London’s oldest manufacturing company is the same as Britain’s oldest and is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.
The company was established in 1570 (although founders have been discovered operating in the area as far back as 1420) and, according to its website, still concentrates solely on the manufacture of bells and their fittings with large church bells accounting for 80 per cent of the company’s business. The remainder of the business is involved in manufacturing handbells and other smaller bells.
The foundry’s current buildings, apparently originally used as a coaching inn named The Artichoke, date from 1670 and are presumed to have replaced structures consumed in the Great Fire of London. The foundry had earlier been located in smaller premises on the other side of Whitechapel Road.
The foundry has typically operated under the name of the master founder and owner but since 1968 has apparently operated under its current name.
The most famous bells cast at the foundry include the Liberty Bell (1752) – the symbol of American independence which cracked when first rung and was recast in Philadelphia, the Great Bell of Montreal Cathedral, ‘Great Tom’ of Lincoln Cathedral, and, of course, Big Ben (1858) – at 13,760 kilograms, the largest bell ever cast at the foundry.
Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral also feature bells cast at the foundry and replacement bells for St Mary-le-Bow and St Clement Danes made here following their destruction in World War II and bells from the foundry have been sent as far afield as Australia and India.
Among the most recent bells to be cast at the foundry are the Royal Jubilee Bells, used in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant and now housed at St James Garlickhythe in the City of London (each of the bells, which bear the Royal Arms, is named after a member of the Royal Family – Elizabeth being the largest with others named Philip, Charles, Anne, Andrew, Edward, William and Henry.)
There is a small exhibition on bell-making in the foundry shop looking at the history of the foundry and bell-making in general, and one-and-a-half-hour tours of the foundry run Saturdays (booking well in advance is usually required). Additional tours are being held every day during the Olympics.
WHERE: 32/34 Whitechapel Road; WHEN: Tours are usually held on Saturdays when no work is being undertaken – see website for dates – but special tours are being held daily from 10am to 5pm, 28th July to 12th August, 2012; COST: The exhibition/museum is free but tours are usually £12 a head for over 14s (Olympic period tours are £10 a head/£25 a family – children under 14 not admitted without adult supervision) – see website for more details on purchasing tickets; WEBSITE: www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk.