The owner of Whitechapel Bell Foundry has told EastLondonLines that campaigners objecting to the redevelopment of the site have “misled the public”.
The UK Heritage Building Preservation Trust (UKHBT), in their alliance with Factum Arte, have said that they want to restore the site to its original use as a bell foundry.
But Alan Hughes, the last owner of the foundry, says that campaigners’ plans do not include reinstating his company within its original buildings, as they have led the public to believe.
In fact, they want a modern, hi-tech bell manufacturing company to be run out of the site. This is because Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd. now produce their bells out of a separate foundry entirely, in another part of the country.
Hughes sold the premises to a developer in 2017, who doubled their profit when it was bought by New York-based developers Raycliff Capital.
Raycliff want to keep the original foundry building intact, and use the space to make castings for artistic sculptures. They want to open the building up to the public, including school trips, and will provide a café, in which a glass wall will allow visitors to watch on-going work. There will also be flexible studio spaces and affordable workshops provided by Anatole Notes and Studiomakers.
They also have released plans for a luxury 108-room hotel in place of the building’s 1980s extension and surrounding grounds. They intend to keep the original shell of the grade II-listed foundry building intact and say there will be a bell theme throughout the new hotel.
The plans are currently being considered by Tower Hamlets Council, but parts of the site’s existing car park had already been granted planning permission for a new hotel to be built, prior to the selling of the foundry.
Hughes, Marketing Director of Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd., told EastLondonLines: “We wish to put on record that they have our support for this development, and thank them for acknowledging our continued business and their willingness to celebrate our history within their development plan.”
Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs, told EastLondonLines: “The Whitechapel Bell Foundry site is subject to a live planning application. A decision on the current application for the site will be considered by the Council’s Development Committee in the coming weeks. As Executive Mayor I quite rightly do not have planning powers and it will be for the councillors on the Development Committee to decide, however I appreciate the community interest in this Grade II* listed building.
“I understand the new owner has submitted applications to refurbish and reuse the historic foundry for a mix of workspace, workshops and foundry uses, of which 45% will be offered as affordable workspace to Tower Hamlets residents first.”
Raycliff said of the plans: “[They] include the continuation of founding, boosting local established businesses and supporting the existing bell and art founding industry”.
Cllr. Ehtasham Haque, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, told EastLondonLines: ”The Whitechapel Bell Foundry site is one of the most precious gems for us in Tower Hamlets. We are an area of bizarre economic inequality; on one hand we are the third-richest local authority and on the other hand, we have one of the highest levels of deprivation and unemployment. The developers are responsible for creating this reality, they have not kept their promises in supporting the community as they bulldozed through making big towers. Why should we trust another corporate developer when we have a reputed charity backed by historians and artists to preserve our important historical asset?”
The foundry began in 1570, but has been in its current plot since 1738, when the Hughes family took over bell production and continued across four generations. It therefore stands as one of the oldest and most important bell foundries in the country. It cast the bell for Big Ben (1858) and the liberty bell in Philadelphia (1752), which symbolises the abolition of slavery, as well as bells for the London 2012 Olympics and the Royal Diamond Jubilee.
Carlotta Luke, a photographer who visited the site in 1991, told EastLondonLines: “The bell foundry was an incredible place to visit and to photograph. I remember wandering wherever I liked and photographing anything I wanted to. No one seemed to mind. The place felt so full of history – even the casting methods seemed ancient. You can see in one of my photographs the materials being used, which include sand, dung, hair and bone. It would be such a shame for the building to disappear, and all of this past with it. It is a link that goes back hundreds of years to a fascinating industry and a significant part of history, not just London history but worldwide. I am originally from the US and was so excited to learn that the Liberty Bell was cast here.”
The business itself will still be in existence, operating out of new premises in partnership with the Westley Group Ltd., based outside of Birmingham, one of the largest and most successful industrial founding companies in the UK. They will continue to produce tower bells under the license of Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd.
Whitechapel bell foundry said: “It is important to note that Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd (Established in 1570) continues in business, crucially retaining ownership of the pattern equipment, tooling and dies for the continued manufacture of its bells and other products.
“Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd has agreed to return many artifacts currently in store to the buildings on permanent loan to enhance the Raycliff plans.”
The Raycliff plans have the backing of Poplar-based AB Fine Art Foundry, one of Europe’s leading art foundries, who will use the site to provide teaching and training on casting for future apprentices and craft people.
WBF added: “Several former Whitechapel staff are involved in these ongoing activities, and the continuity of specialist skills is therefore ensured.”
A campaign, lead by the East End Preservation Society, has petitioned Tower Hamlets Council to reject the request for planning permission for the hotel. The 10,00-strong petition has a wide following, with famous names including sculptor Sir Anthony Gormley, art historian Dan Cruickshank and V&A director Tristan Hunt. Backing has also come from the Factum Foundation, who created a 3-D replica of the tomb of Pharo Seti I.
Dan Cruickshank, a TV historian, told EastLondonLines: “The world famous Whitechapel Foundry is a landmark – both for its splendid use and its fine historic buildings. Bells cast at the foundry have sounded in cities around the world for hundreds of years. For many, that sound represents the heart and soul of London, and in the case of Big Ben in the Palace of Westminster it is the sound of Freedom. The existing buildings deserve the highest level of recognition and protection as a unique and important part of our heritage.”
Members of the #SaveWhitechapelBellFoundry online campaign have urged the council to use a Compulsory Purchase Order, which allows the council to legally obtain ownership of the property without the consent of the current owners.
Biggs added: “As a response to objections made by the public to the recent planning applications, officers have investigated the potential for the council to use Compulsory Purchase Order powers for the site. Before a CPO is considered it has to meet requirements that the building is in some disrepair and that the owner is unwilling or unable to carry out the repairs or there is an objective for the site, which is not being met. They assessed at present there is no reason to serve a compulsory purchase and that any attempt would likely be challenged and fail.”
Many of the campaigners are sympathetic to the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust, who have voiced their own ideas of how the foundry could still be used to produce tower bells but with a newer, more modern approach.
Nigel Taylor, former bell tower production manager, told Church Times: “We will need to totally re-equip the premises, but this presents the opportunity to obtain modern equipment and to employ state-of-the-art moulding and casting techniques which produce a consistently higher quality than that attained with the traditional methods. Before this happens, the poor condition of the fabric of the existing buildings needs to be addressed.
“There is ample space. The offices can be adapted for website design, Internet sales, social media, computer-based work, and a communications department to advertise the revitalised foundry and its services.”
In June 2018, the UKHBT paired up with Factum Arte to examine the possibility of buying back the building and undertaking the extensive £8m restoration needed to continue its original purpose. The pair have released a proposal named ‘Saved by the bell’, which outlines their ideas for the “resurrection” of the foundry:
“Through this partnership, the WBF can again become a viable foundry that specialises in bells, but can also produce special edition artworks in bronze and other materials. Factum Foundation, with the UKHBPT, will refurbish, re- equip and renovate the foundry that has housed the WBF premises since 1739.
“This will be done preserving the Grade II* listed buildings, intact and serving their original purpose. The aim is to revive the Foundry and bring bell casting into the 21st century.”
Biggs added: “We await the decision of the Development Committee and it is right that this is considered through the appropriate planning processes.”
Alan Hughes’ comments were put to Factum and UKHBT but they had yet to respond at the time of publication.