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Whitechapel Bell Foundry

​Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Since January 2019, Meg Venter has been working as the project archivist for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry archive collection, deposited at London Metropolitan Archives in 2017 following the company’s move from, and subsequent sale of, the foundry site on Whitechapel Road in London’s East End. She has been working to sort and catalogue the collection, which measures some 70 linear metres, with the aim of making it accessible to researchers in 2020-21. Here she shares her insights into the collection and its wider significance, takes a closer look at her favourite item, and describes the impact the archive has made on how she now experiences London’s soundscape.

I have had the great pleasure of working with one of the Directors of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Alan Hughes, who has been generous in sharing his time and expertise, and Chris Pickford, archivist for Taylors of Loughborough. Taylors is now the last working original foundry site in the UK and often shares the same customers as Whitechapel Bell Foundry, and so provides an excellent comparator to the Whitechapel collection. Chris was particularly helpful when I devised the catalogue structure for the collection, ensuring that the structure, especially of the manufacturing records, would be meaningful to researchers. Chris also hosted the project team on a visit to the Taylors foundry, where we were lucky enough to see a bell being cast and even did bell ringing! Working with Alan Hughes has added value and meaning to the project, allowing me to gain a fuller insight into the work and craft of bell founding and understand how the records work across the series and what abbreviations stand for. These contributions have undoubtedly strengthened the cataloguing process by shedding light on methods of industrial production which were previously unknown to me.

One of my favourite items in the collection so far is a notebook of sketches kept by the head founder William Kimber in the nineteenth century. Enclosed within a small green leather case, and fastened with a metal clasp, the notebook has a beautiful marble pattern on the text block and several sketches inside: bells, churches and handbell ringing. My favourite drawing is of the bell ‘Alma’ - a pen and ink sketch of a bell atop a wooden plinth. The simplicity of the drawing belies Kimber’s strength as both an artist and an engineer. Kimber’s work, seen in several items in the collection, has been made more special after Alan Hughes revealed that Kimber made his own ink, demonstrating what a true craftsman he was. This volume is complemented by an extraordinary series of pen and ink inscription books by Kimber. One of our volunteers has transcribed each page, so these will be available on the LMA catalogue.

One notable impact of this role is its effect on me outside of work hours, particularly in the way that I experience London acoustically. Given the foundry’s output in the capital - supplying churches, department stores and monuments with bells - it’s a rare day now when I don’t experience the chiming of a Whitechapel bell first-hand. More than anything, this has brought the collection to life, and has made me realise the reach of what might at first seem a rather esoteric industry. Bells are a part of the everyday fabric of a place, especially a place like London. Working on this collection has emphasised to me both the historic and contemporary importance of bells, as they mark the passing of time in our lives.

Throughout the cataloguing process, I am supported by a project intern, Eleanor Clarke. Eleanor is concentrating on listing the bell file series, a system that was introduced by the foundry in the 1940s to keep track of bell enquiries. Tracking the lifecycle of an order, from estimating and surveying to manufacturing and delivery, the bell files, mainly covering tower bells for churches, provide essential information on what the foundry supplied which are critical for ongoing maintenance of the bells, and also document the foundry’s relationship with its customers. They are the largest series in the collection, measuring about 30 linear shelf metres and file contents span the globe. Given the particularly strong concentration of bell files concerning former colonies and Commonwealth countries, they will be a great source for histories of foreign trade and export. This series and all manufacturing records post-1945 are accessible by permission only of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, so please contact LMA Enquiries staff for further details.

The collection is available for access by prior appointment only until cataloguing has been completed. LMA and Whitechapel Bell Foundry in partnership began the cataloguing project in November 2018 and plan to complete this work and release full descriptions to the archive on the LMA catalogue in 2020-21.

You may be interested to read also an account of the deposit process which describes how the collection was transferred to LMA.

10 July 2019
Last Modified:
31 July 2019