Arriving on the Whitechapel Road at the bell foundry it is easy to be transported back into history. The foundry has been active since at least 1570 and has been at its current location for several hundred years. The facade of the building has changed little in the last 200 years; police knocking on every door in Whitechapel during the hunt for Jack the Ripper in 1888 would have seen the same as those walking down Whitechapel Road in 2013. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is living, working history.
Going through the front door of the foundry you are greeted by the warmth and coziness associated with an old fashioned pub – unsurprising as, before the building became a foundry, it was a public house (The building was constructed around 1670 replacing a previous structure lost in The Great Fire of London). Displays show details of many of the famous bells cast at Whitechapel – The Liberty Bell, The Great Bell of Montreal, Bells for Westminster Abbey, the Bell sent to New York from London commemorating the 9/11 tragedy and, most famous of all, Big Ben. A cross section of Big Ben surounds the door to the foundry – a grown man can easily pass under the cross section and when you see the size of the doorway you get some sense of the size of the bell, Big Ben.
Before going to the foundry floor we were given a short talk explaining how a bell is made.
A strickle – which is half of the cross section of the bell – is made. This is essentially the pattern – it defines the shape of the bell and the thickness (which varies being thicker at the top and bottom of the bell than in the middle).
Then a mixture called loam is made. Loam consists of water, clay, sand, manure and goats’ hair. The loam is mixed up and some is baked into curved bricks. The curved bricks and loam are used to build the inner mould – also known as the core. The strickle is used to smooth the loam into the precise shape of the bell. The core is dried in an oven and then covered with graphite.
A bell shaped outer mould is lined with loam and the outer edge of the strickle is used to ensure the correct shape for the bell. The loam is dried and then the final layer is applied. This is quite a sloppy mixture – this layer needs to be slightly soft to enable any inscription to be made in it before it is left to air dry.
The inner and outer moulds are firmly clamped together to ensure a tight seal at the bottom and a special box is added to the top of the mould. This box has two holes – one into which the molten metal will be poured, the other to allow air and other gases to escape during casting.
A mixture of copper and tin is heated to 1,150 Celcius in a gas powered furnace, any gases in the liquid metal are removed by de-gassing with nitrogen, any impurities that have risen to the surface (called “slag”) are cleaned off the surface and the metal is poured from the furnace into a large ladle lined with graphite. A manually operated crane moves the ladle to each of the bell moulds in turn. The moulds are filled and, after the metal has settled for a minute or two, topped up.
The process of casting has changed little in the last 4-500 years – to witness the heat, smoke and smells of casting makes you realise how old the art of the founder is – the skills required to handle and shape molten metal into something useful to man have shaped mankind’s development for centuries. Casting bells is Whitechapel’s speciality but these same skills helped to mechanise farming and to drive the Industrial Revolution. The role of the Foundry changed during times of war. Canons are cast metal and many were probably made at Whitechapel (a fire in the middle of the nineteenth Century sadly destroyed most of the records), the foundry found itself in demand during World War Two and its aftermath (click here for more information from The Whitechapel Bell Foundry website.)
After being left to cool the moulds are removed and the bell is broken out of its loam case. The rough bottom edge of the bell will be smoothed off in a process known as skirting and the bell will be tuned.
There are hundreds of notes in a bell, a careful process involving shaving metal from the inside surface of the bell little by little, testing after each shaving brings the five main notes in the bell into tune. The bell is tuned whilst sitting upside down on a special turntable and the notes are checked with tuning forks and by computer.
Tuning a modern bell whose shape is uniform and whose properties are well understood takes between one and one and a half days – tuning an old bell which may have an irregular shape, impurities in the metal etc can be a mammoth task.
Once tuned the bell has its inscription cleaned and made “sharp”, the outside of the bell is polished a deep black and the inscription is highlighted by being burnished. Then there is just the small matter of preparing the bell for hanging by adding an appropriate headstock (also purpose made at Whitechapel), transporting the bell to the church, getting it up to the top of the tower and hanging it.
That however comes later in the story of Saxlingham’s bells – now they are in the care of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry being tuned and finished ready to be returned to the church tower once it has been renovated and strengthened.
We would like to thank all at The Whitechapel Bell Foundry for their kind welcome and for sharing their great knowledge in a fascinating experience for us all.
For more information click here to visit The Whitechapel Bell Foundry’s website.