Battle of the bells and the boutique hotel

Charles Saumarez Smith on the campaign to save the historic London foundry that produced both Big Ben and the Liberty Bell

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

On 2 December 2016, it was announced that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in the East End of London, in existence in some form since the 1570s and on the same site in Whitechapel since the 1740s, and always described as “Britain’s oldest manufacturing company”, would close. It had been sold to a local property developer, Vincent Goldstein, who had in turn sold it on to a New York venture capitalist, Bippy Siegal, who has financial interests in Soho House, the club which runs Shoreditch House and branches internationally. It happened without warning.

Alan and Kathryn Hughes, the fourth-generation proprietors of the bell foundry, had decided to sell up. Alan Hughes, who had run the foundry since 1972, is said to have got demoralised by the difficulties of running a small industrial concern in such an urban area and what he saw as lack of support from the conservation agencies, although determined efforts had been made before the London Olympics to get him to turn the foundry into a charitable trust so that it could receive conservation grants. The Hugheses had been told by their agents that they could sell it for £3.5 million. Their children did not want to take it on. The economics of making church bells were making it harder to make a profit.

This is the story of much small-scale manufacturing in recent years throughout Britain, more often in the north rather than in London. The focus of all government policy since the Second World War has been towards looking after and supporting the City — the financial services and big international companies which have close links to government.

If you have any interest in church bells, then the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is a shrine

It has never been much interested, as German government has been, in the warp and weft of what small-scale manufacturing contributes to the pattern of national employment, the local economy, and to the development of the hand skills of making. This is why we have allowed the industrial north to collapse without paying much attention to it until it has begun to cause political problems.

You could say, as some commentators have, including the officers and chief executive of Historic England, whose statutory duty it is to look after the historic environment: what does it matter? Old companies die every day if they are not able to adapt to new circumstances.

When the issue of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry came to be discussed by the London Advisory Committee of Historic England for the first time on 2 February 2017 (it has never been discussed by its Commissioners), no objections were apparently raised to a change of use. It is possible, however, that the minutes, as is the way of minutes, conceal the reality of the feelings of members of the committee to the fact that “loss of bell production on this site represented the end of a tradition of London’s ‘back garden’ industries”.

Manoeuvering one of twelve bells made at Whitechapel into the church of St Magnus the Martyr, one of Wren’s London churches

Mike Dunn, the Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas, who presented the evidence on behalf of Historic England, is said to have argued that the building which the Bell Foundry occupied was constructed on the site of an old pub, the Artichoke, and so it would not really matter if it was turned into a pub once again, even though this change happened in the 1740s.

The big problem which should have been evident at the time to Historic England, and may have been to some of its advisers, is that the great historical interest of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry does not lie just in its built fabric, the bricks and mortar of an early eighteenth-century building, which the great architectural historian, John Summerson, described in the appendix to Georgian London as “the most remarkable group of its kind in London”.

It is at least as much the way that the building kept alive a tradition of small-scale manufacturing in London with a sense of its continuity, still operating in a way which looked late medieval, with craft skills handed down from generation to generation.

We tend to think of industrialisation as being a function of big industry in the north like the textile mills, but the prosperity of Britain was built as much from small-scale manufacturing and technical innovation in workshops as it was in factories. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was an extraordinary and deeply moving survival of this form of workshop production. Historic England should have recognised that the contents of what happened in the Bell Foundry was as interesting as its shell and made strenuous efforts to preserve it as an exceptional example of industrial heritage.

Just as the bell symbolising American democracy was cast in Whitechapel, so too were the bells of Big Ben

It was not just that it was a survival of small-scale manufacturing. It was also the place where nearly all the major bells in British churches were cast. For example, there is a surviving agreement dated 8 July 1709 for the supply of clock bells to St Paul’s. When it was discovered not long afterwards that the timber campanile of the Palace of Westminster was in a bad state of repair, its bell, known as Great Tom of Westminster, was given to St Paul’s. When it fell off a wagon on its way there, it was recast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Richard Phelps, who ran the foundry from 1700 to August 1738, cast 350 recorded church bells. In 1810, the then owner of the foundry, Thomas Mears, produced an advertisement for the firm in which he listed all the bells cast at the foundry since 1738, nearly 2,000 in total, including bells for St Mary-le-Bow in 1738, St Petersburg in 1747, and Christ Church, Philadelphia, in 1754. If you have any interest in church bells, then the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is a shrine.

In 1752, it was the foundry, then known as Lester and Pack after its owners Thomas Lester and Thomas Pack, which cast the Liberty Bell, commissioned by the State of Pennsylvania to celebrate the anniversary of William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Independence at a cost of £150 13s 8d. There is no bell in the world which is so symbolically redolent. It is inscribed with the words “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof”, was rung on 8 July 1776 to mark independence, and is now housed in the Liberty Bell Center, a place of American pilgrimage.

Just as the bell symbolising American democracy was cast in Whitechapel, so too were the bells of Big Ben. Big Ben itself is the largest single bell ever cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, and its template surrounded the entrance to the Foundry to commemorate it. It was transported from Whitechapel to Westminster on a trolley drawn by 16 horses, surrounded by cheering crowds, before being rung for the first time in May 1859.

