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Fight continues for historic Whitechapel bell foundry as public hearing resumes for its 2nd week

PUBLISHED: 07:00 12 October 2020

Whitechapel bell foundry in its heyday. Picture: Spitalfields Life

Whitechapel bell foundry in its heyday. Picture: Spitalfields Life

Spitalfields Life

The future of the historic Whitechapel bell foundry is being thrashed out as the second week of a planning inquiry gets under way.

Whitechapel bell foundry... oldest factory in the world when it closed in 2017. Picture: Charlotte DewWhitechapel bell foundry... oldest factory in the world when it closed in 2017. Picture: Charlotte Dew

The planning inspector, who visited the site last Wednesday on the second day of the four-week inquiry to see for himself its historic nature, is taking evidence online at Somerset House from campaigners on one side opposing developers on the other.

Preservationists want to save the 500-year-old foundry, which has been on site in Whitechapel since 1740, as a functioning bell-casting centre, fearing it would be reduced to “window dressing behind a glass screen” if a proposed themed hotel scheme goes ahead.

The hotel would use less than a quarter of the original foundry “which is too small to function”, the planning inspector was told when the inquiry opened on October 6.

The scheme proposed by New York’s Raycliff Properties which now owns the site would incorporate the listed structure built for the bell-casting business that began in Tudor times.

“The developers would provide ‘industrial window dressing’ to justify the hotel,” Matthew Dale-Harris representing the objectors told the hearing. “This would be too small to function behind a pain of glass, which is patronising and a heritage loss of architectural significance.”

How developers see a reduced bell-casting function at the proposed Whitechapel themed hotel. Picture: RaycliffHow developers see a reduced bell-casting function at the proposed Whitechapel themed hotel. Picture: Raycliff

It can be reopened as “a sole survivor of pre-industrial times” instead, run by an international trust for future generations, he revealed.

But the developers insist they are preserving the foundry functions and deny running a reduced casting “for the entertainment of coffee drinkers” in the hotel.

They hired architect William Burgess from the 31/44 Whitechapel practice to come up with “a heritage-led design with minimum intervention approach”. Mr Burgess denied allegations that Raycliffe Properties were “hollowing out” the foundry’s history for the proposed themed hotel.

He had spent time with former owners Catharine and Allen Hughes on the site to see how to preserve its historic character. The steel gantries and girders were being retained within the building, along with the bell-tuning machine.

The three-storey building was “in poor condition” with lack of investment over the years. It is famed for casting America’s Liberty Bell in 1757 and Big Ben in 1858 when the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt.


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