Ringing the changes at the Whitechapel bell foundry | Art and design

If there’s one thing you can say about Whitechapel it is that it has a lot of history, some of it of a certain flavour. Jack the Ripper and the Kray twins plied their trades round here. The Elephant Man was displayed in a freak show on the main street, before being taken to live in the nearby Royal London Hospital. The brown-coloured, second-cheapest neighbourhood on the original Monopoly board is the epitome of the East End, with its historic association with slums and crime. It is also where things were made, both objects and ideas, literature and progressive politics – the latter forged by the very extremity of the place.

All of which means that Whitechapel is high on the list of case studies of the global phenomenon whereby places of industry become places of art become places of property development and hipsterdom. To live in the area, as I do, is to hear the constant rush of old things disappearing and new ones arriving. Stories tend to run along similar lines: the multilayered fabric of the past is stripped out, and the complexity that makes it attractive to speculators is normalised by speculation. Places shaped by work become generic residential real estate.

Nothing exemplifies these issues more than the current struggles over the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, a fusion of houses and workshops deeply soaked in past labour. Church bells have been made in the area since at least the 14th century. This particular business, having started in 1570, was Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. Shakespeare and Samuel Pepys would have heard its products. Big Ben and the Liberty Bell were cast here, as were bells now in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India and several African and Caribbean countries.

The foundry closed in 2017, with its last owner, Alan Hughes, declaring that it was no longer viable to make a living making church bells, and that the old buildings were no longer suitable for their use. The growth of residential property around them, he also said, “will give us neighbours who would find difficulties with our industrial output and noise”.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry

Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Hughes sold its premises, where the company had been since 1738, to a property developer who immediately resold it – for a profit rumoured to be at least 50% – to the New York-based venture capitalists Raycliff Capital. They want to build a hotel next to it, demolishing a 1980s extension in the process. They promise to respect the foundry’s manufacturing history: they have invited the Midlands-based company Westley to make small replica bells in its older buildings, and offered space to the AB Fine Art Foundry. Artists and creatives will, they say, work in the warren of rooms made singular and wonderful from housing centuries of craft.

Tourists and schoolchildren will be able to visit the site and see exhibits on bell making. Raycliff have also hired the local architectural practice 31/44 to design scrupulously sensitive adjustments to the old buildings and a dignified form for the hotel.

None of which is enough for supporters of a counter-proposal, backed by luminaries including Antony Gormley and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s director Tristram Hunt, put forward by the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust (UKHBPT) and the Factum Foundation, a conservation organisation best known for its three-dimensional digital recreation of the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Seti I.

They want to keep the entire site in its original use, the physically impressive and skilled business of working molten metal into large but highly tuned musical instruments. The same premises, they say, can be used to make the ambitious works beloved of contemporary sculptors.

A petition has been launched to influence the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, to whom Raycliff has submitted a planning application. The blog Spitalfields Life, which continuously unearths marvels of local history, argues that Raycliff’s plans are cosmetic, that they reduce the area devoted to a foundry by 90% (a figure that Raycliff contests), that they amount to making little more than “a bell-themed boutique hotel”.

On the face of it, the counter-proposal looks like a long shot, as those making it don’t own the site, and Westleys and Raycliff question whether there is a market to sustain such a facility. But UKHBPT and Factum say they can raise the necessary investment in re-starting a foundry and make it a going concern.

Planning policy obliges Tower Hamlets to consider what would be an optimum viable use. If the onus is on UKHBPT and Factum to prove that their ambitious plans are viable, they are optimum. It can only be better if the whole of the foundry is given a new life doing a modern version of what it did for centuries. There is a profound difference between the large-scale manufacturing that UKHBPT is proposing and the making of small bells as a tourist attraction. There could be much worse plans than Raycliff’s – someone might want to convert the whole site to luxury homes, for example – but they are not equal to the unique significance of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. This is not any factory, nor any bell foundry, but the oldest and most famous in the world.

the elegant new East End home of the Royal College of Pathologists, designed by Bennetts Associates.

‘It feels built to last’: the elegant new East End home of the Royal College of Pathologists, designed by Bennetts Associates. Photograph: Peter Cook

Which is not to say that all change is for the worse. One of the less expected and less noticed recent shifts in the capital is the flight of medical institutions from the plush centre, pushed out by the prospect of their leases expiring and by the prohibitive cost of renewing them. Three have landed on western edges of Whitechapel – the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Royal College of Pathologists.

The latter has just moved into a handsome new building designed by the architects Bennetts Associates and the contractor Gilbert-Ash. It is satisfyingly solid, with visible concrete bearing on visible brick, both inside and out, and with substantial steel stairs given warmth by tactile walnut handrails. It feels built to last – which, as the college intends to stay there for decades, if not centuries – it is. At the same time it is airy and light, with generous spaces, animated by the subtle rhythms of its verticals and horizontals.

Both institution and building speak of faith in the future based on the efforts of the past, of productive work, of society and community – the things you don’t usually get from the average property speculation. The power of a place like Whitechapel has always been to sustain such qualities through blitz, fires and deprivation. To this extent the college and the foundry are new and old manifestations of the same thing.

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