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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Here’s how Henry Ford and IKEA could provide the key to solving the housing crisis

A flatpack house designed by architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, on display at the Royal Academy, London, in 2013. Image: Getty.

For many people, the housing market is not a welcoming place. The rungs of the property ladder seem to get further and further out of reach. There are loud calls to build hundreds of thousands of new homes (and equally loud demands that they’re not built in anyone’s back yard).

If there was ever a time to introduce mass-produced affordable housing, surely that time is now.

The benefits of mass production have been well known since Henry Ford’s car factories made the Model T back in 1908. It was only made in one colour, black, for economic reasons. Not because it was the cheapest colour of paint, but because it was the colour that dried the quickest.

This allowed the production line to operate at faster, more cost effective, speeds. And ultimately, it meant the product could be sold at a more attractive cost to the customer.

This approach, where processes are tested to achieve increasingly efficient production costs, is yet to filter properly into the construction of houses. This makes sense in a way, as not everybody wants exactly the same type of house.

Historically, affordable mass-produced housing removed a large amount of customisations, to ensure final costs were controlled. But there is another way. Builders and architects have the ability to create housing that allows a level of flexibility and customisation, yet also achieves the goal of affordability.


Back in 2006, the “BoKlok” approach to affordable housing was launched to great acclaim in the UK. Literally translated from Swedish, the term means “live smart”. Originally created from a collaboration between flat-pack favourite IKEA and Swedish construction giant Skanska, the BoKlok housing approach was to allow for selected customisation to maximise individuality and choice for the customers. But at the same time, it ensured that larger house building components were duplicated or mass-produced, to bring down the overall costs.

Standard elements – wall panels, doors, windows – were made in large numbers to bring the elemental costs down. This approach ensured the costs were controlled from the initial sketch ideas through to the final design choices offered to the customers. The kitchens and bathrooms were designed to be flexible in terms of adding additional units. Draw and cupboard fronts interchangeable. Small options that provided flexibility, but did not impact on overall affordability.

It’s a simple approach that has worked very well. More than 10,000 BoKlok houses have now been built, mainly in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, with a small number in the UK.

But it is only part of the architectural equation. The affordable housing market is vital, but the cost of making these homes more adaptable is rarely considered.

Flexibility is key. The needs of a house’s inhabitants change. Families can grow (and shrink) and require more room, so the costs of moving house reappear. One clever response to this, in BoKlok homes, has been to allow “built in” flexibility.

Loft living

This flexibility could include a loft space that already has flooring and a built in cupboard on a lower floor which can be simply dismantled and replaced with a “flat-pack style” staircase that can be purchased and installed with minimal disruption to the existing fabric.

Weeks of builders removing walls, plastering and upheaval are replaced by a trip to the IKEA store to purchase the staircase and the booking of a subcontractor to fit it. The original design accounted for this “future option” and is built into the core of the house.

The best approach to new affordable housing should consider combinations of factors that look at design, materials and processes that have yet to be widely used in the affordable housing market.

And the construction sector needs to look over its shoulder at other market places – especially the one that Henry Ford dominated over a century ago. Today’s car manufacturers offer customised options in everything from colour to wheel size, interior gadgets to different kinds of headlamp. These options have all been accounted for in the construction and costing of each model.

The ConversationThey share a similar design “platform”, and by doing so, considerably reduce the overall cost of the base model. The benefit is quicker production with the added benefit of a cost model that allows for customisation to be included. It is a method the construction sector should adopt to produce housing where quality and affordability live happily together.

David Morton, Associate Professor in Architecture and Built Environment, Northumbria University, Newcastle.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.