WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY

500 YEARS OF HISTORY

THE FOUNDRY ENTRANCE 
AT 34 WHITECHAPEL RD.

An entry in the Guinness Book of Records lists the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as Britain's oldest manufacturing company, having been established in 1570 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) and being in continuous business since that date. In 1970, therefore, the Foundry celebrated its quatercentenary.

It had for some time been thought that the company may in fact have a longer history, and shortly after this celebration of 400 years, a link was indeed established through the research of bell historian George Elphick back to one Master Founder Robert Chamberlain, thus tracing an unbroken line of founders in Aldgate and Whitechapel back to the year 1420 (in the reign of Henry V, and 72 years before Columbus sailed for America). Biographies of some of our past founders can be found elsewhere on this site, as can a guide on How to Identify Old Tower Bells.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry's business has always been, and still concentrates solely on, the manufacture of bells and their associated fittings. The manufacture of large bells for change ringing peals in church towers, single tolling bells, carrillon bells, and their complete range of accesories such as framework, wheels, clappers and their assembly in Church towers accounts for approximately four-fifths of the company output. The other fifth of the business lies in the manufacture of handbells for tune and change ringing, and other small bells of many shapes and sizes.

Whitechapel's famous bells include the original Liberty Bell (1752), the Great Bell of Montreal and, probably best known of all, Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster. Cast in 1858, this is the largest bell ever cast at Whitechapel, weighing 13½ tons. To this day, a cross-section of the bell surrounds the entrance door to the Foundry.

Worldwide export began at an early date. A set of bells was sent to St.Petersburg, Russia in 1747 and the first transatlantic change ringing peal was sent to Christ Church, Philadelphia in 1754. The bells supplied to St.Michael's, Charleston, South Carolina in 1764 have possibly the most interesting story of any set of bells and may well be the most travelled bells in history ! In 1964, Whitechapel was proud to provide the change ringing peal of 10 bells in a radial frame for the new National Cathedral in Washington DC, and in 1997 we provided North America's first change ringing peal of 12 bells to Toronto Cathedral.

The tradition of English handbell ringing in America was built on Whitechapel handbells (originally for change ringing) known to have been sent from Whitechapel was given to Miss Margaret H Nicholls (later Mrs Margaret Schurcliff) by Arthur Hughes, General Manager of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, in 1902 after she had successfully rung two handbell peals on a trip to England from Boston. The later progression to tune ringing was followed by the the forming of the New England Guild of Handbell Ringers in 1937, and by the AGEHR (the American Guild of English Handbell Ringers) in 1954.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry's long history spans the reigns of twenty seven English monarchs, and among the royal visitors to the foundry were King George V and Queen Mary who came to witness the casting of two bells for Westminster Abbey. The Foundry buildings date from 1670, four years after the Great Fire of London, and presumably replaced earlier structures lost to that conflagration. Originally built as a coaching inn called the Artichoke, the lease of the buildings was acquired by Thomas Lester - then Master Founder at Whitechapel - to accomodate the need for extra workshops and space during a time of great expansion in the craft of bellfounding. The business moved there from the north side of Whitechapel Road, and has remained on the site ever since, withstanding the ravages of war and development.

The premises are now designated as Grade II listed buildings, and as such may not be altered in any way. Thus the frontage remains unchanged on a very busy East London road amongst many modern buildings. Over the years, the foundry has found itself in the midst of dramatic events, such as when Jack the Ripper was committing his grisly murders in 1888. Then there was World War II....

During the Blitz, in the Second World War, many surrounding buildings were hit and destroyed, including the Church of St. Mary, Whitechapel (the 'white chapel' which gave the area its name), just a few hundred feet from the Foundry. The ground where it stood is now the Altab Ali Park. During the war years, the Foundry ceased making bells, switching to manufacturing castings for the Ministry of War. In the aftermath of the war, the Foundry was very busy replacing peals lost to bombing raids and fires, including the bells of St. Mary le Bow and St. Clement Danes of 'Oranges and Lemons' nursery rhyme fame, in London.

Despite being such an old established company, modern improvements and innovations are always being made by Whitechapel, and these have included the design and building of radial frames for change ringing peals and new technologies in clapper and headstock design which give excellent mechanical properties to their church bells. England's heaviest change ringing bell - Liverpool Cathedral tenor, weighing over 4 tons - was cast by Whitechapel in 1939. In 1991, the world's first peal of 16 change ringing bells was installed by Whitechapel at the Church of St.Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, England.

