Bell tolls on one of the world’s oldest bell foundries.
The world’s oldest bell foundry, which made Big Ben and Liberty Bell, is closing after 500 years in business. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, based in London’s Whitechapel area, has long been the international centre for bespoke bells but the family run business has announced it is now set to close due to the “changing realities” of running a niche business.
Listed in the Guinness World Records as the oldest manufacturing firm in Britain, the company was formed in 1570 in the reign of Elizabeth I. The family business, which has had close links to the Royal family, is set to close its doors in May.
Owners Alan and Kathryn Hughes said it was with a “heavy heart” they have taken the decision to close the business.
It comes as the company saw renewed success due to the hit drama Downton Abbey which saw a surge in orders from American fans for table bells that were traditionally used to ring for tea.
Despite diversifying into manufacturing doorbells and creating an online store a few years ago, the owners have taken the difficult decision to close the firm.
“We have made this decision with a heavy heart, but in response to the changing realities of running a business of this kind. The Bell Foundry in Whitechapel has changed hands many times, but it has always been a family business,” Mr Hughes said.
A bell in Big Ben, London
“My own family has owned the foundry since 1904, but other families have run the firm through its history, which stretches back to 1570. Whitechapel Bell Foundry will cease its activities at the Whitechapel Road site where it has been since 1738 in May 2017.”
“We will complete work on all projects presently in hand during the coming months but will not be entering into new contracts for the time being while discussions with the company’s staff and other interested parties regarding the future direction, ownership, and location of the company are ongoing.”
“The business has been at its present site over 250 years. So it is probably about time it moved once again. We hope that this will provide an opportunity for the business to move forward in a new direction.”
The Liberty Bell was cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1752, to hang in the then-new state house at Philadelphia (later renamed Independence Hall). It was damaged during shipment, and cracked upon being rung. Pennsylvania foundrymen (“Pass and Stow”) recast it, but the faults reoccurred in subsequent decades of use
The mould for Big Ben still hangs on the wall of the foundry. It was the largest bell ever cast by the firm in 1858, weighing 13 and a half tons.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is responsible for many acclaimed bells worldwide, from creating the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia in 1752 to bells for St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and the US National Cathedral in Washington.
More recently, it cast the “Royal Jubilee Bells”, a set of eight bells featured in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012 that now hang in the church of St James Garlickhythe in the City of London.
Following September 11, the firm was the first choice to create a lasting tribute of a bell to mark the tragedy as a gift from London to New York.
Members of the Royal Family, including the Queen and Prince Charles, have conducted a number of visits to the foundry.
Casting bells has been done for thousands of years, including very large bells in Eastern Asia. In Great Britain, large bells for churches and monasteries were described by St. Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. By the late Middle Ages, bell foundries became some of the first permanent manufacturing businesses in the country
It has been several centuries since the boom years of bell making, yet the foundry has found ways of adapting to modern times by making traditional doorbells, popular among people restoring Victorian properties. The Downton effect has seen a third of its business exported overseas.
However, quality craftsmanship takes time. The average time from enquiry to order is 11 years, and the longest commission in the foundry’s history took 100 years to produce.
Order to installation takes another year, and a major project could cost as much as £250 000 to produce.
Mr Hughes, who learnt the craft from his father, previously told the Telegraph newspaper: “We’ve survived because we produced stuff that people want. That means constantly adapting. You do not remain in business if you keep saying no. Twenty years ago we didn’t provide any doorbells.”
“We are a tiny market. And at the end of the day, there aren’t many churches being built now, but people still love the sound of bells and that’s what has kept us going.”
The firm has been at its premises on Whitechapel Road since 1670, previously a coaching inn called the Artichoke that was damaged in the Great Fire of London.