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.

1 comment:

  1. The Whitechapel Building was so old but lot people to get inside for looking awesome art.