Campaigners fight to save historic bell foundry site

The campaigners marching to save the foundry Pic: Gina Gambetta

Signs in hand and chanting “make bells not hotels”, campaigners made their final push on Saturday to halt plans to transform the historic former Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel.

Despite heavy rain, councillors, activists, and residents marched on Saturday from East London Mosque to the Foundry on Whitechapel Road, some carrying cardboard bells made by Jill Wilson from The East End Preservation Society.

The Foundary closed in 2017 and the site was bought by Raycliff Whitechapel, an American-based property development company. Raycliff propose to use some of the space as a new foundry, with the rest being used for a café, hotel, studio, and workshops.

Their application says these changes will ‘open it up to greater public access.’

However, campaigners are not convinced. Councillor Tarik Khan said: “If buildings like this are taken from the community, we’ll never get them back.”

The Foundry has a history dating back to the 1570s, which campaigners say made it Britain’s oldest continuously existing business. Many historic bells and symbols of freedom were manufactured there, including the Liberty Bell, Bow Bells, and Big Ben.

Stephen Clark, Trustee of the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust, told Eastlondonlines: “It is one of the most significant buildings in London, it is brand Britain, it would be vandalism to convert it into something else.”

Councillor Ehtasham Haque told Eastlondonlines: “Tower Hamlets is the third richest local authority … generated by corporations bulldozing through this community … this wealth has not translated into reducing poverty, housing or unemployment that defines the lives of the working class and BAME people in this area. Why should we trust another developer yet again with our precious heritage?”

Local residents believe the facilities will not be affordable or accessible to the community. Campaigners have also argued that the foundry business does not need to be sidelined.

Since it was closed in 2017, UKHBPT and its partner the Factum Foundation, a conservation not-for-profit, have been proposing to buy the foundry, keeping its original function, and providing contemporary and skilled jobs and apprenticeships for the community.

Clark told Eastlondonlines: “What the Foundry needs is new management and new investment, not to be closed down. The tragedy is Historic England have not woken up to the importance of the heritage asset and business … it’s not just windows and walls.”

Sufia Alam, Maryam Centre Manager at the East London Mosque Trust, told Eastlondonlines: “The Mayor of Tower Hamlets and the planning committee need to think outside the box and give opportunity for a real employment prospective.”

The campaign has highlighted the potential for unity within the community.

A Tower Hamlets blogger known as ‘The Gentle Author’ said: “People have met in mosques and churches, in a campaign that has brought together diverse communities for the first time in a shared desire to save our collective cultural heritage.”

The council planning committee will decide on the fate of the foundry on Thursday. Haque alleged this timing is “intentional” as many Tower Hamlets politicians, activists, and residents are busy with the upcoming General Election.

But even if the plans are approved, it is clear that campaigners will appeal.

A Tower Hamlets Council spokesperson told Eastlondonlines: “The history of any site subject to a planning application is considered carefully with input from specialist heritage officers. Where a decision to grant planning permission is made, the council works closely with developers to ensure that any relevant conditions are adhered to.”

Raycliff Whitechapel had not responded to requests for comment at time of publication.

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