The London Bell Foundry

In June 2017 the historic Whitechapel Foundry was acquired and the use of these Grade 2* buildings for the making of bells, such as Big Ben, the Liberty Bell and the Bow Bells, ceased. Despite its unique and profound importance, campaigns in the national press, and enormous emotional public outcry, the WBF was sold and closed. Since the Public Inquiry in 2020 granted consent to permit this development, but the site has been left in an increasingly derelict state since then. The London Bell Foundry Ltd is still seeking to acquire and give a new lease on life to the foundry.

Saving the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is a cultural heritage site in the heart of London, in the borough of Tower Hamlets. It was the first casting business to open in London after the Reformation and has been responsible for casting some of the most famous bells in history, including the Liberty Bell (1752) marking American independence, ‘Big Ben’ (1858) for the Palace of Westminster, and the bells for Westminster Abbey.  The company has changed hands several times in its almost 450 years of history but has operated continuously in Whitechapel since its formation. The foundry’s origins have been traced to a traditional foundation date of 1570, and it has also been suggested that the Elizabethan establishment had grown out of a foundry in Aldgate that can be traced back to 1363. 

 Until very recently, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, a working community and a repository of invaluable craft skills, but the dwindling market for church bells has been strangling the traditional art of bell-making to the point where, in 2017, the bell-themed boutique hotel proposed by Raycliff Capital seemed a more appealing venture than keeping the foundry active. 

 Public outcry resulted in a petition signed by over 28,000 people and campaigns in the national press that followed every development. Several British and international artists expressed their support for the idea of making artist bells, including Grayson Perry (video statement), Conrad Shawcross (video statement), Paula Crown, Anish Kapoor and many others. 

Re-Form Heritage (formerly United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust or UKHBPT), an independent charity under the founding patronage of The Prince of Wales, teamed up with Factum Foundation to propose a viable revitalisation scheme to not only keep the foundry open but also produce special edition artworks in bronze and other materials. This evolved in the formation of The London Bell Foundry Ltd, working with Nigel Taylor, foreman at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry for forty years. 

 After a Public Inquiry (6 – 28 October 2020) was held on 13 May 2021 the Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, granted consent to permit the development of a hotel on the site of the historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry (read Adam Lowe's full statement here). Since then, the site has stayed closed and is showing increasing signs of neglect and vandalism, with no action taken except an attempt by Raycliff Whitechapel LLP to sell the building in 2022. 

The London Bell Foundry

 Meanwhile, Factum Foundation and Re-Form Heritage have founded The London Bell Foundry Ltd with the aim to acquire the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to provide a permanent home for bell casting in the UK once again and maximise its educational potential through apprenticeships for local people and work with schools and colleges in East London. The London Bell Foundry’s mission is to reinvigorate the art and science of bell founding through a marriage of new and old technology, casting church bells, artists’ bells, ceremonial bells, and bells for all occasions. 

In 2021, The London Bell Foundry received its first commission: the Covid Bell by Grayson Perry, which debuted at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2022. A second and a third  ‘artist bells’ by Paula Crown and Conrad Shawcross are in production, and the Elizabeth Bell is a forthcoming commission to commemorate seventy years since the coronation of Elizabeth II.

Installation view of the Summer Exhibition 2022 at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 21 June – 21 August 2022. Photo: © Royal Academy of Arts, London / David Parry

Additional resources:

– Charles Saumarez Smith's blog (25/11/2022)
– The Art Newspaper (1/11/2022)
– Apollo Magazine (14/10/2022)
– The Art Newspaper (21/07/2022)
– Apollo Magazine (14/05/2021)
– Evening Standard (14/05/2021)
– The Art Newspaper (14/05/2021)
– The Guardian (11/05/2021) and podcast version The Guardian (7/06/2021)
– The Art Newspaper (29/03/2021)
– The Guardian (4/10/2020)
– Daily Mail (2/10/2020)
– The Critic (October 2020)
– Soho Radio (starts at 19:30) (30/09/2020)
– The Diapason (September 2020)
– Financial Times (25/12/19)
– BBC's Front Row (starts at 10:37) (9/12/19)
– Daily Mail (05/12/19)
– Evening Standard (04/12/2019)
– Evening Standard (13/11/2019)
– Apollo Magazine (19/09/2019)
– The Guardian (31/08/2019)
– BBC Radio (starts at 01:18:00) – 16/08/19
– Daily Mail – 05/08/19
– East London Advertiser – 11/02/19
– Charles Saumarez Smith's blog
– Spitalfields Life interview of Nigel Taylor – 10/02/2019
– Financial Times – 03/08/18
– The Guardian – 21/07/18
– Apollo Magazine – 05/01/17
– The Economist – 24/12/2016
– The Guardian – 02/12/16