The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is officially Britain's oldest manufacturing company: it's been in business continually since 1570. But it's thought to go back even further, all the way back to Master Founder Robert Chamberlain. The foundry has an unbroken history in Aldgate and Whitechapel that runs back to 1420 (during the reign of Henry V). They made Big Ben. the first Liberty Bell, the clock bells in St Paul's Cathedral, ten bells for Westminster Abbey, and the birthday bell for the Smithsonian.

Big Ben, cast in 1858, is the biggest bell ever made at Whitechapel--it weighs in at 13 and a half tons. There's a cross-section of the bell over the doorway.

They are still in business, making bells, and bell fittings, and performing repairs. They make bells for change ringing in church towers (see Dorothy L. Sayers' book The Nine Tailors for one of the most accessible explanations of the mathematical patterns of this music}, hand bells, and single tolling bells, as well as the frame works and clappers and all the other associated bits and pieces needed. They've been exporting bells since early on, sending sets out to St Petersburg in 1747, and to Philadelphia in 1754 (the first set of change ringing bells to be sent across the Atlantic).

The whole American tradition of English handbell ringing comes from Whitechapel handbells (originally for practicing and learning the patterns of change ringing). A set was given to Margaret Nicholls by the General Manager of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, in 1902 after she had successfully rung two handbell peals on a trip to England from Boston.

The current Foundry buildings go back to 1670, replacing buildings lost in the Great Fire of London four years earlier.

They leased the old coaching inn, the Artichoke, across the road on the south side of Whitechapel Road, which was big enough to accomodate the need for extra workshops and space during a time of great expansion in bellfounding. It's been there ever since, despite the impact of the blitz, and all the recent developments in the area. Unlike the nearby Church of St Mary (the white chapel that gave the area its name) it wasn't touched by the bombing. The only change the War brought was a cessation to bellmaking: they switched to making armaments work for the Ministry of Defence. Post-War, though, they were busy replacing bells that had been damaged and destroyed, including the bells of St. Mary le Bow and St. Clement Danes (of the Oranges and Lemons nursery rhyme). It's a listed building now, and can't be changed.

Walking past it on the way to the tube station each morning, I cross my fingers, hoping that the main doors in the casting room are open, so I can see the huge molds, the glow of molten metal, and the flying sparks that fly through the air as the bells are perfected.

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