The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Bell founding

 

The casting of bells for use in churches, clocks and public buildings.

 

Status Endangered (see ‘Other information’ for futher details)
Craft category Metal
Historic area of significance UK
Area currently practised London and Loughborough
Origin in the UK Early Medieval
Minimum no. of craftspeople required 21-50
Current no. of trainees 1-5
Current no. of skilled craftspeople 11-20
Current total no. of craftspeople 11-20

 

History

The earliest bells were made of pottery, developing later into the casting of metal bells, the earliest of which were in China. Portable bells came to the UK with the spread of Celtic Christianity, and throughout the early Medieval period bellfounding was predominantly carried out by monks. Later, most towns and cities across the country had their own foundries, and there were also itinerant founders who travelled from church to church to cast bells on site. As transport links improved, the craft became more concentrated in fewer centres and today bellfounding only takes place in two locations left (London and Loughborough).

 

Techniques

The craft of casting bells has remained essentially unchanged since the twelfth century, with bells cast mouth down in a two-part mould. Bells are cast in bell metal – an alloy of bronze. The bell is designed and measured out, the mould is constructed and the bell then cast. Once the bell has cooled it is tuned and the clapper fitted. A detailed description of the process can be found on Wikipedia.

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

Allied crafts:

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Finding people to take on the craft who are enthusiastic, have some basic skills and prepared to learn
  • Need for people with engineering skills, woodworking skills and rope making skills
  • Financing bell projects is a major problem for parishes, often relying on volunteers raising quite large sums of money with very limited help from government/the church.
  • Market issues: Falling demand because of falling church attendance and the decline of the Church of England
  • Loss of skills: Loam casting (a mixture of loam clay, goat hair and horse manure) is traditional to English bell founding and not widely known in Europe. It is at risk of disappearing
  • Foreign competition: Most bell foundries are located outside of the UK
  • Foreign competition In December 2016 Whitechapel Bell Foundry announced that it would be ceasing its activities by May 2017 and its future is uncertain. If the foundry closes for good, John Taylor and Co. will be the only UK manufacturer and all competition will therefore be from Europe where bells are cheaper, thus greatly increasing the amount of European competition within the UK market.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • The Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd. It was announced at the beginning of December 2016 that the foundry will be closing in May 2017 and the site sold. As of December 2016, negotiations were underway regarding the future of the business.
  • Matthew Higby & Co. Ltd. – primarily a bell hanger. Design bells and make moulds, but either have them cast by a local founder or get bells from the other UK bell foundries or from abroad.

 

Other information

Status: In December 2016, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry announced that ‘by May 2017 it will cease its activities at the Whitechapel Road site that it has occupied since its move there in 1738. The company intends to complete work on all projects presently in hand during the coming months. It will not be entering into new contracts for the time being whilst discussions with the company’s staff and other interested parties regarding the future direction, ownership, and location of the company are ongoing.’ (Whitechapel Bell Foundry). In January 2017 it is not clear whether the business will be closing for good, and whether bell founding should move to ‘critically endangered’.

 

References