The foundry occupied one of a remarkable group of early eighteenth century buildings in Whitechapel High Street from the 1740s to 2017

If Historic England was not alert to the significance of the Bell Foundry, or inclined to discount it, plenty of others were. I first visited it on 25 February 2017 and was overwhelmed by its interest, the way it had retained such a powerful sense of historic continuity, more so than comparable historic sites like Blist’s Hill at Ironbridge or Styal Mill in Lancashire, because it was a living, working operation, still intact. I was taken round by Mark Backhouse, the foundry manager, who spoke with passion of the accumulated expertise in the manufacture of bells — the specialist craft skills trained up generation after generation.

On 11 March 2017, a consortium of heritage agencies, including Save, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Monuments (SPAB), the East End Preservation Society and the Spitalfields Trust wrote to The Times to register their “very serious concerns about the imminent loss of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. We are calling on Historic England to ensure the buildings are listed at Grade I, in recognition of their national and international significance.”

It feels uncomfortable to have a luxury boutique hotel built right next door to the Whitechapel mosque

At the same time, the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust (UKHBPT) made an offer to the Hughes family to keep the foundry in operation, following the model of Middleport Pottery, which it had developed in Stoke-on-Trent, keeping the existing system of manufacture by, on the one hand, making it more commercial and, on the other, attracting public funds to maintain the historic fabric of the buildings. The trust wrote to The Times pledging that “all the archives, fixtures and fittings would be retained in their original place”. Five thousand people signed a petition in support. The offer was turned down. The fixtures and fittings were sold in April 2017.

Meanwhile, Bippy Siegal, the developer, had decided to use 31/44 Architects, whom he had employed for a Shoreditch hotel development, Redchurch Townhouse, to design a large boutique hotel on the foundry site which would involve the demolition of the industrial building added at the back in the early 1980s and convert the original workshops into a café/bar to be run by a company, the Major Food Group, which is widely regarded as having butchered the Seagram Building in New York.

He persuaded the Hughes family that he would continue to use the front of the house as a small shrine to the history of the bell foundry. If one thinks that the future of Whitechapel lies in upmarket tourism, then it is not a terrible scheme. But it feels very uncomfortable to have a luxury boutique hotel with a swimming pool on its roof built right next door to the Whitechapel mosque. It emasculates the original working spaces of the bell foundry and converts them from being spaces of industrial labour to spaces of post-industrial leisure. The sound of the hammer will be replaced by the froth of the cappuccino machine.

An alternative, completely different proposal has been put forward by Re-Form, the conservation charity which has grown out of the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust. Re-Form has been working with Factum Foundation, the charitable arm of Factum Arte, a company in Madrid which works closely with many of the world’s leading contemporary artists in making art, using both traditional craft skills and new technology.

It had become a big conservation battle, equivalent to the loss of the Euston Arch or the saving of the St Pancras Station

Factum Arte have the knowledge, skills and expertise to take over the bell foundry and to run it commercially, not just making church bells but working with artists. The great benefit of what Re-Form have proposed is that it would keep the foundry as a foundry. They would employ the previous foreman, Nigel Taylor, to reinstate as much of the foundry as was.

By the summer of 2018, there was a stand-off between these two proposals: on the one hand, an international venture capitalist investing in a boutique hotel; on the other hand, a proposal to keep the bell foundry intact. Feelings ran high, partly because it is felt to be so inappropriate to have a luxury hotel next to the Whitechapel mosque; partly because of the symbolism that the company which made the bells of Big Ben had been allowed to go out of business after five centuries; and because campanologists throughout the world were up in arms.

Ben Kipling uses an industrial lathe to tune a bell destined for the church of St Magnus the Martyr as works manager Mark Backhouse looks on

Anyone with an interest in conservation, campanology or the urban fabric of Whitechapel was dismayed. It had become a big conservation battle, equivalent to the loss of the Euston Arch or the saving of the St Pancras Station, a symbol of the way Britain’s old buildings have been sold off and destroyed by vulture capitalists.

Possibly encouraged by the fact that they were paid by the development agency established by Bippy Siegal, Raycliff Capital, for pre-application advice, Historic England has consistently supported the hotel scheme. There is an obvious weakness in the current planning system, now about to be dismantled. For good reason, developers are encouraged to approach the planning authorities in advance of any public hearing and now pay for this advice. However, once the advice has been given, it obviously becomes much harder for the authorities to object to whatever is proposed, providing the advice has been followed.

On 14 November 2019, Raycliff’s plans went to the planning committee at Tower Hamlets. They were approved by the single casting vote of its chairman. But there was an outcry, because it was obvious that by now the issue as to whether or not the Bell Foundry was preserved had become an issue of not simply local, but national and even international concern. A fortnight later, Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, in the middle of a general election, wrote to Tower Hamlets informing them that he was calling in the planning application, pending a public enquiry, which was due to start at the beginning of this month.

The final decision as to whether the Whitechapel Bell Foundry should be saved as a working entity or converted into a boutique hotel will hinge on whether or not it is legitimate for Tower Hamlets to allow change of use. So, the question will be, did the existing owners make any efforts to protect and preserve its original use? Did they explore other options besides its conversion into a boutique hotel? Is keeping a little shrine to bell-making in the front of the building sufficient to justify the demolition of the back of the building and the conversion of the bulk of the workshop into a themed café, with the old equipment of the bell foundry hung on its walls? The answer must surely be no.

Re-Form and Factum Arte have demonstrated through a detailed business plan that it is perfectly possible to retain and preserve a working foundry on the existing site, keeping many of the existing working practices, employing some of those who previously worked there, making church bells using new technology, and allowing the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to evolve. It should not be dismantled and scrapped, turned into an ersatz simulacrum of what it once was, losing forever an incomparably valuable relic of British history.

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