The government has approved plans for American developers to turn the 450-year-old bell foundry that cast Big Ben into a boutique hotel.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in east London has made some of the most famous bells in history, including those in St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the original Liberty Bell – an icon of American independence.
The site is steeped in local history, having survived the Blitz, made new bells for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and 2012 Olympics and for St Mary-le-Bow church. London folklore dictates that you can only be a true Cockney if you were born within earshot of its ‘Bow Bells’.
But there was outrage in 2017 when the premises were sold to an American financier who announced plans to turn the site into a luxury 108-room six-storey hotel complete with private members’ club and roof-top pool.
Campaigners said the development would ‘destroy any future’ for the site as a ‘working foundry’, and reduce centuries of history to a ‘side-show for tourists in a quirky bell-themed hotel.’
Now, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities & Local Government has granted planning permission – spelling the end of the business with a history spanning back to the Tudor-era.
It comes after a public inquiry into the plans was held in October last year, after which Paul Griffith, the Inspector, submitted a report to the Secretary of State.
The decision document revealed the Secretary of State agreed ‘physical changes to the listed building will cause a degree of harm to the special architectural and historic interest’, but said ultimately the harm is outweighed by the benefits.
Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, a campaign group, tweeted: ‘The Secretary of State’s decision to approve the bell-themed boutique hotel destroys the possibility of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry ever having a future as a fully working foundry.’
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry: The historic family business closed after manufacturing bells for centuries
The architect’s plans to revamp the site of the Grade II-listed bell foundry in east London, including a boutique hotel
An Engraving taken from the Illustrated London News depicting Big Ben in 1856
Campaigners said the development would ‘destroy any future’ for the site as a ‘working foundry’, and reduce centuries of history to a ‘side-show for tourists in a quirky bell-themed hotel.’ Pictured, Campaigners ring hand bells in protest ahead of a meeting with Tower Hamlets Council’s planning committee in 2019, to either approve or refuse a planning application to redevelop the former Whitechapel Bell Foundry site
Her Majesty waves to the public as she leaves the Whitechapel Bell Foundry with Prince Philip following a visit in 2009
The Queen watches as a bell is cast from molten metal during a tour of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 2009
Pouring bell metal from a ladle into the shape of ‘Luke’, one of the four bells being cast for Liverpool’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in 1965
Nigel Taylor casting a bell for St James Garlickhythe inside the foundry. The bell was one of the Queen’s Jubilee Bells in 2012
WHITECHAPEL’S FAMOUS BELLS
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry has made some of the most famous bells in history, including:
The original Liberty Bell (1752)
The Great Bell of Montreal Cathedral (1843)
Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster (1858)
The clock bells in St Paul’s Cathedral, London (1709)
Westminster Abbey bells (1971)
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in East London was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the country’s oldest manufacturing company, having been established in 1570 during the reign of Elizabeth I.
The foundry also produced the bells of St Clement’s, which feature in the much-loved nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons.
When the furnace went out in 2017, it was brought for £7.9m by Raycliff, a US private investment group which submitted plans in 2018 to transform the foundry into a hotel.
The proposals include refurbishing part of the Grade II listed building to create workshops and a café.
But the scheme met fierce criticism from community groups, including members of the Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry Group, which branded the project ‘historical vandalism’.
More than 780 people formally objected to the plans and two petitions were signed by more than 20,000.
The campaign to save the bell-making site was also supported by high profile figures including the artist Sir Antony Gormley, historians Tristram Hunt and Dan Cruickshank, alongside the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust (UKHBPT) and Factum Foundation.
The Secretary of State issued a holding direction to enable the plans ‘to be considered further’ in 2019, but has now approved the scheme.
It means building work at the foundry will be able to begin.
Campaigners have revealed they are ‘disappointed’ with the decision, with Clare Wood, Chief Executive of Re-Form Heritage saying: ‘The Secretary of State’s decision comes as a huge disappointment to all those who have fought to see this historic site continue in its role as an internationally renowned foundry.
‘There is no comfort to be gained from this decision, which will see irreversible damage to an internationally renowned Grade II* listed site.
‘Nonetheless, without our collective efforts, the site and its traditions stretching back over 400 years would have been lost without a whimper. An important national debate has taken place. We can only hope that the inquiry is a wakeup call to prevent such losses in the future.’
