Up at the Aldgate end of High Street 2012, on the corner of Fieldgate Street, a converted pub houses Britain's oldest surviving manufacturing company. It's the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, purveyors of fine chiming metal ringers since 1570. Big Ben started out here, and the Liberty Bell, and quite possibly that bell that rings out the hour in the village where you grew up. The foundry's open five days a week, during which time tourists are permitted to peer inside at a small exhibition and take a look round the tiny shop. But to get any further you need to join a tour, and that's mighty difficult. Tours run roughly fortnightly on Saturdays, and they're currently fully booked for months if not years into the future. But I managed to slip onto a recent extra tour and see inside for myself, and it was everything I was (and wasn't) expecting.
First stop beyond the shop is the central courtyard, a tiny space used for bell storage - some new, some old, some damaged and back for repair [photo]. There's a big bell-tree on one wall which chimes the quarter hours and can also play Oranges and Lemons (well, what else?). Then through into the foundry proper, an L-shaped open plan workshop space, within which generations of bells have been cast [photo]. Mind the dust. They've used pretty much the same process here for centuries, which essentially involves forming a mould out of earthy clay and then filling it with molten bronze. Precise moulds are created by rotating a simple metal template, sort of coathanger shaped, generating both an outer and inner shape for the bell-to-be [photo]. That's stamped with any required inscription [photo], in reverse of course, and only then is the ready-mixed copper and tin poured in. It takes a weekend to cool down, which is good news if your tour's timed right. And then the bell's lugged (or craned) round the corner to be tuned. This is a bit more hi-tech, wired up to a machine with red flashing lights, but in the end it all comes down to the skill of the operator to carve out the right grooves and get the harmonics right.
The foundry also repairs old church bells, several of which are older than the business itself. The floor of the rear workshop is covered with them, some on the way in, some on the way out. At the top of the building is the carpentry workshop where all the woodwork needed to hang a bell in a church tower is created, including giant wheels which allow each bell in a peal to spin round. Oh, and they make handbells too. It's not quite such a lucrative business as ten thousand quid a time church bells, but it brings in the money all the same. And it requires just as skilled a process, from shaping the newly cast metal to adding the final flourish with a neat leather handle.
The tour lasted a very full two hours and our guide, the site foreman, brought the entire process alive. It was clear that the foundry is still home to some very specialised professionals. You can't find folk like this down at the job centre ("I'd like a trained clapper fitter please") and apprentices have to be trained up on site. And there are signs everywhere that this is a genuine place of everyday work. Health and safety notices by the furnace, pin-ups of scantily clad girls carefully sellotaped at eye-level, stickmen scrawled on the workshop kettle. I don't know if you'd feel comfortable allowing guided tours round your place of work at the weekend, but I'm glad I got the opportunity to poke my nose into one of Tower Hamlets' most fascinating businesses. Book now for, er, 2011?