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Front of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

​Whitechapel Bell Foundry

​Big Ben, Liberty Bell and Bow Bells: archives of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Founded in 1570, Whitechapel Bell Foundry is the oldest manufacturing business still in operation in the United Kingdom. The historic foundry in Whitechapel closed in June 2017. In preparation for the firm’s move, London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) worked in partnership with the company to safeguard its rich business archives. The records were deposited in 2017 at LMA and are being catalogued in a new project which began in November 2018. Richard Wiltshire outlines the history of the firm, highlights from the collection and transfer process, and future plans to provide access to this outstanding collection.

Master founders

Whitechapel Bell Foundry was founded in 1570 and is the oldest manufacturing business still in operation in the United Kingdom. Earlier origins have been traced by historian George Elphick back to master founder Robert Chamberlain in the City of London in the 1420s. The firm moved to Whitechapel High Street in circa 1583 under Robert Mot (founder from 1574 to 1606). In 1740s the business expanded with new foundry premises built for the master founder Thomas Lester which still stand today. Lester, Pack and Chapman were later succeeded by four generations of the Mears family who were master founders between 1781 and 1865. In 1865 George Mears retired and was succeeded by Robert Stainbank operating the company under the name of Mears and Stainbank which continued through the twentieth century until 1968. In the 1880s Alfred Silva Lawson, member of the Skinners’ Company acquired the foundry taking great interest in the historical work of the business compiling research on bells made and adopting Robert Mot's three-bell stamp as the firm's trademark. Lawson was succeeded by Arthur Hughes (1860-1916) in 1904. Hughes was a ringer as well as a founder and joined the College Youths in 1883, becoming Master in 1907. In 1968 the manufacturing company was registered as Whitechapel Bell Foundry Limited. Arthur Hughes’ great grandson, Alan Hughes, with his wife Kathryn, continue to manage the company as directors. The foundry site was handed over on 12 June 2017 to a development company. The production of bells continues outside Whitechapel. For details of the decision to close the site and future plans visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry website.

Bell manufacturing

The company’s manufacturing output has focussed on large bells for change ringing peals in church towers, single tolling bells, carillon bells, and their complete range of accessories such as framework, wheels and clappers, and their assembly in church towers. The firm also manufactures handbells for tune and change ringing, and other small bells of many shapes and sizes. Whitechapel's famous bells include the original Liberty Bell (1752) in the United States of America, the Great Bell of Montreal, Canada and, probably best known of all, Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster. Cast in 1858, this is the largest bell ever cast at Whitechapel, weighing 13½ tons.

Worldwide export began at an early date. A set of bells was sent to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1747 and the first transatlantic change ringing peal was sent to Christ Church, Philadelphia in 1754. After the Second World War the foundry received many orders for the replacement of peals lost to bombing raids and fires, including the bells of St. Mary le Bow and St. Clement Danes of  'Oranges and Lemons' nursery rhyme fame. In 1964 the firm provided the change ringing peal of 10 bells in a radial frame for the National Cathedral in Washington DC in the United States and in 2001 founded the memorial bell presented by the City of London Corporation to Trinity Church, City of New York in memorial of the 9/11 terrorist attack. In 2012 it provided the Bell for the Olympics, the largest harmonically-tuned bell in the world. Traditional methods of mediaeval craftsmanship and skills such as use of loam and goats hair in casting have worked alongside new technology. The business showcased these activities through a museum display, education room and booked foundry tours.

Acquisition process

By being in situ in the same building since the 1740s, the firm accumulated large quantities of records. LMA organised, through funding provided by the company, detailed surveys of attics, in-trays and eighteenth century cupboards, boxing up smaller items and packaging larger formats so they could be safely transferred. Records were found in almost every room and behind every cupboard door. Items were boxed or crated, assigned numbers and brief descriptions noted. Foundry staff boxed the main series of large bell files.

Bell Foundry brochures

​Bell foundry brochures

The acquisition has proved valuable experience for two interns at LMA. Matthew Waters, intern reflects:

I had a wonderful time at the Foundry and enjoyed getting stuck in with the acquisition process. Every cupboard seemed to hold a treasure and the age and value of many of the records was instantly obvious.