The Secretary of State issued a holding direction to enable the plans ‘to be considered further’ in 2019, but has now approved the scheme. Pictured, Save the Whitechapel Foundry’s reaction
As the government revealed its decision, desperate history-lovers reacted with bitter disappointment online
King George V with Queen Mary (right) and Princess Mary (left) during a visit to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1919
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry makes and repairs clock and tower bells and fulfilling orders from all over the world. Pictured, a staff member working inside the foundry in 1919
Adam Lowe, founder of Factum Foundation said it was ‘with great sadness’ the site would be ‘subsumed into a bland hotel’.
He added: ‘The decision overlooks Factum Foundation’s commitment to establish on the site a financially viable, modern foundry building upon our extensive expertise in artistic casting and it ignores the operational experience of Re-Form Heritage at its other heritage sites and the proven benefits such operations bring to the broader community.
‘We wish to thank everyone who supported our campaign and saw more relevance in revitalising the Whitechapel Bell Foundry than turning it into yet another boutique hotel.’
Last year, Stephen Clarke, a UKHBPT trustee, said: ‘The Secretary of State is alive to the fact that this is a very important heritage asset. There is an awful lot of public support for the concept of retaining a working foundry in Whitechapel.’
The trust said they ‘were faced with cultural vandalism on a great scale’ as it described the bells made in Whitechapel as ‘the most important intangible cultural heritage’ and ‘of international significance’.
The financier’s plans were backed by former owner Alan Hughes whose family had owned the foundry since 1904.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry passed through various owners until, in 1904, it was acquired by the Hughes family.
Mr Hughes said a combination of falling demand for church bells, regulations on emissions and a projected £500,000 bill for rewiring all played a part in its closure.
Having passed retirement age, he said his children had no desire to take it on so decided to call it a day.
As the government revealed its decision, desperate history-lovers reacted with bitter disappointment online.
One said: ”Never send to know for whom the bell tolls…’ Today it tolls for the Whitechapel Bell Factory. I’m heartbroken. But thanks to everyone who tried to save our industrial heritage.’
Another added: ‘This government has no appreciation of any heritage unless it can be monetised. It’s a sad day indeed. So many bells throughout the land were cast at the foundry. They should all toll the death knell in unison.’
One wrote: ‘A truly sad decision to allow a new hotel instead of saving the foundry that cast Big Ben and so many other historic bells.’
MailOnline has contacted the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government for comment.
The Great Peter of York bell cast by Charles and George Mears at the Bell Foundry in 1845. It shows two workmen on the right struggling with the large clapper, and a couple viewing the bell on the left
John Mackenzie tunes in one of the bells destined for the Cathedral in Washington DC at the foundry in Whitechapel
In 1919, King George V, Queen Mary (right) and Princess Mary (left) visited the Whitechapel Bell Foundry
The Queen and Prince Philip visited the foundry during a tour of east London businesses in 2009
Lloyd Names proudly displays his Miniature Liberty Bell – number 300 of only 2,400 cast by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 1969
Whitechapel Bell Foundry: Ringing in 500 years of history across the world
An entry in the Guinness Book of Records lists the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, having been established in 1570 (during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) and being in continuous business since that date.
Bell historian George Elphick did however trace a link back to Master Founder Robert Chamberlain, thus tracing an unbroken line of founders in Aldgate and Whitechapel back to the year 1420 (in the reign of Henry V, and 72 years before Columbus sailed for America).
Whitechapel’s famous bells include the original Liberty Bell (1752), the Great Bell of Montreal and, probably best known of all, Big Ben at the Palace of Westminster. Cast in 1858, this is the largest bell ever cast at Whitechapel, weighing 13½ tons. To this day, a cross-section of the bell surrounds the entrance door to the Foundry.
A set of bells was sent to St.Petersburg, Russia in 1747 and the first transatlantic change ringing peal was sent to Christ Church, Philadelphia in 1754.
Bells were also supplied to St.Michael’s, Charleston, South Carolina in 1764.
In 1964, Whitechapel provided the change ringing peal of 10 bells in a radial frame for the new National Cathedral in Washington DC, and in 1997 provided North America’s first change ringing peal of 12 bells to Toronto Cathedral.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry’s long history spans the reigns of twenty seven English monarchs, and among the royal visitors to the foundry were King George V and Queen Mary who came to witness the casting of two bells for Westminster Abbey.
The Foundry buildings date from 1670, four years after the Great Fire of London.
Originally built as a coaching inn called the Artichoke, the lease of the buildings was acquired by Thomas Lester – then Master Founder at Whitechapel – to accommodate the need for extra workshops and space during a time of great expansion in the craft of bellfounding.
During the war years, the Foundry ceased making bells, switching to manufacturing castings for the Ministry of War.