Historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry Given Second Chance

News is rippling across London like the plangent reverberations of a well-tolled bell: It has been announced that the American property developers who purchased the historic Whitechapel Bell Foundry have abandoned their plan to turn the site of the oldest manufacturing company in Great Britain into a boutique hotel. The building is now back on the market.

It’s worth taking a moment to remember how we got here. The famed bell foundry was shuttered in 2017, caving under the pressure of less demand and the apathetic indulgence of the then-owners.

The foundry had been casting bronze bells in London since 1570. Big Ben was recast there in 1858. The Liberty Bell was made there in 1752. Over the centuries, bells from Whitechapel had found their way all over the world. Some 500 Whitechapel tower bells ring in Australia, 600 in the U.S., and at least 900 in Canada.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on a tour of Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Image: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II on an historic visit to see the workings of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London on March 25, 2009. Courtesy: Adrian Dennis.

After a particularly impassioned public debate, the government approved plans to turn the former foundry into a boutique hotel, ending five centuries of bell making tradition at the site – stretching from the reigns of Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II.

The Grade II historical landmark sits at the junction of Fieldgate St. and the A11, comprising over 15,200 square feet in its current condition, which, through a half-decade of disuse, is in a state of quiet decay. That might be about to change.

What’s to be done with the Whitechapel Bell Foundry?

That’s the question on the lips of those who were involved in the first ill-fated campaign to save the bell foundry from the hubris of property developers. What’s changed, five years on? For one, the new London Bell Foundry was formed of the partnership assembled in the first fight to stop Whitechapel from becoming a hotel.

If there is a viable alternative plan for the site, it certainly rests in the London Bell Foundry’s capable hands and its dedication to the continuity of heritage bell making skills. The challenge remains, of course, how to acquire the Whitechapel building and convert it into a fully working and commercially successful foundry again.

The London Bell Foundry has been working diligently to demonstrate just that very potential: bridging new and old technology while fostering exciting collaborations between traditional bell makers and technical acousticians with celebrated and emerging artists. The goal is to establish Whitechapel as an international center for the culture and science of campanology. Could this be the key that finally removes the Damoclean sword hanging over this bit of East London history? We certainly hope so.

Cover image: The façade of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London as seen on February 18, 2021. Courtesy: Lucy Daniels.