Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Whitechapel Bell Foundry

32-34 Whitechapel Road,
London E1 1DY

Saturday March 21 2015

This entry comes a little out of sequence as it needed to be a booked event – Monday to Friday the Foundry is a working shop floor, while on Saturdays Mr and Mrs Hughes, the current family who own the Foundry, do booked, conducted tours mainly for groups but with some ‘individual tickets’.  The tour lasts about 90 minutes and is very informative.
Having been instructed to arrive early we gathered out of the bitter cold.  The Whitechapel Road
is an old Roman Road heading directly east, with the wind direct from Siberia and no hills in between) and were glad to be able to shelter just inside the small front hall where there are  a series of glass cases depicting a pictorial history of the Foundry – its origins elsewhere in London, the expansion of the current (very modest) site, famous bells that have been made there ( Philadelphia's Liberty Bell  recast in 1976 for the Bicentenial celebrations ) and some scale models of the process.

When the last four group members scraped through the front door it was locked and we were given a speedy 7 minute introduction to the origins of bell manufacture and why here. The answer to the latter had of course become very apparent when we were bussing round London – because of the prevailing wind direction and river flow the rich folk essentially kept the west to themselves and made sure the messy/smelly and dangerous trades were all in the east. Bell making has a little of each plus needing the space which Whitechapel would have had in 1700 when they moved here. Monks and the Church used bells from early on – see the Venerable Bede – but round about the 12th Century manufacturing passed from the religious community to craftsmen and this is where it has remained. Foundries proliferated especially in the larger conurbations – cathedral cities. This foundry can trace its origins back to 1420, then started in 1570 (the date over the door) however moved from Aldgate East to the present premises in 1738, the 18th and 19th centuries being the ‘boom time’ (see what I did there) for bell manufacture – however, given that the average product lasts about 150 years before it even needs patching, the number of foundries declined accordingly leaving just a few world wide. This particular one thrived by closing down the opposition various and now continues to export as well as getting 20% of the business from small bells.  The shop floor onto which we were about to move has about 16/17 employees with others out ‘hanging’ or in the office. Mr and Mrs Hughes run the office and conduct the tours at the weekend when the furnaces have cooled a little.

The tour takes you out through the back of the shop through a very small courtyard filled with bells various and onto the main manufacturing floor. The process essentially has three parts

Casting: Bell metal is Bronze – so Copper plus tin (22%)  poured into moulds as a thin but very even layer between two moulds – the inner cone and the outer  core – a bit like cooking, the larger the bell the longer the cooking (melting) time and they have two Furnaces also. Like lining your cake tins so they don’t stick the Foundry uses a unique formula of loam for that purpose – the buckets show the ingredients of the loam: sand, clay, goat’s hair (which is soft but fibrous thus allowing hot air to escape on expansion) and horse manure  (also loosely packed). The furnaces heat up to 1070˚ C so a bit hotter than your oven.  This process for the bigger bells (7 foot diameter is the maximum this foundry can manage) can take up to a week and all are timed to be turned off by Friday thus having the weekend to cool.

Continuing with my cake analogy, instead of an ‘icing stage’ the Foundry has a tuning stage whereby experts (presumably not with tin ears like this author) shave off miniscule amounts of metal from within the bell in order to achieve 5 perfect notes.  As I don’t understand ( or care very much about)the numbers behind music this part of the process , doubtless very important and extremely skilled, was lost on me, but suffice to say they aim to get bells that sound ‘true’ when correctly struck by their clapppers.  This is particularly important as about 400 years ago some Englishman invented change ringing (more number work) which is almost as arcane as cricket. The UK still has numerous churches (about 5 ½ thousand) where ‘the changes are rung’ but the practice is followed overseas only in what are effectively ex-colonies. So the market is small, especially bearing in mind the long shelf life of this product.
This leads us onto the third part of the process – the hanging of the bells – the preparatory work for which takes place in the small carpentry workshops up the narrow stairs. Headroom is at 5ft 8” so most chippies need to be on the short side if they want to work here – and many do for long years of service are celebrated by plaques in the roof ends.  Different woods are used for part of the wheels – as oak and sapele ,

