A MODEST frontage on Whitechapel Road, in the East End of London, is to close its doors in May 2017, taking with it 278 years of manufacturing history on the site. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, one of the oldest companies in the UK, has occupied those premises on Whitechapel Road since 1738. It was established in 1570, and can trace its origins to bell-founders in the Whitechapel and Aldgate areas of the City in the time of Henry V.
Alan and Kathryn Hughes are the fourth generation of the Hughes family to own and run the company, which was bought by Arthur Hughes, Alan Hughes’s great-grandfather, in 1904. Mr Hughes will retire with its closure, a sad move both for the family, which has been involved with the production of bells there for so long, and for those who will regret the loss of such a link with London’s industrial past.
It is too early to say whether the business will continue in premises elsewhere. “This site was becoming difficult to maintain,” Mrs Hughes said on Monday. It is understood that there are likely to be environmental difficulties with the local authorities. “We are holding meetings all over the country to try to make sure it has a future. Any foundry that does bronze casting can also cast bells,” Mrs Hughes said.
The foundry has always concentrated on the manufacture of bells and their fittings: large and small bells, handbells, and bells hung for change-ringing or for carillons. It cast Big Ben for the Palace of Westminster in 1858; the Liberty Bell for the United States in 1752; sent bells to St Petersburg, in Russia, in 1747; and shipped the first Transatlantic bells to Philadelphia in 1754.
During the Second World War it manufactured casings for the Ministry of War. Later, it provided the ring of ten for the new National Cathedral in Washington, DC; the “Oranges and Lemons” bells of St Clement Danes in London; and, since 2010, it has cast a complete new ring of 12 bells for St Albans Abbey.
The frontage of the building is Grade II listed; and, Mr Hughes says, the family is looking for a home for the foundry’s legacy of records, ledgers, and bell artefacts. But the long history of what has been for more than 100 years a many-layered family business will be over.