Almost nothing gets made in London these days except money, but there’s one notable exception, tucked away on a nondescript corner in the East End. Here, across from a Starbucks and the Islamic Bank of Britain, is the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, birthplace of the world’s most famous bells.
A bright yellow door doesn’t give much away, except that when you step through it, you’re actually stepping through a cross-section of the hour bell of the Great Clock of Westminster, more commonly known as Big Ben. (It’s an awkwardly shaped bell, the people at Whitechapel will tell you, as if talking about a particularly backward but successful child.) The bells of St. Clement’s, with their oranges and lemons, were cast here as well, only a few metres from the hustle of Whitechapel Road.
Established in 1570, the bell foundry is the oldest manufacturer in Britain. Never mind history, though. The furnaces and forges are working at full heat these days, because suddenly everyone wants a bell. Especially a giant one.
Between now and the beginning of summer, the foundry will turn out eight bells, each named after a member of the Royal Family, which will accompany the Queen during her Diamond Jubilee river pageant in June. Then there’s the big kahuna, the largest harmonically tuned bell in Europe, a 23,000-kilogram monster that will be struck at the beginning of the Olympics opening ceremony on July 27.
“It’s a big year for bells,” says Kathryn Hughes, sitting in the office of the foundry her husband’s family has owned since 1886. “Bless the Queen, and the Olympics.” On the floor, a stuffed cat sits beside an electric fire – this part of London is a smoke-free zone, and the forge uses smokeless coal. In this wooden-roofed former coaching inn, past and present flow together like the copper and tin that blend to make the bells: Brussels regulations meet medieval technology.
A few steps away is the foundry itself, where it’s both unsettling and heartening to discover that the world’s most famous bells, which ring to the glory of God, all start out as a pile of poo. “This is sand, clay, goat hair and manure, mixed with water,” says the foundry’s manager, Mark Backhouse, pointing to a hillock of black goo that one of his workers is shaping into a vaguely bell-like shape. Once dried in a furnace, it will form the loam mould; a larger bell-shaped box will be placed outside the mould, and molten metal (one-third tin and two-thirds copper) will be poured inside to form the bell.
A hundred years ago, the tin might have come from Cornwall; now it’s shipped from South America. A hundred years is an eye-blink for a church bell. “That one,” Mr. Backhouse says, pointing to a bell that’s been sent to the foundry for retuning, “is from the 1300s.” To ensure the clapper doesn’t always hit them in the same place, church bells are rotated every 150 years or so – like a mattress, only heavier.
“This one will last forever,” he says, slapping a new-looking bell the size of a small cow that’s sitting on the foundry’s dusty floor. Only when you see that the bell is printed with the royal coat of arms does it seem like an act of lèse majesté. This is Elizabeth, at 500 kilograms the largest of the peal, or set of bells, that will lead the elaborate Thames river pageant to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Nit-pickers note: The smallest of the eight bells is called Henry, which is of course Prince Harry’s given name. “He’ll ring first,” says Mr. Backhouse. “But she gets the last word.”
Soon, the foundry will turn its attention to its largest-ever project, the casting of the bell for the Olympics opening ceremony. It’s all very hush-hush at the moment, except for the fact that it will be the largest of its kind in Europe, at two metres by three metres and weighing 23 tonnes. (Those are the official Olympics figures; the foundry shuns metric, and still measures in hundredweights). It will be inscribed with a line from The Tempest: “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises.”
That commission is on top of the regular complement of bells the foundry makes – for schools, town criers, ships, and to shoo drunks from pubs at the end of the night. A set of hand bells for the Chapel Royal of the Mohawks in Deseronto, Ont., is also being crafted. “When you sit down and think about it,” says Ms. Hughes, “it’s phenomenal what this tiny place has produced.”
The bells are at once incredibly resilient and bone-fragile; hit them the wrong way with a hammer and they’ll crack or shatter. The Liberty Bell, forged here in 1752, has a rather famous rift. (“Cracked in transit,” says Mr. Backhouse. “That’s our story and we’re sticking to it.”) Less well known is the fact that Big Ben is also cracked, which gives it its world-famous vibrating tone. That noise sets bell people’s ears ringing, and not in a good way: Big Ben was oddly shaped when it was cast in 1858, at the government’s instructions, and was never tuned.
These days, once a church bell is cast and polished, it’s put on an electric turntable to be tuned. Each bell is shaped to sound five different notes together as a chord; the bell-tuner’s job is to mill the inside of the bell until it achieves those five notes. Church bells in England are rung in complicated, distinctive patterns in an art called change ringing, which is taken very seriously by all who practise it.
Change ringing is also performed in former British colonies, including Canada, in churches like St. James’s Cathedral in Toronto. (St. James’s was the first church in North America to have a peal of 12 bells, which came from the Whitechapel foundry.) The society of bell-ringers – who have their own 100-year-old journal, The Ringing World – is small, close-knit, and by some accounts tetchy.
Many ringers are therefore not pleased with Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed’s upcoming Project 1197: All the Bells. Mr. Creed’s idea is that on the morning of July 27, the start of the Olympics, all the bells in Britain should be rung as fast and furiously as possible for three minutes – church bells, bike bells, last-call bells, school bells.
This, for some change-ringers, is vulgarity in a bell-tower. But Mr. Creed’s project highlights just how important the sound of bells is to the British soul. As Ms. Hughes notes, one of the first things that settlers fleeing religious persecution in Britain did was build a church with bells, to remind them of home.