For me the upstairs workshops were very evocative – workbenches with a tools laid aside, small chippings of metal, leather straps (there is only one tannery left in England) brooms and work lists, the odd ‘girlie’ calendar (yes they’re still made): my father was a Hatton Garden jeweller and though on a much smaller scale the tools and skills – incising, balancing, polishing – seemed quite similar.   His half-finished items were locked in a safe overnight however. The upstairs workshop finishes the hand bells (the cupcakes of the bell world) which come in sets and where individual ones can be replaced at impressively short notice. Hand bells were originally introduced to allow the bell ringers to practise and then became a musical set in their own right.

The tour finishes back in the courtyard where Mr Hughes bid us on our way with a right clang on one of his random bells illustrating how important is the ‘hum’ and reverberation – the physics  principle behind the ‘ strike to sound thing’ . There is also a shop of course with bells large and small but all beautifully finished and truly ‘Made in England’ which is not something y

you can often say nowadays.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Cartoon Museum

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Today Linda and I went to the Cartoon Museum, which is in Little Russell Street, WC1A 2HH.

It is housed in a former dairy, and consists of two rooms downstairs, and an upstairs galleried area which houses the collection of comics.

For copyright reasons, we were not allowed to take pictures of the art works themselves, so here is the embellishment of the door into the exhibition space, with a recognisable Steve Bell depiction of George W Bush as Michelangelo's Adam.

We went first to look at the current special exhibition, which is cartoons and caricatures by Marc.  Mark Boxer said of himself 'I don't draw particularly well, but I have an observant eye', but we thought his pen work was pretty impressive, and his observant eye applies both to the notables he drew and to the mores of the period. His trendy couple, the Stringalongs, with their friends Ben and Pilaf Goldblatt, figure in a number of social comments:  'Daddy and I think spelling is elitist'; 'Simon, which of these two dresses would you say was more left of centre?'

Being the age we are, we did not need many of the captions to tell us whose portraits we were admiring.  Some were international, like Kssinger, some cultural, like a black haired Simon Rattle as well as Olivier, Gielgud, Heaney, Graham Greene and even Stockhausen (we did have to look to see who this one was)

The politicians, of all hues, were there too:  Foot and Benn and Healey; Lawson and Thatcher - depicted with a 'no milk today' note for the milkman hanging from one nipple: she never shook off the Milk Snatcher label associated with her ending of free milk for school children.

(Which reminds me, we were sharing the space with a party from Snaresbrook Primary School, and I hope their teachers will not mind us saying how impressed we were with the impeccable behaviour of a lot of young people clearly having a good time)

In fact, Mrs Thatcher cropped up again in a pocket cartoon with a timely relevance as we trudge towards the general election:  two people commenting, as they pass a placard reading 'Falklands war cost £700 million,' 'At least she does not have to put it down as election expenses'.

Although this exhibition is coming to an end (to be replaced by 'Heckling Hitler', which sounds fun) the permanent collection of the Museum does include some Marc cartoons so we shall not be starved of them in the future.  And Linda and I went on to look at the permanent exhibition.  It starts with a timeline of cartoon and caricature, and then is displayed chronologically, from the beginning of the 18th century onwards. The print shops which sold the luxury items also displayed their wares in the windows, for the less wealthy to enjoy, so people could be amused by Hogarth and Gillray, as we were.  1789 and the French Revolution encouraged a flowering af radical and anti-monarchy as well as anti-French cartooning; coincidentally, the British Museum across the road is also showing a collection of the way Bonaparte was depicted by British cartoonists.  After all, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up in June. Then it was on through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, with a good number of First World War postcards, poster and magazine cartoons.  The coverage goes right up to the present day, the last cartoon being Martin Rawson's take on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, which you can see here, courtesy of the Guardian's website.

