Another famous physical piece of Old London is about to disappear, it seems.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is to close, its owners have announced. The business has a long enough history to inspire genuine nostalgia. It was formed in 1570 and has occupied the present premises since 1738. The present owners, a family named Hughes, took it over in 1905.
The foundry is renowned for having produced the two most famous bells in the world: Big Ben, the 13-ton monster cast in 1858, which tolls the hours and quarter-hours at the top of St. Stephens Tower, overlooking the Houses of Parliament; and the famously cracked Liberty Bell, cast in 1752 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of William Penn’s ‘Charter of Privileges’, now on display in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
London has always been a city of bells.
Among its more famous ding-dongs are those of Bow Church on Cheapside. By tradition, anyone born within the sound of its peals could claim to be a true cockney. (Nowadays, such is the roar of traffic that you can hardly hear them even standing inside the church.)
It was the City of London’s bells which, according to legend, called Dick Whittington back to London, when he had failed to earn a living and so turned for home. ‘Turn again Whittington,” they tolled, “Lord Mayor of London”. And Lord Mayor is indeed what he became, thereby unexpectedly achieving both a fortune and lasting fame.
Among the bells he may have heard were those of St. Clement Dane’s Church in the Strand, which rang out, in chorus with others, to inspire the famous nursery rhyme:
‘Oranges and lemons’, say the bells of St. Clements.
‘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.
‘When will that be?’ say the bells of Stepney.
‘I do not know’, say the Great Bells of Bow.’
(By the way, two incongruous and rather sinister lines were later added: ‘Here comes a candle to light you to bed; and here comes a chopper to chop off your head.’ These are said to have been chanted by children attending public executions.)
In more recent times, Prime Minister Winston Churchill in September 1942 ordered bells in London, and everywhere across the land, to be rung to celebrate the British army’s victory in North Africa at the battle of El Alamein (and not, as some have claimed, to mark the birth of this writer, which took place earlier that year).
The wonder, I suppose, is that the Whitechapel foundry lasted as long as it did, since most of its bells were ordered by churches, of which few have been built for a century or more – or at least, not the kind of churches that could afford them. The foundry business has been kept alive for some time, apparently by orders from America, and by repair and replacement work. Not, then, what you would call a growth business.
There is some hope of salvation. Although the foundry’s present site will be shut down, the business (apparently the oldest manufacturing company in Britain) will be put up for sale. So perhaps some Chinese buyer, with countless billions of dollars to spend and a hankering to own a quaint piece of British history, will step in to save the day. The Japanese are into bells, too, though I venture to guess that they make their own, probably in foundries that put the Whitechapel operation into the high-tech category.
The demise of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry is hardly a cause for deep distress, except by ardent campanologists and long-dead poets, but if it portends that the end is nigh for bells and bell-ringing, then it is perhaps a moment for melancholic reflection.
As Charles Lamb observed, “Can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilise, and then burn the world? There is a march of science, but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?”
And by the same poet: “Of all sound of all bells, most solemn and touching is the peal which rings out the Old Year.”