I had often intended to visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry but as so often happens left it too late. It closed its doors to the public in 2017. The Grade 11 listed foundry was opened in 1570, and I am sure it supplied much work for folk living in the East End. It was sold by fourth generation bell founder Alan Hughes and his wife Kathryn to the US developer Raycliff “because orders had dried up”. In September architects 31/44 will reveal plans for a “living museum”, alongside “creative space” and a luxury hotel.
Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell was cast here, as was our own Big Ben, and many other smaller church bells up and down the country. The closure, and subsequent plans for a hotel sparked a row with the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust launching a ‘crowd-funding’ bid to repurchase the site and endeavour to maintain it as a working foundry. The plan, backed by many big names from the Art World, included Sir Antony Gormley and V & A director Tristram Hunt. A petition to save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry received almost 11,000 signatures; but the developers insist they are working with public groups, including Historic England to ensure their scheme is workable.
Raycliff, the US developer has amended the proposals to include a working museum where small bells could still be crafted, along with artists’ studios, cafe, bar, plus a 100 room hotel. “This is not us against the historic groups,” said architect Stephen Davies. “We have a sustainable, environmentally friendly plan.”
“What is really important to us is keeping that industrial feel,” said architect Stephen Davies. “There is a lot that needs doing to this building. It needs completely rewiring and a new roof, but we are determined to keep the history and the character of the foundry very much intact.” The road facing the foundry facade will “barely be changed”, he added.
Inside the building would keep its low ceilings and sloped floors, which were warped when the Tube Line under Whitechapel Road was built in the late 1800s. In the ground floor cafe, located in the former large workshop, visitors will be able to look down into the 3m deep pit where the Liberty Bell was cast, and watch bells being made in a “mini-foundry with an electric furnace”.
The plans are supported by Mr Hughes, who has agreed to donate some of his family’s archives for display in the building. The family, is still casting “Whitechapel Bells” with the Westley Group outside London. Mr Hughes said, “The area has changed and people living in the new residential developments did not want to deal with ‘industrial output and noise’.”
It would be interesting to hear from members if they, or any of their family, worked at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Or indeed if anyone was able to visit the foundry before it closed.