Pausing briefly in the little animation room, where we saw some Peppa Pig storyboards, and laughed at the covering of the benches, we went on upstairs to the gallery, where the collection of comics is available to enjoy. Actually, Linda and I are not excited by all that Judge Dredd, Batman stuff, being of the 'Eagle' and 'Girl' general;  but we did pause by some Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace original artworks, before (as Banksy would say) heading out through the gift shop, which is a treasure house of silly cards, books and mugs.

Definitely a place to return to, we thought.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Black Cultural Archives

1 Windrush Square
Brixton, SW2 1EF

Wednesday March 11th 2015

A sunny spring morning saw us strolling through Windrush Square to the Black Cultural Archives whose premises have only been open a few months. However it took 33 years for the idea for an archive which found its genesis in the 1981 Brixton riots to come to its own home in 2014 and a very beautiful home it is. Windrush Square is a very pleasant open space, set a little back from the main road and endless stream of buses which divides Brixton – and the building has been lovingly restored with a sparkly new and very accessible entrance.  The library/archives etc. are housed on the upper floors with a small exhibition space on the ground floor, and that was our destination today. Fittingly, if you think about the 33 year wait, the exhibition is called ‘Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s.’
The title is even more applicable when you follow the photos and history and realise this a community very much here to stay, integral to British life but with progress yet to make. The exhibition is also the result of a long-term collaboration with the Victoria & Albert Museum though it is a little hard to find it on their website at the moment, obsessed as they currently are with Alexander McQueen. The exhibition title is borrowed from an earlier book, published 1984, which traces the history of black people in the UK from essentially Tudor times and the start of the slave trade.

The exhibition however focuses on the power of photography to look at the more recent aspects of this long history. The photographs are both documentary and posed. The captions explain quite clearly the origins and careers of the individual photographers – some specialising in fashion, others in reportage, with work appearing in journals and newspapers. Their origins too cover the span of Caribbean islands.  Each photograph is also put into a context of the Black British community’s contemporary experience – for example, the very striking young men posing outside the Black Power House in Brixton. Power is seen equally in the pride showing off new hair styles/clothes and music systems,  all aspects of culture taken for granted and reflected daily for the white population  in the white British press, which so rarely (or joyfully) depicts the Black British experiences. Chilling still are the images of overt racism in the notes posted in ‘Rooms To Let’.

The group of coloured photos, carefully composed, on the end wall show a series where models are posed with stereotypical images of the black community – water melons/sugar cane against a very English-looking country background to highlight the power of image by making overt the subliminal messages.

We found the small exhibition thought provoking for the way in which it showcased at once talented black photographers and their powerful subjects (in both senses of both words).

The Archive is well positioned to enable anyone passing through Brixton to drop in and appreciate what I am sure will be a series of interesting little exhibitions.

Thursday, 5 March 2015


Wednesday 4 March 2015

Firepower:  The Royal Artillery Museum
Woolwich SE18 6ST

It had been suggested (I won't say by whom) that we needed something military and metallic, after several months of arty, schooly, nursy museums, and you don't get much more military than Firepower.

So Linda and I made our way to Woolwich Arsenal, where we met a few minutes later than planned, courtesy of a delayed Overground train.  It is galling to board a train which is 17 minutes late, only to sit opposite a sign that says that 98.5% of the services are less that 5 minutes late.  But I digress.

The riverside at Woolwich is being transformed ready for Crossrail and the amazingly enhanced commuting it will bring (sorry, I seem to be stuck in public transport mode) but even so, Firepower is scarcely on the main trail for museum goers, as the modest number of visitors confirms.

The handsome parade ground outside demonstrates the long history of the place, about which we learned more inside.  The clock face is partnered by a dial which shows the wind direction (as fed by the vane above) to facilitate range finding and aim.  This was the first taste we got of the professionalism and scientific attitude of the Royal Artillery who, with the Royal Engineers, were the only branches of the army where it was not possible to rise by purchase, but only by training and ability.

