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The bell tolls at Britain’s oldest manufacturing company

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 05, 2016

Liberty Bell

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is the oldest manufacturing company in Britain. It was officially founded in 1570, but there’s an unbroken line of master bellfounders dating back to 1420. The company cast the bell for Big Ben…you may have heard of it. They also made the Liberty Bell…you may have heard of that one too.

The Whitechapel Foundry’s connection with the Liberty Bell was reestablished in 1976, the year of the US Bicentennial. First, there was a group of about thirty or so ‘demonstrators’ from the Procrastinators Society of America who mounted a mock protest over the bell’s defects and who marched up and down outside the Foundry with placards proclaiming WE GOT A LEMON and WHAT ABOUT THE WARRANTY?. We told them we would be happy to replace the bell — as long as it was returned to us in its original packaging.

Alan Hughes, the current master bellfounder, is retiring soon and the business shall have to move — it’s been in the current location for 250 years — but hopes are that the company will be sold and the new owners will carry on with the business of making bells. Spitalfields Life recently sat down with Hughes for an interview and tour.

“Our business runs counter to the national economy,” he continued, “If the economy goes down and unemployment rises, we start to get busy. Last year was our busiest in thirty years, an increase of 27% on the previous year. Similarly, the nineteen twenties were very busy.” I was mystified by this equation, but Alan has a plausible theory.

“Bell projects take a long time, so churches commit to new bells when the economy is strong and then there is no turning back. We are just commencing work on a new peal of bells for St Albans after forty-three years of negotiation. That’s an example of the time scale we are working on — at least ten years between order and delivery is normal. My great-grandfather visited the church in Langley in the eighteen nineties and told them the bells needed rehanging in a new frame. They patched them. My grandfather said the same thing in the nineteen twenties. They patched them. My father told them again in the nineteen fifties and I quoted for the job in the nineteen seventies. We completed the order in 1998.”

The Telegraph did a piece on the foundry as well. (via @richardwestenra)