Vic Keegan’s Lost London 31: the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

by Victor Keegan

This East London company, astonishingly, has been making bells continuously since 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I and quite possibly from as early as 1420, when Henry V married Catherine of Valois to become heir to the kingdom of France. 

While the rest of UK manufacturing has come and gone, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry at 32-34 Whitechapel Road has seen them all off, making church bells, ships’ bells and hand bells for customers all over the world. It is the oldest manufacturer in the country and quite possibly the world.

Or was. Sadly, tragically, it had to close its doors in 2017 as the realities of financial life crept up on it and it was forced to join the memories of Lost London. Its most famous product is the 13.5 ton monster known as Big Ben,  housed in the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. It is the biggest bell the Foundry ever manufactured and the gauge used to make the mould was still hanging on the wall at the end. 

However, although the foundry is lost to London, Big Ben will chime on,, maybe for centuries, once the present renovations are over – as will the nearby 15th century bells in Westminster Abbey, a regular reminder of the longevity of the Foundry’s output. One of its exports, cast in 1752 for the State House in Philadelphia and known as the Liberty Bell, became an icon of US freedom and is still on public view in its home city.  

On a recent visit to the Foundry, which I shall never forget, I saw a bell on the shop floor that had come in for its 600 year service. Wow! I wonder how many of the current surge of digital products will last even a tiny fraction of that time. The Foundry building is Grade II listed and so hopefully will be preserved.

Instalments 1-30 of Vic Keegan’s Lost London can be found here. Vic’s book of London poems can be bought here.

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