The link with east London began at the end of the 16th century, when dangerous activities like explosive manufacture were moved from the Tower to 'less important' parts of London.  Then in 1716, a terrible accident at the brass foundry in Moorfields, meant that cannon-making was moved here too.  This was rapidly followed by the establishment of an officer training school, in buildings designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

Inside, we visited the facilities, and read about the history of the industry of the area, as well as noting that even the children's ride was dressed in modern army camouflage.  We also saw examples of the guns which provide the metal of making Victoria Crosses, particularly poignant when one has been awarded so recently.

We headed upstairs, to discover the history of artillery, on the mezzanine of the amazing space which is the museum.  The information is clear and light hearted, given the heavy nature of the subject, starting with the fact that warriors have always thrown things at each other (!) and nipping through the ballista/catapulta gadgets that we used to enjoy in Verulamium when the XIII Legion demonstrated them.
But of course, artillery gets serious when gunpowder is added, and the museum has a model of a medieval gum, as well as a photograph of an earlier Asian version.

We learned why the 'tubes' of cannons are called barrels  (because they used to be made of wrought iron staves banded together like a barrel),and the different ways of igniting the explosive to make the projectile leave the gun

The narrative is then one of the wars in which Britain has been engaged, including our Civil War, the 18th century wars against France, and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  Throughout, there are accounts by eye witnesses.  The contradictory needs of the guns, to be near enough to cause damage to the enemy and yet able to be pulled back in case of cavalry attack, led to the development of 'light' artillery, and the racing horse-drawn teams which Linda and I remember from the Royal Tournament.  We also learned about William Congreve's development of the rocket, a weapon which the Duke of Wellington hated for its unreliability, but was forced into using because the Prince Regent found rocket fire very exciting

The expansion of the British Empire around the world is reflected here with mortars and other guns from India, like the chubby tiger gun from Tipu Sultan in Mysore.

Wars in Africa also got a mention;  the ability of the Boers to vanish into the bush, leaving what appeared to be 'an empty battlefield', led to new developments, with hidden guns and advanced spotters.

Once the story reached the First World War, women finally got a mention, since the huge munition factories, including the one at Woolwich, were major employers of women.  It is a sobering thought that young women preferred the dangerous and unpleasant work of munitions to domestic service, which had previously employed so many.

Techniques such as the creeping barrage, intended to clear the way for advancing infantry, were explained, and this section finished with a discussion of Jagger's fine and realistic memorial at Hyde Park Corner, illustrated by one of his maquettes

We found the display about Dunkirk very interesting since, for the Artillery, the 'miracle of deliverance' as Churchill called it, involved the loss of 1000 field guns and 50 heavy guns, hard to replace in time of blockade and labour shortages.  Next door to Dunkirk is D-Day:  'what did they do in between?' asked Linda, before we turned round to see North Africa and the Middle East.  Again, there were first person accounts, drawings and photographs from the participants.

I was delighted to find a section about gunners working in Royal Navy ships and merchant ships, particularly on the Arctic Convoys.  Linda endured my customary rant about how nobody thinks about the Navy, without which the RAF would have been somewhat short of fuel, and the D-Day landings would not have occurred.

Heavy guns of course fired shells full of things other than explosives, and there was a display about 'ration' shells and propaganda shells as well.

Downstairs is a survey of modern artillery warfare, including the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the Gulf.  The skills of firing big guns have changed as computers and rockets take over, and helicopters replace ships and gun carriages, but there is a clear continuity.

This is a museum about one strand of war and weaponry through the ages,  Nevertheless, we did find it interesting.

Oh, and by the way, the motto on the coat of arms at the top, Ubique quo fas et gloria ducunt, may be translated as 'wherever divine law and glory lead'.