History of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is one of the most famous manufacturers of bells in the world. The foundry was located in the heart of the East End, the foundry is also the oldest manufacturing company in Britain, according to the Guinness Book of Records. It has made some of the best known bells in the world, including Big Ben and the Liberty Bell.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, The Oldest Manufacturing Company in Britain.

The foundry was first formally established in 1570, although it is thought that its history may stretch back further than that. The foundry’s current buildings date back to 1670. They were originally a coaching inn that was probably built at this time after local buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of London. The foundry needed more space shortly after that and took over the inn building in the 1700s; it has remained in that site ever since until December 2016 when it was announced the building has been sold by the foundry owners.

The company quickly became recognised all over the world as one of the premier bell foundries. It was exporting bells to places as diverse as Philadelphia and St Petersburg as early as the mid 1700s and did steady business making church bells, accessories and hand bells.

The foundry is now a designated listed building – it was lucky to survive bombings in the area during the Second World War, as many buildings close-by were destroyed. During this period, the foundry stopped casting bells and switched to war production, becoming a producer of castings for the Ministry of War. After the war, the foundry spent a lot of time replacing bells from churches that had been bombed in London.

Famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry Bells – Big Ben

Big Ben, London England.

Big Ben, London England.

In Britain, the most famous bell manufactured by the foundry is probably Big Ben. This is the largest bell ever cast at the foundry, coming in at a whopping 13 and a half tons. It stands over seven feet tall and is over nine feet wide.

The bell design and clock mechanism at the Houses of Parliament were complicated and the first bell that was made for the site did not work. The project was then given to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

Big Ben was recast from some of the metal used in the original bell. It took three furnaces to melt all the metal down and the foundry had to heat the mould all day to get it hot enough to work on such a big bell. It may have only taken 20 minutes to pour the metal into the mould, but it took a whopping 20 days for it to set and cool down.

Getting the bell to Westminster from Whitechapel turned into a bit of a spectacle. It was transported on a trolley drawn by 16 horses and was cheered along the route by crowds of Londoners. Big Ben rang for the first time in May 1859.

A couple of months later it cracked and wasn’t used for the next three years until the problems were fixed. The tone you hear when Big Ben chimes now is partly made by that crack.

Famous Whitechapel Bell Foundry Bells – The Liberty Bell

Replica of the Liberty Bell.

Replica of the Liberty Bell.

The foundry also manufactured one of the most iconic bells in American history, the Liberty Bell. This bell was originally used in Philadelphia to announce sessions to lawmakers and to alert the general public to meetings and notices, but it has since become an iconic symbol of the country’s independence.

The bell was ordered in 1751 and was delivered in 1752. Like Big Ben, however, the bell cracked. The Philadelphia Assembly tried to return the bell on the ship that had brought it from England, however this wasn’t possible and two local craftsmen recast the bell.

Visiting the Whitechapel Bell Foundry

The foundry tours are all fully booked in 2017 and sadly the building has now been sold. The foundry business is now permanently closed at the current Whitechapel location.

3 comments on “History of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry
  1. I now 50 with me lived in east London. I seeing change for worst. Where high raise building are coming – up. And history go out window. That way I see it.

    • Hello Russell. Us old East End Boys left a long time ago, as we could see what was going to happen. I come from the Elephant but Chas and Dave wrote a book on it, a good place to start is a book called ‘The Sins and the City.’Its about the history of the old Tom’s (No disrespect to good old mum) dating back to the Roman times. As the book gets on to our old turf there is a world of info about Spitalfields, Covent Garden, my old turf and a lot more. but you will have to put the book down to stop laughing about some of the the street names and some of the antics they got up to from the time of the old Bow Street Runners Right up to the old bill at the Met. Take down down well known place names and some of the names from royalty and well known old Tom’s and there will be old plans from the E/End to find out where old mum was born, and start to check the old Archives. At least we were honest tea leaves in those days ‘it’s a fair cop and all the old pony we gave the filth to cover our a*$e$. Oh the days of our misspent youth, HaHaHa, but the good old days are brown bread now. PS, when/if you get that book Sins of the City, what the upper and middle classes were up to up at West End were worse than the old Tom,s from our old E/End, But I wont ruin your read. Good luck and happy hunting Mucker.

  2. Ray Van-Jenssen says:

    My mother was born in Spitalfields in 1931. The old places have gone now and i am trying to find out more history, can you help?

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