Lonely Planet Writer

The 500-year-old bell foundry that cast Big Ben is looking for a new owner

It began life in the reign of Elizabeth I and built London’s Big Ben and Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell. Now the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, is up for sale. The Daily Telegraph reports that the firm is also to leave its current site in London’s East End.

Westminster Tower (aka Big Ben) and Abbey, London.
Big Ben, London. Image by Andrew Vaughan Smith

The foundry, which has operated since 1570, has occupied its Whitechapel premises for 250 years. It focuses on producing bells for churches, but has also produced one-off bells, including Big Ben. The name Big Ben technically only refers to the bell itself, but it’s commonly used to describe the Elizabeth Tower, which houses the bell and tops the Houses of Parliament. It also cast the Liberty Bell, which bears the legend “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” and is a symbol of American independence.

Westminster Bridge with Big Ben in the background.
Westminster Bridge with Big Ben in the background. Image by Yunli Song

More recently the foundry worked on bells for the London Olympics and the Queen’s 2012 jubilee river pageant. It also gained business from the “Downton effect”, as fans of Downton Abbey from around the world snapped up traditional table bells, rung to summon guests for tea. Rents have risen steeply in Whitechapel, on the borders of the City, in recent years as the area has become more fashionable, putting pressure on the business.

16th April 1959: The 13 1/2 ton bell known as 'Big Ben' and famous for its chimes. The clock came into operation on 31st May 1859 but Big Ben itself did not ring out until 11th July of that year. Admiring the bell is Arthur Lovering, a Ministry of Works guide.
16th April 1959: The 13 1/2 ton bell known as ‘Big Ben’ and famous for its chimes. The clock came into operation on 31st May 1859 but Big Ben itself did not ring out until 11th July of that year. Admiring the bell is Arthur Lovering, a Ministry of Works guide. Image by Central Press/Getty Images

Master Bellfounder Alan Hughes gave Spitalifields Life an idea of how the family firm has continued over the centuries. “My great-grandfather visited the church in Langley in the 1890s and told them the bells needed rehanging in a new frame,” he told the blog. “They patched them. My grandfather said the same thing in the 1920s. They patched them. My father told them again in the 1950s and I quoted for the job in the 1970s. We completed the order in 1998.” Hughes has announced that the premises will close in May 2017 and said that discussions with staff and interested parties were ongoing.