Fender, Steinway, Stradivarius. All world famous musical instrument producers, master craftsmen and leaving a legacy of joy in the world every day. But, I’m willing to bet that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry are the most quietly famous of all these acclaimed companies, and the heritage inscribed through the daily pealing tolls could last much, much longer.
England simply wouldn’t be England without the bells ringing from Church Towers, without a comforting cup of tea in any stressful situation, and arguments over whether scones are pronounced ‘scon’ or ‘scohne’. When deciding to ‘find’ all of the East End Churches in the children’s rhyme Oranges and Lemons, I didn’t quite expect to find myself a year and a half later, standing in one of the coolest workshops I’ve ever been in.
Established in 1507 (and possibly much earlier in another part of London), the Whitechapel Bell Foundry has so far produced the iconic Big Ben (1709), the Liberty Bell (1752) now living in Philedelphia, and most recently the special commission of the bell rung at the opening ceremony of the Olympics. How English can you get?
The tour is rather sought after, and is a strange but fun mixture of history, chemistry, anecdotes and sheer wonder. We were taken around the quiet workshop (they obviously can’t have people wandering around during the working week much to my disappointment) by the Managing Director who has worked for the family company for 47.5 years. It’s safe to say he knows a thing or two. The bells they are producing are immense, ranging from up to my shoulder, to handbells that you can fit fully in the palm of your hand.
Make no mistake, this is a proper, working foundry. Full of heavy duty equipment (the biggest bell they can produce is an 8-tonner), metal, molds, bricks, and blokey jokes, it’s not somewhere for the faint hearted, but perfect for any one that has a fascination for the unusual, and the historical.
There are SO many geeky facts I want to share with you, but I’m not going to. You need to go visit yourself. It’s something you need to book ahead (hence why it took me so long to arrange it, plus procrastination came very much into play) but is totally worth it.
They have several workshops that you are taken through – the main metal forge, the testing area, the carpentry workshop, the handbell casting workshop and the handbell finishing area.
The company motto – “Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it.” In 30+ languages, just in case there was any uncertainty.
They even have a cute kiddies area next to the exit & ubiquitous gift shop.
“Oranges and Lemons” say the bells of St Clement’s.
“Bull’s eyes and targets” say the bells of St Margaret’s.
“Pokers and tongs” say the bells of St John’s.
“Pancakes and fritters” say the bells of St Peter’s.
“Two sticks and an apple” say the bells of Whitechapel.
“Old Father Baldpate” say the slow bells of Aldgate.
“Maids in white aprons ” say the bells of St Katharine’s.
“Brickbats and tiles” say the bells of St Giles’.
“Kettles and pans” say the bells of St Anne’s.
“You owe me five farthings” say the bells of St Martin’s.
“When will you pay me?” say the bells of Old Bailey.
“When I grow rich” say the bells of Shoreditch.
“Pray when will that be?” say the bells of Stepney.
“I’m sure I don’t know” says the great bell of
Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Chip chop, chip chop, the last man’s dead.
It’s tough to trace back the origins of the phrase “Two Sticks and an Apple” but it may be thought that the foundry produced hand bells – similar in shape to toffee apples – could be a connection. Also, the transportation of bells to other parts of London drew great crowds and the atmosphere was similar to that of a fair where of course toffee apples were traditionally eaten.
Walking through the Foundry, you’re in rather good past company. The Queen & HRH Prince Phillip in fact.
If you want to book, check out their Whitechapel Bell Foundry website.
Did you sing Oranges as Lemons as a Child like we did? Did you know the origins of the rhyme?