Battle lost to save historic Whitechapel bell foundry

The four-year campaign to save Whitechapel Bell Foundry

There has been a four year campaign to save Whitechapel bell foundry. - Credit: Sam Mallish

Campaigners have vowed to fight on after the secretary of state gave the go-ahead for a hotel development to replace the East End’s historic 450-year-old Whitechapel bell foundry. 

Whitechapel bell foundry in its heyday

Whitechapel bell foundry in its heyday - Credit: Spitalfields Life

Housing minister Robert Jenrick has backed the planning inspector’s recommendation to grant permission. 

It means alterations and refurbishment to the listed foundry building in Whitechapel Road, creating workshops, workspaces and café at ground floor and mezzanine levels.

Bell tolls for Whitechapel Bell Foundry after 500 years.

Bell tolls for Whitechapel Bell Foundry after 450 years. - Credit: Spitalfields Life

The unlisted 1980s building at the rear can be demolished where a seven-storey hotel is to be built along Fieldgate Street and Plumbers Row with two basement floors, a pool, waste storage and cycle parking. 

The loss of the historic venue as a working foundry where bell casting has been continuous since the 1740s is "devastating" to the East End Preservation Society, whose four-year campaign was led by TV historian Dan Cruickshank and supported by London Assembly members and Tower Hamlets councillors.   

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"We don't agree with the minister's decision," the society's Jonathan Moberly told the East London Advertiser. "It's devastating and deeply disappointing. We’ve been involved in this for four years and are currently fighting other campaigns like saving the 500-year-old mulberry tree at the former London Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. It seems like we’re under attack in the East End from developers in all directions." 

Tower Hamlets Cllr Hoque... "This is a battle lost — but the war continues."

Tower Hamlets Cllr Hoque... "This is a battle lost — but the war continues." - Credit: Sam Mallish

Judicial reviews to mount a legal challenge to the secretary of state are expensive, the society admits, having already gone through as lengthy planning public inquiry

But some campaigners like Tower Hamlets Cllr Ehtasham Hoque vowed: "This is a battle lost—but the war continues. It’s disappointing after the years of campaigning. We are considering an appeal.”

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Campaigners have six weeks to appeal against Mr Jenrick's decision.

Tower Hamlets mayor John Biggs told the Advertiser: "We don’t want the East End to be carpeted with hotels, but they do play a role, which is outside our control.

"I’m proud the community stands up for what they think is important. But planning laws are different to people's aspirations. It’s a right conclusion on balance with the area changing rapidly."

The authority actually agreed the scheme in November 2019, but the planning application by Raycliff developers in New York was taken over by the Secretary of State over the council's head, to the mayor's surprise.

A town hall spokesman welcoming the go-ahead explained: “The scheme establishes a long-term use for the bell foundry and means that necessary works to repair and maintain this historic listed building can be undertaken and preserved for the future. 

“The scheme provides a small foundry on-site with bell making capacity and an obligation to work in partnership with an existing foundry in Poplar."

The scheme means extensive repair and maintenance towards "securing the long-term future of the building", the secretary of state concluded in his decision.

The Queen walks through workshop during visit to Whitechapel Bell Foundry in March, 2009

The Queen walks through a workshop during her visit to Whitechapel bell foundry in March 2009. - Credit: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

The Queen visited the foundry in 2009 to meet workers and see bell-casting in progress. The work had been carried out by four generations of the Hughes family since 1904. But rising costs and £8million for repairs forced them to close in 2017.  

The historic foundry and the rest of the site behind was sold to New York tycoon Bippy Siegal’s Raycliff Capital conglomerate who were not commenting on their planning victory, their spokesman in London said.   

Watching craftsmen at work... the Queen looks in at Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 2009.

Watching craftsmen at work... the Queen looks in at Whitechapel bell foundry in 2009. - Credit: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

Historian Dan Cruickshank had told a protest rally in 2019: “The foundry is of world importance as the longest continuous manufacturing company in history. The idea that such a place could be replaced by a boutique hotel on our doorstep is not appropriate.” 

TV Historian Dan Cruickshank... "The idea such a place could be a 'boutique hotel' is not appropriate.” 

TV historian Dan Cruickshank... "The idea such a place could be a boutique hotel is not appropriate.” - Credit: Mike Brooke

Yet there are circumstances in which the secretary of state’s decision can be challenged, Whitehall acknowledges. Objectors can still apply to the High Court within six weeks for statutory review under the 1990 Town and Country Planning Act, but is a costly legal process.  

The Whitechapel foundry is where Big Ben, the Bow Bells and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia were all cast. -It was established in 1570 at Aldgate and moved out to the Whitechapel Road in the 1740s on the old Roman road to Colchester and had been part of the East End's industrial heritage ever since.

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