If I were to tell you that there exists a bell foundry in London which has been making internationally respected pieces of astonishingly high craftsmanship since before Shakespeare had learned how to write, which had made Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, which worked to save and restore Britain during and after the Second World War, which remains fully operational as a discreet cultural Atlas in London’s East End, loved and cherished by countless people, offering apprenticeships and accessible industrial artisanry to generation after generation after generation; if I were to tell you that, I would be lying. Permission has now been given to destroy it.
There have been a number of articles as of late (too late, it transpires, to do any good) exploring the history and importance of the foundry, and a number of others damning the Secretary of State’s recent decision to give the thumbs up to proposals to irrevocably gut the foundry and replace it with a boutique hotel, coffee shop and freelance-workspace-hotdesking facilities (it will be bell-themed!). The developers are American multi-millionaire venture capitalist types. The story is so, so, heartbreakingly predictable, that you almost don’t need to read any more. I urge you to, however, for it is a fascinating (if bleakly depressing) story. The best two are the very recent piece from Hettie O’Brien in the Guardian, and of course Charles Saumarez Smith’s coverage of it for The Critic back in October (before it got trendy). I heartily recommend them, and will not re-step the ground they have covered.
This decision is a crime. A brutish act of narrow Philistinism that will rob all future generations of a unique living, human tradition that took almost five centuries to grow. It can never be regained once lost. It is an abhorrent betrayal of the legislative duty of care and responsibility which every level of government, from the most local to the supra-national, has to protect heritage and community and culture. I cannot understand how the government can grandstand over statues and plaques whilst allowing this astonishing, unprecedented survival to be killed by an American hospitality developer.
I am angry, and so, so sad. I am angry at Alan Hughes — his family had owned it since 1904, and he finally sold it to property speculators in 2017 without even publicly trying to find another foundry to take it on (a new concern, the London Bell Foundry, has been desperate to do so). Of course his heartbreak will be great at having failed so thoroughly to maintain his family legacy, but there is also a blind selfishness here. He took it on in the 70s, and under his guidance it has failed to navigate the (admittedly difficult) modern age and been steadily driven into the ground. Hughes would rather have it die on his terms, than live on someone else’s. His toy, not yours. Not anyone’s now. “The foundry was the people. And that has gone. And what you’re left with is an empty building” he claims — the foundry was 450 years old; unless their craftsmen were exceptionally long-lived it couldn’t possibly have just been “the people”. What he means is it was MY people. ME. The foundry was ME. Not YOU.
I am angry at Robert Jenrick, who is out of his depth and unqualified for the power he wields over heritage, who had the opportunity to do real good which would have had a genuine, important resonance with the working class communities of the area for generations to come. I am angry at Bippy Siegal, the rich American villain of the piece, with the psychopathic urge to appropriate and obliterate in worship of Mammon, and no care whatsoever for the local culture of the country he is exploiting and profiting from.
These losses cannot be replaced. With every passing year there is less and less to save
I am angry, perhaps most of all, at Abdul Mukit MBE. The Labour councillor who sits as chairman of the Tower Hamlets Planning Committee, and who had the deciding vote in making this decision in the first place. Too often we allow these committee members, the human beings who actually make the decisions, to go unnamed, with their disastrous, brutal crimes against community and heritage never penetrating the anonymous mask of “committee”. Mukit is responsible for unprecedented heritage destruction within Tower Hamlets. The Bethnal Green mulberry tree? Mukit. The reaving of Brick Lane for the abominable Old Truman Brewery Shopping Mall? Mukit. Time and again Abdul Mukit’s completely Labour run planning committee has been caught tearing the heart out of his borough, solely in the interests of private millionaires and gangster capitalists, and with no consequences to them whatsoever. Why?
Mukit leads, but who follows? The other five planning committee members, all Labour councillors, are Sufia Alam, Kahar Chowdhury, John Pierce, Dipa Das, and Leema Qureshi. Some of them sometimes vote wisely, but in the end the majority is always the same, and it always follows the opinions of Abdul Mukit MBE. This Planning Committee is directly behind more heritage destruction in Tower Hamlets than we’ve seen since the aftermath of the Second World War. It’s time we started naming them, and started asking why these red flag waving Labourites are so keen to prioritise multi-millionaires over their community. These identities are a matter of public fact, by the way – there is nothing clever or unethical about my saying as much. It’s on their website.
The carving up and decimating of London’s culture and built environment continues apace. I have already written about this alarming and widespread issue, which stems from a systemic flaw in the planning system and a severe lack of oversight for underqualified local councils (riddled with corruption and incompetence, every one). This is not a one off. Until we actively investigate and stop it, it will keep happening. These losses cannot be replaced. With every passing year there is less and less to save. Raise a glass and stay briefly silent tonight in remembrance of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It has been murdered. Your children will live in an emptier world because of it. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, for London, and for all of England.
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