Plans to redevelop the foundry where Big Ben was cast have been given the green light by the government. Decision has drawn wave of criticism from culture and heritage professionals, accusing government of ‘money-grabbing philistinism’.
The plans for a boutique hotel had already been approved by Tower Hamlets Council, but the communities secretary decided to call them in, taking the decision out of the council’s hands.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry started up in east London in 1570. It is the oldest manufacturing firm in Britain. The foundry, which also made the Liberty Bell that hangs in Philadelphia, is listed in the Guinness World Records as the oldest manufacturing firm in Britain.
It had been based on the site on the Whitechapel Road since 1738, but in 2016 its owners announced the operation would move elsewhere in the UK due to a downturn in orders.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry had been casting bronze bells – what some bell ringers call ‘heavy metal’ – since 1570. Big Ben was made there in 1858. The Liberty Bell was made there in 1752. Over the centuries, bells from Whitechapel had made their way all over the world. Some 500 Whitechapel tower bells can be found in Australia, 600 in the US and at least 900 in Canada, according to its former owner Alan Hughes.
Whitechapel tower bells are now being cast by the Westley Group Ltd, near Stoke-on-Trent, while Whitechapel hand-bells are being cast in south London.
The proposals, submitted by Raycliff Whitechapel LLP, will see the refurbishment of part of the Grade II listed foundry to create new workshops and a café, while an unlisted 1980s extension at the rear will be demolished and replaced with a 103-room hotel.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said in his decision note that the project would greatly enhance both the character and the appearance of the Whitechapel High Street Conservation Area, create an affordable workspace and bring overall economic benefits.
After the plans were submitted to Tower Hamlets Council, there were about 780 objections to the scheme – one councillor told the development committee the redevelopment would amount to ‘historical vandalism’.
Depending on who you ask, the foundry’s end had either been fated for almost a century, or only became inevitable in its final few years. When Alan Hughes called a meeting with his staff in November 2016 and told them the business was going to close, it came as little surprise. A former employee had noticed that the business seemed to be winding down. “The volume of work seemed to be shrinking, the state of the buildings was deteriorating and the foundry was even declining to quote for some new jobs,” he said.