

At the Foundry in East London. Image: Evo Flash

By the late 20th century, church building was in decline. A chime-bell music room and an online shop were opened in an attempt to find new revenue streams but the painstaking craft of melting metal, moulding it, and waiting for it to set, was unattractive in a more frenetic age.

Mr Hughes, whose great-great-grandfather bought the business in 1884, told Spitalfields Life, a local community website, that the gap between order and delivery was around 11 years meaning that the bells ordered by when the economy was thriving were invariably delivered, and invoiced, when budgets were tight.

The Foundry's site in Whitechapel, in operation since the 1740s. Image: Stephen Craven

He said: “My great-grandfather visited the church in Langley in the 1890s and told them the bells needed re-hanging in a new frame. They patched them. My grandfather said the same thing in the 1920s. They patched them. My father told them again in the 1950s and I quoted for the job in the 1970s. We completed the order in 1998.”

Writing for Apollo magazine, Charles Saumarez Smith CBE, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, argued that purely commercial reasons ought not determine the future of the site: “So what will happen to the buildings? There is a rumour that the site may already have been sold in order to achieve its full development value.

"But if English Heritage has its wits about it there will be very heavy restrictions on what can be done to the historic fabric of the buildings. Ideally, the buildings would be maintained in some form of active use. Otherwise, there is a danger that some of the historic fabric will be retained, but neutered in a new development of flats.”

The Foundry also built the Big Ben bell in the Elizabeth Tower at the Palace of Westminster. Image: Maarten Visser

Henrietta Billings says a model for the future of the site can be found in Staffordshire where in 2011, money from the Prince’s Regeneration Trust enabled Middleport Pottery to avoid closure because of the dilapidated state of repair of the buildings. The trust stepped in to save the buildings and began a £9million project to revitalise them.

She believes a similar initiative in the east end of London would garner support.


She said: “The response from people in London and across the country has been striking.

I would say that what makes a place special is its character and history. When you chip away at that it becomes a less interesting place.”

But unless a major donor steps forward at the eleventh hour, the family and staff will hold a small ceremony to mark the making of the final bell on Wednesday. The plan is to donate it to the Museum of London.

The new owner of the site will doubtless wish to ring the changes.

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Barnet council has decided a name for its new mainline station. Exciting!

Artist's impression of the new Brent Cross. Image: Hammerson.

I’ve ranted before about the horror of naming stations after the lines that they’re served by (screw you, City Thameslink). So, keeping things in perspective as ever, I’ve been quietly dreading the opening of the proposed new station in north London which has been going by the name of Brent Cross Thameslink.

I’ve been cheered, then, by the news that station wouldn’t be called that at all, but will instead go by the much better name Brent Cross West. It’s hardly the cancellation of Brexit, I’ll grant, but in 2017 I’ll take my relief wherever I can find it.

Some background on this. When the Brent Cross shopping centre opened besides the A406 North Circular Road in 1976, it was only the third large shopping mall to arrive in Britain, and the first in London. (The Elephant & Castle one was earlier, but smaller.) Four decades later, though, it’s decidedly titchy compared to newer, shinier malls such as those thrown up by Westfield – so for some years now, its owners, Hammerson, have wanted to extend the place.

That, through the vagaries of the planning process, got folded into a much bigger regeneration scheme, known as Brent Cross Cricklewood (because, basically, it extends that far). A new bigger shopping centre will be connected, via a green bridge over the A406, to another site to the south. There you’ll find a whole new town centre, 200 more shops, four parks, 4m square feet of offices space and 7,500 homes.

This is all obviously tremendously exciting, if you’re into shops and homes and offices and not into depressing, car-based industrial wastelands, which is what the area largely consists of at the moment.

The Brent Cross site. Image: Google.

One element of the new development is the new station, which’ll sit between Hendon and Cricklewood on the Thameslink route. New stations are almost as exciting as new shops/homes/offices, so on balance I'm pro.

What I’ve not been pro is the name. For a long time, the proposed station has been colloquially referred to as Brent Cross Thameslink, which annoys me for two reasons:

1) Route names make rubbish modifiers because what if the route name changes? And:

2) It’s confusing, because it’s nearly a mile from Brent Cross tube station. West Hampstead Thameslink (euch), by contrast, is right next to West Hampstead tube.

Various other names have been proposed for the station. In one newsletter, it was Brent Cross Parkway; on Wikipedia, it’s currently Brent Cross South, apparently through confusion about the name of the new town centre development.

This week, though, Barnet council quietly confirmed it’d be Brent Cross West:

Whilst the marketing and branding of BXS needs to be developed further, all parties agree that the station name should build upon the Brent Cross identity already established. Given the station is located to the west of Brent Cross, it is considered that the station should be named Brent Cross West. Network Rail have confirmed that this name is acceptable for operational purposes. Consequently, the Committee is asked to approve that the new station be named Brent Cross West.

Where the new station will appear on the map, marked by a silly red arrow. Image: TfL.

That will introduce another irritating anomaly to the map, giving the impression that the existing Brent Cross station is somehow more central than the new one, when in fact they’re either side of the development. And so:

Consideration has also been given as to whether to pursue a name change for the tube station from “Brent Cross” to “Brent Cross East”.

Which would sort of make sense, wouldn’t it? But alas:

However owing to the very high cost of changing maps and signage London-wide this is not currently being pursued.

This is probably for the best. Only a handful of tube stations have been renamed since 1950: the last was Shepherd’s Bush Market, which was until 2008 was simply Shepherd's Bush, despite being quite a long way from the Shepherd's Bush station on the Central line. That, to me, suggests that one of the two Bethnal Green stations might be a more plausible candidate for an early rename.


At any rate: it seems unlikely that TfL will be renaming its Brent Cross station to encourage more people to use the new national rail one any time soon. But at least it won’t be Brent Cross Thameslink.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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