The traditions of craftsmanship and old skills working alongside modern technology today still produce bells which are renowned, at the "sign of the three bells" in London's East End.


FOUNDRY VISITS

If you are touring the area, feel free to visit the museum displays in our foyer and the Foundry store, which sells bells and a range of Whitechapel merchandising. This is open Monday to Friday, between 9.00am and 5.00pm.

All tours have to be pre-booked, whether individually or as a party, and bookings are often made up to a year ahead. To ensure your preferred date early booking is therefore advised.

The table below gives the dates on which tours will take place. It does not indicate availability. Since places on tours are booked on a 'first come, first served' basis, it is vital to check availability with the Foundry before making further arrangements.

Please read the following information carefully before booking:

Tours of the foundry only take place when no foundry work is being undertaken. The tour is taken by an expert guide who will clearly explain the processes involved in bell-making during your visit.

  1. There is a charge of £12.00 per person, which is payable in full at the time of booking. Cheques should be made out to "Whitechapel Bell Foundry Limited". Credit and Debit cards are accepted, but we do not take American Express.

  2. The tour last approximately 90 minutes and involves walking and standing throughout. We are happy to allow those with portable stools and shooting sticks to use them in the foundry area but please not in the house or shop.

  3. Individuals and small parties are welcome, as are group bookings for up to a maximum of 25 persons.

  4. Tickets will be sent to the person making the booking. Group and party leaders are requested to issue them to individuals before the tour, as tickets are required for entry and they must be available for inspection on arrival.

  5. In the event of any unsold tickets being returned to us we will try to re-sell them if thet are returned to us at least one week before the tour date. A handling charge will be deducted and a refund of £9 per ticket will be given in the event of a successful re-sale. If tickets cannot be re-sold unfortunately no refund will be due.

  6. For Saturday tours the entrance doors will open 30 minutes before the start of the tour. Once the tour group has left the front area the doors are locked and access will not be available to latecomers. It is therefore vital that tour organisers make this very clear to all of the members of their group to avoid disappointment, and aim to arrive at least 15 minutes before the start time.

  7. Due to Health & Safety and insurance restrictions, we regret that we cannot permit anyone under the age of 14 on these tours. This age-limit has to be strictly enforced, with no exceptions. Please do not put our staff in the embarrassing position of having to refuse entry to anyone appearing to be under age.

  8. In the unlikely event of a tour having to be cancelled, as much notice as possible will be given and an alternative will be offered. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry cannot be held accountable for losses incurred as a result of such cancellation or deferment.

  9. Photography is permitted for personal use only. (Hand held cameras only.)

  10. In accordance with the law, Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd operates a no smoking policy throughout its premises.

  11. It should be noted that by their very nature, foundries are dirty places and appropriate clothing should be worn. Open toed sandals must not be worn and entry may be refused if persons are unsuitably dressed.

British Standard Disabled Access Symbol We can provide ground floor access for the disabled with assistance and using portable ramps. There are two short flights of narrow stairs to ascend and descend during the tour and we are unable to offer assistance in providing access to the floor these serve due to the age of the building and the physical restrictions of the site. We do, however, provide photographic books describing these two floors for anyone unable to access these workshop areas. Due to space limitations, please advise at the time of booking if wheelchair access will be required.

Visits are confined to selected Saturdays with tours commencing at 10.00am, 1.15pm, and 4.00 prompt. (NO late admission).

Bus: Nos 25, 254, and 205 stop very close to the Foundry in Whitechapel Road, the stop name is "Fieldgate Street". The entrance to the foundry is in Whitechapel Road by the pedestrian crossing, opposite the HSBC Bank.

Parking: Available in adjacent streets on Saturdays.

Underground: District, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith & City lines to Aldgate, Aldgate East, or Whitechapel stations, and also London Overground to Whitechapel.

Important: Transport for London often undertake engineering works on the Underground system during weekends. Please check before travelling as the Company cannot be held responsible for tours missed as a consequence of late arrival.

Please note that there are no refreshments available on site although there are a number of cafes and public houses in the area.

Tours will take place on the following Saturdays at 10.00 a.m., 1.15 p.m., and 4.00 p.m.

Bookings for 2014 open on Monday 2nd September 2013, dates as listed below.

2014
JANFEBMARAPRMAYJUNJULAUGSEPOCTNOVDEC
11
25
1
22
8
22
5
26
17
10
14
28
7
26
12
9 27 11
18
8
22
6

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