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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.