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
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.
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