The Olympic Bell
Even before the order was placed, we had spent months taking part in meetings with the ceremonies' creative and technical teams and created an enormous amount of paperwork but were unable to reveal any details of the order as it was - and still is - subject to a very restrictive confidentiality contract.
Although we cast Big Ben in 1858 at 13 ½ tons, furnace capacity at Whitechapel now stands at a little over 8 tonnes as there is no longer a regular demand for the “great bells” of the Victorian era as were produced then. The largest bell during the 20th century cast here was in 1976 - the Bicentennial bell, weighing 5 ½ tons. The creative team decided that this size of bell would just be of too small a proportion to be impressive in the massive Olympic stadium!
As a guide to the sheer size of the Olympic bell, the templates on the wall above the furnace in the foundry show Big Ben to the left and Bow Bells (from the 18th century peal). The Olympic bell template surrounds the one used in 1976 to make the Bicentennial bell!
Therefore, although the desire was for the bell to be made by us because of our long history and location in the East End of London not far from the Olympic site, the bell decided upon was so large we could not cast it here at Whitechapel. Many flights to and from the Netherlands took place in discussing and overseeing the casting of the bell to our design and specifications in close collaboration two other foundries in Holland and it was actually made at one where they more usually cast ships propellers than bells!
Working on and coordinating the project with around 20 companies sited in three countries we had to achieve this, from order through design, casting, tuning and installation, in under 6 months. The bell itself was cast just 15 weeks after receiving the order to ensure there was time to tune it, to co ordinate with the makers of the hammer mechanism and the framework and to install and to assemble and test it in the Stadium. Our work was completed at midnight on June 1st with test ringing and recordings of the bell.
Every company involved worked so hard with us to achieve this project on time and on budget, many undertaking extra work at weekends to help us keep our deadlines - it was a fantastic feat of co operation and pooling of skills to create this 23 tonne monster - a credit to everyone concerned, they all know this and have our grateful thanks, even though we are still not at liberty to name any of them publicly!
The sound quality of the TV broadcast does not really do justice to the bell’s voice, which could be heard from Westfield shopping centre and Stratford station! It may be very clearly heard on the track “Caliban’s Dream” on the CD of the Opening Ceremony music. This track, music by Underworld, also uses Whitechapel handbells, recorded at Abbey Road Studios.
The bell was rung at the start of the Opening Ceremony by Bradley Wiggins, Olympic gold medallist, winner of the Tour de France, and BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2012.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry Staff with the Olympic Bell before transport to the Olympic Stadium for installation. The bell, note B, weighs 22.91 tonnes and is 3.34m in diameter.
After the ceremony the bell was removed to safe storage and is part of the Olympic Legacy and expected to be placed in the Park when it re opens. According to the London 2012 website and the Opening Ceremony Programme, the bell is already booked in for a service in 200 years’ time….. .better get the diary ready!