Photo: Getty Images
Whitechapel Bell Foundry dates back to 1570, and was the factory in which Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were made. But it shut in 2017 and a fight for its future has been raging ever since
On a November evening in 2019, Nigel Taylor, who had until recently been the longest-standing employee at the oldest factory in England, took a seat inside a council chamber in the shadow of Canary Wharf in London. The room looked more like the setting of a US daytime TV court drama than a provincial government building in the East End, and it was packed with campaigners, councillors and property developers.
Two fretful years had passed since the closure of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where Taylor had worked for 40 years. Raycliff Capital, a US venture capital firm, had recently acquired the foundry buildings, and a hearing was scheduled to rule whether they could be converted into a boutique hotel.
For many in attendance, these development plans were close to sacrilege. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry had been casting bronze bells – what some bellringers call “heavy metal” – since 1570. Big Ben was made there in 1858. The Liberty Bell was made there in 1752. Over the centuries, bells from Whitechapel had made their way all over the world. Some 500 Whitechapel tower bells can be found in Australia, 600 in the US and at least 900 in Canada, according to its former owner Alan Hughes.
There’s no mistaking the Whitechapel Bell Foundry when you come across it. Hemmed in on one side by traffic that speeds into the City of London, its sooty Georgian frontage stands out from surrounding coffee shops and tower blocks.
If you had passed by the foundry’s side gate before it shut in 2017, there’s a chance you might have heard the clatter of wheels on concrete floors as bronze bells were transported to the drying ovens, or the sound of metal being hammered apart to be melted down and recast. Inside, bell makers, or “founders”, wore aluminium suits that made them look like industrial astronauts and poured molten alloy into moulds made from London clay.
Raycliff Capital planned to turn the rear of the site into a boutique hotel with 103 rooms and a rooftop pool. At the front, the foundry’s listed historic buildings would be reopened as a cafe and restaurant; above these, workspaces would be rented to “creatives”. Next to the cafe, the company promised to build a miniature foundry behind a glass screen, where tourists could watch small handbells being cast.
A coalition of campaigners, including Nigel Taylor, had spent almost two-and-a-half years struggling to prove there was an alternative to the boutique hotel scheme. Minutes before the meeting started, campaigners arrived carrying bell-shaped placards and handbells they planned to toll in noisy defiance at Raycliff Capital’s proposals. (Building security politely removed the bells as they entered the chamber.) Many of the campaigners were already familiar with the figures seated at the front. Taylor could see Alan Hughes, his old boss, the foundry’s former owner. Next to Hughes sat Bippy Siegal, an American entrepreneur and the founder of Raycliff Capital, who wore a smart dark jacket and expensive-looking glasses.
The first campaigner to address the room was Adam Lowe, an artist renowned for his masterful, high-tech reproductions of classic works of art. “We’re offering a very clear alternative,” Lowe said in a canorous upper-class accent. “It’s possible to keep this site as a working foundry rather than a Soho House or Groucho-style club.” (Raycliff owns a stake in Soho House, the global chain of private members’ clubs.) The applause that followed was so loud that one council officer reminded the attendees that such displays of emotion were not permitted in the chamber, lest they influence the vote.
Over the years, the fate of the foundry had become more than just a local story. The clash between the bells and the boutique hotel seemed to encapsulate decades of upheaval and anxiety, as global finance has reshaped London into a place where returns on investment often trump the interests of the people who live there. The redevelopment of England’s oldest factory by an American private equity firm; a manufacturing business gutted of its machinery and transformed into a manicured lifestyle destination. If the story had been fiction, a reader might have felt the symbolism could be toned down a bit.Advertisement
To the campaigners, Raycliff’s plans would be, at best, a hollow imitation of the very authenticity they had displaced. One described the plans to me as “obscene”. To the developers, it seemed irrational for campaigners to take issue with a viable plan that would bring much-needed investment to the foundry, restoring the buildings and creating jobs in the local area.
Now all of these adversaries sat together in the same room for the first time, tense with anticipation. Finally, the council chair addressed the chamber, and asked each councillor to cast their vote: for the hotel, or against it.
The problem with bells, from the perspective of those who make them, is that they last too long. In Westminster Abbey, there are two bells that were cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1583, and there is still nothing wrong with them. It’s difficult to think of something more basic or imperishable than a heavy piece of bronze. “If General Motors made cars that lasted 400 years, I don’t think General Motors would be anything like it is today,” Alan Hughes told me.
“I think it has to be appreciated that nobody now actually needs bells,” Hughes said. Church bells no longer keep time or organise the working day as they once did. One bell-maker told me that in the past two centuries, Britain has lost about 400 foundries. The only major historic foundry that survives is Taylor’s of Loughborough – and even that has gone bankrupt once, before it was bought out of administration in 2009.