Standing in the shadow of the East London Mosque in a modest Grand II listed premises on Whitechapel Road is Britain’s oldest manufacturer. As the mosque calls out for worshippers to attend their daily prayers this small factory continues to produce the bells used to call Christians to their place of worship, just as it has done since 1583.
The Church Bell Foundry to give it its formal name was established even earlier in 1570, although a firm link predates even this to 1420 when a Richard Chamberlain was known as a ‘bell-founder of Aldgate’.
[W]hen most heavy industry has left London this remarkable factory is still a family-owned and run company. Having produced some of the world’s great bells including Big Ben, America’s Liberty Bell and bells for what was at the time Russia’s new capital St. Petersburg and even today over 80 per cent of production is making church bells and associated accessories.
The premises date from 1670, just four years after the Great Fire of London, although this eastern end of the City was untouched by the conflagration. It is built on the site of an inn called the Artichoke whose cellars survive and are still used by the foundry today.
The building’s entrance is through a replica bell frame of the company most famous bell, needing 10.5 tons of molten copper mixed with 3 tons of tin “Big Ben” is still the largest bell ever made in London.
Originally the order for the 16-ton bell was given to another bell foundry; Warners of Cripplegate at their Norton factory near Stockton-on-Tees who cast the new bell in August 1856. It was transported by rail and sea to London, and on arrival at the Port of London, it was placed on a carriage and pulled across Westminster Bridge by 16 white horses. The bell was hung in New Palace Yard and it was tested each day until 17th October 1857 when a 4 foot crack appeared, but no-one would accept the blame. Theories included the composition of the bell’s metal or its dimensions. Warners blamed Edmund Denison, an abrasive lawyer who had designed the clock’s mechanism for insisting on increasing the hammer’s weight from 355kg to 660kg. Warners asked too high a price to break up and recast the bell so George Mears at the Whitechapel Foundry was appointed.
The bell was melted down and recast successfully by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry on 10th April 1858, and when finished it took 16 horses the best part of a day to haul the gigantic bell from Whitechapel to Parliament Square.
There are two theories about the origins of the name ‘Big Ben’: Around the time the clock was due to be completed, the prize fighter and publican Ben Caunt went 60 rounds with the best bare-knuckle boxer in the country, Nat Langham. The bout was declared a draw but it made both men national heroes. Ben Caunt was a huge man and one story has it that the great bell was named after him. The other story attributes the name to Benjamin Hall, the chief commissioner of works, who was addressing the House on the subject of a name for the new bell tower when, to great laughter, someone shouted ‘Call it Big Ben!’, but no record is to be found in Hansard of this remark.
When the time came to install the bell although this bell was 2.5 tonnes lighter than the first, its dimensions meant it was too large to fit up the Clock Tower’s shaft vertically so Big Ben was turned on its side and winched up. It took 30 hours to winch the bell to the belfry in October 1858. The four quarter bells, which chime on the quarter hour, were already in place.
Big Ben rang out on 11 July 1859 but its success was short-lived. In September 1859, the new bell also cracked and Big Ben was silent for four years. During this time, the hour was struck on the fourth quarter bell.
In 1863, a solution was found to Big Ben’s silence by Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal. Big Ben was turned by a quarter turn so the hammer struck a different spot; the hammer was replaced by a lighter version; and a small square was cut into the bell to prevent the crack from spreading
The total cost of making the clock and bells and installing them in the Clock Tower reached £22,000.
For more information about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry and details of the factory tours they offer visit their comprehensive site.
Parliamentary copyright of the depiction of Big Ben are reproduced with the permission of Parliament. Its incorporation on CabbieBlog does not infer authorisation for re-use of the image, nor should you adapt, alter or manipulate the image. You may not use the image so as to bring Parliament into disrepute or use it in a deliberately misleading context.