The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Bell founding

 

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

 

Status Critically endangered
Craft category Metal
Historic area of significance UK
Area currently practised London and Loughborough
Origin in the UK Early Medieval
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
2-4
Current no. of trainees 1-5
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

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.

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

  • Loam casting

Allied crafts:

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Demand is falling because of reduced church attendance. 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.
  • 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.
  • Since Whitechapel Bell Foundry announced in April 2017 that casting of tower bells under the Whitechapel name would be transferred to Westley Group Ltd, there is still uncertainty as to their level of output. If John Taylor and Co. are the only UK manufacturer then all competition is therefore from Europe where bells are cheaper, thus greatly increasing the amount of European competition within the UK market.
  • There has been a failure to diversify the market away from churches.
  • There has been a failure of current practitioners share the knowledge of bell making.
  • It can be a challenge to find people to take on the craft who are enthusiastic, have some basic skills and prepared to learn. There is a need for people with engineering skills, woodworking skills and rope making skills.

 

Support organisations

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • The Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd – it was announced in April 2017 that the foundry had cast its last batch of tower bells on 22 March. The building was sold, and casting under the Whitechapel name was transferred to Westley Group Ltd. See ‘Further Information’ below for more details.
  • John Taylor & Co. – use the traditional techniques of casting their bells in loam and burying their moulds. Having been rescued from administration a few years ago, the Directors established the Loughborough Bellfoundry Trust in 2016 to hold the site in perpetuity, protect its manufacturing methods and tools and prepare for a comprehensive restoration of the buildings.
  • 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.
  • David Snoo Wilson – Ore and Ingot, Bristol
  • Aaron McPeake – artist, makes bells as well as gongs and sound sculptures
  • Marcus Vergette – artist

 

Other information

In April 2017, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry announced that it had cast its last batch of tower bells on 22 March at the East London premises it has occupied since 1738. After years of struggling against economic pressures and the high cost of maintaining the listed premises, current directors Alan and Kathryn Hughes took the decision to sell the premises and to redistribute the business in order to ensure the continuation of its products into the future. Both in the UK and worldwide, the demand for church bells had declined year on year while the costs of employment and keeping up with manufacturing legislation and insurances have continued to rise. The buildings were in need of extensive upgrading, with estimated costs upwards of £8m.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry premises were sold, and casting under the Whitechapel name was transferred to Westley Group Ltd. Whites of Appleton Ltd bell hangers purchased pattern equipment to continue making Whitechapel components and a new tuning machine which enables them to offer a high standard of tuning to church bells. Whitechapel musical handbells are available to purchase from Bells of Whitechapel Ltd, along with the entire range of Whitechapel presentation bells, door bells, bracket bells and ships bells, all of which continue to be cast and finished in London.

 

References

  • Whitechapel Bell Foundry, News