The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was born amid the hustle and bustle of London’s East End in 1570. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the First ruled England in those days, her concern then being the influx of Catholics into the country.
At that time, the Master Founder was Thomas Kempe, who ran the company from 1553 until Robert Mot took over the task in 1574.
It’s since been discovered that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was in continuous production since 1420, a mere five years after the English longbowmen of Henry V cut the French to pieces at Agincourt. The original Master Founder was a gentleman named Robert Chamberlain, and the Founders may be traced all the way up until 1570 and of course up to the present day.
The Foundry has seen its share of horrors. Nowadays, surrounded as it is by modern edifices, it’s a listed building, Grade Two, and may not be altered in any way. But back in 1888, when Jack the Ripper stalked his victims through those terrible streets, the sights we’d have seen and particularly the smells were far different.
Prostitution was rife, pubs abounded, and those who couldn’t afford a room simply slept in the gutters. Hanbury Street, where the Ripper claimed Mary Anne Nichols, his first victim, was a mere ten minutes walk from the Foundry.
The number of bells that the Foundry has turned out over the years isn’t listed, understandably so. Thousands upon thousands, all shapes and sizes. Two well known bells have cracked. The Liberty Bell in 1752, and Big Ben. Liberty was locally re-cast, but in 1976, the Foundry replaced it for the bicentenary of American Independence.
Big Ben, at thirteen and a half tons and cast in 1858, the biggest bell ever, cracked because they used a hammer that was too heavy. It’s cracked to this day, but re-tuned, and the fault is what gives it its characteristic sound.
The main business of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has always been the making of church bells, although bells of all shapes and sizes are turned out. Hand bells are a small but important part of their business. They provided sets for the New England Guild of Hand bell Ringers in 1937, and the American Guild of English Hand bell Ringers in 1954.
In fact, their export business started in about 1747, when they sent a set of bells to St. Petersburg in Russia. The present foundry buildings replaced the older ones in 1670, after the Great Fire of London. They survived the Blitz, the Company turning to the manufacture of castings for the Ministry of War.
A tragedy was the bombing of St. Mary, known as the ‘White Chapel’ from which the area took its name. Needless to say, after the War, the company was very busy indeed repairing and re-casting bells for a large number of churches, not the least being for St. Mary le Bow, and the church of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ fame, St. Clement Danes.
Following the Liberty Bell, Christ Church, Philadelphia enjoyed the first change ringing peal in 1752. In 1764, St. Michaels in Charleston, South Carolina received a set. In 1964 it was the turn of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. with a set of ten, and Toronto Cathedral had a set of twelve in 1997.
This is an almost ridiculously short overview of a company that’s been in existence for a total of very nearly 590 years, but it’s well worth drawing attention to it and certainly worth a visit by anyone travelling to England
My name is Mike Bond and as a retired clock maker, one of my passions is, naturally enough, clocks. How they’re made, the mastermen from past centuries, and the genius of their inventions. I invite you to visit http://www.theclockssite.com to join me in my interest