The Olympic Bell

In September 2011, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was commissioned by London 2012 Ceremonies Ltd to provide a large bell to be rung at the start of the Olympic Opening Ceremony. The bell was to be the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world and to bear the inscription from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises”

The Olympic bell - photo by Neil Thomas

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!

l-to-r: templates for Big Ben, Bow bells, Olympic bell, Bicenntennial bell - photo by Rob Hansen

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!

The inscription - photo by Neil Thomas

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.

Foundry staff with the Olympic bell - photo by Neil Thomas

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!

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December 1999:
All The Bells
The Diamond Jubilee, a Royal Visit, and a Summer of Bells
Ovingham - Church of St. Mary the Virgin
Ecclesfield - Church of St. Mary
Whitechapel in the Snow
The Whitechapel Trophy
Wolsey's Bells
Royal Visit
Three Recent Installations (Stanion, Londal Castle, Harefield)
The 2008 Ringing Roadshow
Big Ben - the 150th Anniversary
Quebec: Holy Trinity
Government Seeks Whitechapel Help
New Cathedral Ring for Alabama
WBF Wins Best Family Business Award
Whitechapel and A Passion for Churches
Report on 2005 Ringing Roadshow
Three Decades of Charlie Smith
Ringing at the Royal Northern
100 Years of the Hughes Family at WBF
Lord Mayor Opens WBF Shop Extension
Report on Ringing Roadshow, 2003
Ringing Roadshow, 2003
New York: The 9-11 Bell Dedication
The 1881 Libel Case
Casting the 9-11 Bell
Another Liberty Bell
A Big Wheel
Open Day 2001 (with photos)
Historic Finds at the Foundry
Open Day 2000 (with photos)
Masham and the Millennium

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