The process was quite hard work, physically, due to the size of the volumes and the number of boxes which needed to be carried downstairs, but it is clearly a collection of international importance and I felt privileged to be part of the process.

Abira Hussein, intern writes:

It felt like a treasure hunting exercise, here I was in a historic building filled with endless rooms and secret cupboards, and it was my task to uncover what was beneath, to say I was overjoyed would be an understatement.

Importantly it gave me an insight to archiving that I haven’t experienced before, how does one decide what to take and what to leave behind? To think critically and strictly about what story the collection will tell and what items would support that was challenging at times.

Often I am looking at items in a collection and wondering who these people were, and what they sounded like, but at Whitechapel they were right before me. Hearing their stories I found myself becoming quite attached to the collection. So I look forward to seeing how it develops in its new home at LMA and what other treasures we can uncover.

Scope

The collection (accession reference B17/040) consists of rich series documenting the successive partnerships and manufacture of bells. Few records survive before 1837. Most items date from the mid-nineteenth century onwards including: partnership agreements and other foundation papers, minutes, correspondence and legal papers; day books, cash books and ledgers with indexes (1837-1946); manufacturing records including the earliest surviving document - an agreement to supply a Clock Bell for St Paul’s Cathedral (1709); peal books (1756-1850s) and indexes to bells made; ‘Crook’ (measurement) books, inspection note books (1891-1954), estimate books (1880-1939) and inscription books (1886-1962); out-letter books, A-Z manufacturing tower bell files arranged in series including ‘Cathedrals’, ‘London’, ‘Great Britain’ and overseas which mainly date from the 1940s to 2017; stock inventories, W T Kimber’s drawings of inscriptions on church bells many of which have been melted down since; bell plans and portfolios; photographs of events, staff and manufacturing, printed material including broadsheets listing bells made, booklets and some audio-visual material. Also included are records relating to involvement in bell ringing associations and other bodies including the parish of St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London.

Highlights and key sources

Day books from July 1837 onwards detail daily transactions of the foundry recording materials purchased, such as copper, tin, iron, timber, old bells and provide details of the goods sold, such as bells (with their weights and the rate per pound of metal at which they were sold), bell-frames and fittings, and other goods made at the foundry, such as handbells, latten bells, sheep’s bells, brass cocks and general foundry products.

The first ‘Peals Book’ is the only detailed source available for earlier bells made from the 1750s to 1850s. The indexed entries contain information concerning bells for customers including diameter, thickness, weight and tuning of the bells.

W T Kimber drawing of church bells inscriptions

WT Kimber's drawing of church bells inscriptions

The Kimber Drawings are the outstanding series in the collection. During the second half of the nineteenth century, W T Kimber, a moulder at the foundry, made drawings of the legends or inscriptions on many old bells which came to be recast. The four volumes of his work are painstakingly and skilfully executed and indexed by place and county and are in most cases the only record of mediaeval and later bells no longer in existence.

Related archives

LMA already holds the records of key bell ringing societies, namely the Ancient Society of College Youths, with microfilm copies only to the original records 1637-1974 held by the Society (CLC/001), Society of Royal Cumberland Youths, with records 1747-2013 (CLC/016), London County Association of Church Bell Ringers formerly Saint James Society, with records from 1827 (A/LBR); and the Middlesex County Association/London Diocesan Association of Bell Ringers, with records from 1889 (ACC/2428). LMA also holds archives of the Pye Family (CLC/493) containing records of renowned bell-ringers brothers William (Bill) Pye (1870-1935), George R. (Bob) Pye (1872-1945), and Ernest Pye (1876-1915), of Chadwell Heath, Essex.

Access

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 by early 2020.

Post war manufacturing records are available by permission only of the company (visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry website)

Some artefacts have been deposited with the Museum of London. All premises and property records remain with the new owner of the Bell Foundry building in Whitechapel. Some production and plant records including setting books from 1884 have been retained for manufacturing reasons. Family and personal papers relating to the Hughes have been retained by the family.

Acknowledgements

LMA would like to thank Alan and Kathryn Hughes, directors of Whitechapel Bell Foundry Limited and their staff for their assistance with the deposit in 2017. LMA and the company look forward to making this outstanding archive fully available to future users in early 2020.

Published:
13 July 2017
Last Modified:
25 March 2019

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