Get bell soon: workshop demonstrates ancient craft to save historic foundry

The mould after molten bronze was poured in. Pic. Rachel Ferriman.

Bell making is one of the oldest crafts in Britain, with a process that has essentially remained unchanged since the 12th century. However, its future has been uncertain following the closure in June 2017 of one of the only remaining foundries, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in business there for 250 years and where Big Ben and other famous bells were created

So for one night only, blending techniques dating back to the Middle Ages with modern cutting-edge technology, Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry campaigners worked in collaboration with one of Britain’s leading architectural schools, The Bartlett at University College, London, to prove that bell making is still a practical and necessary craft and the historic foundry must not be lost.

The Factum Foundation, UK Historic Buildings Preservation Trust, Andrew Lacey, a historical casting expert, and Peter Scully, the technical director of Bartlett Manufacturing and Design Exchange, worked together to facilitate a bell casting workshop and demonstration at the Bartlett’s B-made workshop, in Hackney Wick.

Attendees examining the old bells. Pic. Rachel Ferriman.

Lacey told Eastlondonlines: “When we lose an institution such as the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, not only is there a loss to the fabric of the East End but also the international community of makers, artists and scholars. The WBF represents our collective, cultural and intellectual inheritance and when this is sold off, we must act.”

Scully and a team of students cast two six-kilogram bells, merging modern ceramic shell technology and traditional wax patterns.

The process involved wax positive being coated in ceramic slurry which was then fired in a kiln to create a mould. Molten bronze was poured into the mould, where it cooled to create the bell itself. The bells will now be turned and engraved by seven axis robotic arms.

Lacey told Eastlondonlines: “For the bell foundry not just to survive but flourish, it must embrace the best of modern technology to transform the historic casting of great bells into a sustainable future.”

Alongside the workshop, Scully gave a talk about the lack of meaningful apprenticeships available in the creative industries. And he stressed the importance of places like UCL working with local communities.

Last week, Eastlondonlines reported that Robert Jenrick, Minister for Housing, Development and Local Communities, had issued a holding direction on Tower Hamlets Development Committee’s controversial decision to approve plans by new owners Raycliff Whitechapel’s to turn the historic building transformed into a boutique hotel.

Peter Scully giving his talk. Pic. Rachel Ferriman

The event aimed to show that UKHBPT’s and the Factum Foundation’s alternative proposal of keeping the site as a full functioning foundry, offering jobs and apprenticeships to the people of Tower Hamlets, was a better strategy than the one approved by the council.

Adam Lowe, Founder of Factum Foundry, told Eastlondonlines: “The casting of bells at the Bartlett is an important statement about bell making and education…The UKHBPT and Factum Foundation are determined to demonstrate that bell making is not only viable but it is part of a wider application of technology to create an archive of 3D and acoustic recordings of bells that will work alongside the foundry to preserve bells, human skills and historic casting methods.”

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