WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY

THE FOUNDRY AT WAR

Like most parts of the nation's heavy engineering sector, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry's maufacturing capacity has been turned to war production in times of conflict. While the fire the Foundry suffered in the middle of the nineteenth century ensured few records survive from before that period, the similarity of bell metal and gunmetal - and the ease with in which one can be melted down and turned into the other (the reason why the enemy's bells were long considered one of the prizes of war) - means we can be certain the Foundry has been involved in producing cannon at various points. There is, of course, one war we know rather more about....

During the 1930s the economic slump caused by the Depression eventually reached WBF, and they were desperate days for the Foundry. All sorts of things were tried to cut costs, including persuading the landlord not to charge us any rent. Concerned the company might have no long-term future, Albert Hughes ensured that his two sons William and Douglas had good jobs in the outside world. William started work at the truck manufacturers John I. Thorneycroft at their head office in Westminster, and Douglas began work as an insurance broker at the firm of Price Forbes (later to become Sedgwick Forbes).

Just as it looked as though all was lost, we were saved by the Germans in the form of the Second World War.

The war gave the foundry immediate work from the British Government producing aluminium castings of submarine parts for the Admiralty. The Government not only guaranteed the orders, they guaranteed good prices and they also guaranteed quick payment, which is something that the Church of England has never managed to do with us!

In fact the war years were the most profitable years that the Whitechapel Foundry saw during the twentieth century. The slight disadvantage was that after work the Germans threw things at you. You not only had to work through the day; you had to work through the night clearing up the mess that they left behind. But the war did improve the finances of the company enormously. William Hughes left Thorneycroft to work with his father during the war, and Douglas returned to the family partnership after his military service

The other thing that the Germans did was smash up a lot of bells, which meant that coming into the 1950s, the foundry then had plenty of work putting right what the Nazis had put wrong. They were very, very busy years and in fact in the early 1950s we were quoting delivery times of up to three years for tower bell work, such was our workload.

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.

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