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Historic Whitechapel bell foundry ‘reduced to window dressing’ if hotel goes ahead, planning hearing is told

PUBLISHED: 15:31 06 October 2020 | UPDATED: 17:50 06 October 2020

Whitechapel bell foundry in its heyday. Picture: Charlotte Dew

Whitechapel bell foundry in its heyday. Picture: Charlotte Dew

Charlotte Dew

The historic 500 years of the Whitechapel bell foundry would be reduced to “window dressing behind a glass screen” if a proposed controversial boutique hotel scheme goes ahead, a planning inquiry opening today has heard.

How developers see Whitechapel foundry site of the future. Picture: RaycliffHow developers see Whitechapel foundry site of the future. Picture: Raycliff

The hotel would use only 266sq metres of the original 1,400 “which is too small to function”, the planning inspector was told.

The scheme proposed by New York’s Raycliff developers incorporates the listed foundry built in 1740 for the bell-casting business that began in Tudor times.

It is being challenged by conservationists who want it reopened as a working foundry and arts centre after being closed in 2017.

“The developers would provide ‘industrial window dressing’ to justify the hotel,” Matthew Dale-Harris representing the objectors told the hearing.

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

“This would be too small to function behind a pain of glass, which is patronising the foundry and a heritage loss of architectural significance.”

The foundry can be reopened to preserve its significance, campaigners maintain. It would be run as the London Bell Foundry by an international trust and would continue industrial heritage and pass on foundry skills to future generations.

“This site is a sole survivor of pre-industrial times which is in the Whitechapel conservation area designated,” Mr Dale-Harris added. “Even the 1980s unlisted extension at the rear contributes to the narrative of the foundry which would be drowned out by the hotel scheme.”

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.

The Queen walks through foundry workshop at Whitechapel in March 2009 visit. Picture: Adrian Dennis/PA WireThe Queen walks through foundry workshop at Whitechapel in March 2009 visit. Picture: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

Architect William Burgess from the 31/44 Whitechapel practice, who was hired in 2017 to look into the redevelopment, denied allegations that they were “hollowing out” the foundry’s history to remove its significance in the proposed themed hotel.

He had “spent many hours” with the foundry’s former owners Catharine and Allen Hughes on the site to see how to preserve its historic character.

“We are not being schizophrenic about the design ,” Mr Burgess told the inquiry.

“We don’t go in and whitewash walls. The steel gantries and girders are being retained within the building, along with the bell-tuning machine. It’s a heritage-led design with minimum intervention approach.”

The Queen greeted by crows in Whitechapel at end of visit to bell foundry with Duke of Edinburgh in March, 2009. Picture: Adrian Dennis/PA WireThe Queen greeted by crows in Whitechapel at end of visit to bell foundry with Duke of Edinburgh in March, 2009. Picture: Adrian Dennis/PA Wire

But there was increasing pressure in the City Fringe area for commercial office space, shops, and banking, it was pointed out.

The three-storey foundry was “largely consumed by its surroundings with a nine-storey neighbour” and other pressures and was already “slightly consumed by the cityscape around it”. The site was in poor condition and had suffered lack of investment over the years.

The developers who took it over when the foundry closed in 2017 brought in the Westley engineering group from the Midlands to run the reduced foundry with AB Fine Art from Poplar if the hotel got the go-ahead.

Its chairman Tom Westley has been giving evidence to the inquiry this-afternoon as part of the hotel proposal on the feasibility of Whitechapel foundry casting—while casting doubt on the preservationists’ alternative proposals.

He believes reopening the whole foundry wouldn’t make commercial sense with the reduced world market for church bell-casting, but hand-bell casting could work out in the reduced space. Yet Westley’s company website says it wants to “continue the Whitechapel tradition of casting church bells and preserve a much older craft heritage”.

The foundry is famed for casting America’s Liberty Bell in 1757 and Big Ben in 1858 when the Houses of Parliament were rebuilt.

The planning inspector is visiting Whitechapel at 9.30 Wednesday morning, October 7, to see for himself its historic significance where the boutique hotel is proposed. The public hearings resume Thursday at 10am.


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