Not saved by the bell: Whitechapel Bell Foundry plan approved despite anger

Artists impression of development – the view from Fieldgate Street towards its junction with Whitechapel Road looking south Pic: Raycliff Whitechapel

Plans to transform the five-hundred-year-old Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a boutique hotel and multi-purpose space were approved last night despite strong opposition from local residents.

Raycliff Whitechapel, who bought the site in 2017 after the Foundry closed will now repurpose the historic site to include a hotel, café, artist studios, workshops by AB Fine Art, and a small-scale bell casting space by Midlands based foundry company the Westley Group.

The spaces, excluding the hotel, will be free to the public during working hours and one day on the weekend.

Pic: Carlotta Luke,
Whitechapel Bell Foundry 1991. Pic: Carlotta Luke

The controversial plans, split Tower Hamlets Development Committee and the plan was passed by casting vote of the Chair, Councillor Abdul Mukit.

Residents who attended the meeting have condemned the decision and are expected to appeal. Outside the meeting, Stephanie Brann, 69, from Hackney, told Eastlondonlines: “It’s absolutely devastating.” She added: This building belongs to everyone, not just Tower Hamlets Council,” ringing her handbell loudly for emphasis.

David Miller, 77, who grew up down the road from the foundry on Wilkes Street, told Eastlondonlines: “Simply, I’m p*ssed off. It’s disgraceful.”

The supporters of the proposal argued that 185 jobs will be created. Will Burgess, the architect of the proposal, suggested that in the foundry’s hey-day there were only 24 employees, two of which were from Tower Hamlets.

Burgess said at the meeting: “This will give the site a national significance with a global presence.” His comment was met by laughter from the public gallery.

Members of the campaign Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry disputed the developer’s intentions.  

Sufia Alam, Maryam Centre Manager at the East London Mosque Trust, told Eastlondonlines: “It will remain in the consciousness of everyone who voted against the Bell foundry usage when in time they will see the reality that this proposal by Raycliff doesn’t serve the community rather it is targeted at a different audience altogether….It’s going to create a them and us for sure.…money before people!”

Campaigners last Saturday on Whitechapel Road Pic: Gina Gambetta

Councillor Ehtasham Haque said at the meeting: “Stop this heritage vandalism.”

The foundry was Britain’s oldest continuous business and many of history’s great bells, including, Big Ben, the Liberty Bell, and Bow Bells were cast there.

During the meeting, Christina Gawne, the committee’s Planning Officer, explained that the application had ensured the site’s optimum viable use, and was superior to the proposal by United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust and the Factum Foundation for a fully functioning foundry.

Gawne said: “Whitechapel is now Zone 1 London, five hundred years ago it was outside the city walls and very deprived. You have to accept change.”

Clare Wood, Chief Executive of UKHBPT, told Eastlondonlines: “The Committee seems to have been swayed by the developer’s sketches… their decision seemingly based on a few unrealistic visualisations. The heart and soul of the building and its reason for being will be gone. Instead of being a revitalised place of pilgrimage of global interest and a huge boost to the local economy it will be another boutique hotel of no interest to anyone but its transient clientele.”

The proposal was supported by National Planning Policy Framework, Historic England, and the previous owners.

Despite this outcome, the Save the Whitechapel Bell campaign is not over.

Pic: Carlotta Luke,
Whitechapel Bell Foundry 1991. Pic: Carlotta Luke

Ehtasham told EastlondonLines: “We will ask the Secretary of State for culture to call it in and ensure that the government intervene and saves such precious heritage that we have. We are talking about losing an iconic landmark that identified and we will not give up.”

Jill Watson from The East End Preservation Society told Eastlondonlines: “I’m gutted, but we’ll keep fighting.”

Raycliff Whitechapel did not respond to requests for comment.

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