The last operating bellfoundry in Britain has been saved just in time for Christmas, thanks to £3.45m from the National Lottery.
Since 1859, the iconic Loughborough Bellfoundry, home to John Taylor & Co bellfounders, has cast more than 25,000 bells that are hung in over 100 countries, in churches, cathedrals, universities and public buildings. 20 million people in Britain, and hundreds of millions worldwide, hear a bell cast at the Loughborough Bellfoundry every day.
Bells from the foundry have even entered popular culture – the bells from St Thomas’s Church, in Fifth Avenue, New York, which can be heard on The Pogues and Kirsty McColl’s Christmas anthem Fairytale of New York, were cast at the site. However, the globally unique, purpose-built Victorian bellfoundry was at serious risk of being permanently lost without urgent repairs. The closure of the bellfoundry would be a huge loss to traditional craftsmanship, with bellfounding raised to critically endangered in the 2019 edition of the HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts.
Now, thanks to the £3.45m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund – and match-funding bringing the total to £5m – the site will be secured for the future and used to train a new generation in bell-making skills, deliver an engagement and outreach programme, increase access to the unique archive, expand production and develop the onsite bell museum as a heritage destination, attracting visitors from around the world.
Hannah Taylor, Chair of the Loughborough Bellfoundry Trust, said:
“This news is the best possible Christmas present and will ensure that the foundry, its buildings, the museum and rare archive will be protected, and that Loughborough bells are heard and enjoyed by many future generations around the world… As well as to protect the site, our aim is to make the Loughborough Bellfoundry the global centre for the art of bell making and learning and provide an engaging and exciting visitor experience. Thanks to National Lottery players, we can do exactly that.”
Bellfounders John Taylor & Co employ a team of 30, with a range of highly specialist heritage skills including casting, tuning and finishing bells. It produces all of the associated parts and mechanisms such as frames, headstocks, wheels, hand-bells, carillons and bell ropes.
The casting of bells for use in churches, clocks and public buildings. Also includes the casting of musical handbells, cup bells, ships bells, handled bells and clock bells.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|London and Loughborough
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
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 primarily takes place in two locations (London and Loughborough).
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.
- bell hanging – including bell frame making and timber bell wheel making
- bell tuning
- leather working for hand bells
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: The bell founding and bell hanging market in this country continues to shrink and in consequence the sizes of the remaining businesses remain small. This is mirrored by the decrease in the number of active tower bell ringers and musical handbell ringers.
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.
- Loss of skills: bell founding and tuning skills are quite specific. There are probably no more than 4 people in the U.K. regularly employed in Loam moulding (an ancient and now largely redundant method of mould making and one still employed at Loughborough) and a similar number in tower bell tuning.
Issues with passing on skills: 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.
Craftspeople currently known
- The Whitechapel Bell Foundry Ltd – see other information
- Bells of Whitechapel – Handbells manufactured in South London by Maybrey Reliance under a licence agreement from The Whitechapel Bellfoundry Ltd.
- Westley Group Bells – Following the closure of the Whitechapel Bellfoundry production was transferred to the Westley Group where the casting of church bells continues using contemporary sand moulding techniques.
- John Taylor & Co. – use the traditional techniques of casting their bells in loam and burying their moulds. They make a wide range of bells including single bells, carillions and chimes, musical hand bells and other small bells.
- 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
- Benfield Bells – hand bell repair and restoration, also supplies new hand bells
Whites of Appleton Ltd are bellhangers and, whilst they don’t cast bells, they do carry out a number of related activities including installation, bell frame making, making timber bell wheels. refurbishment and tuning.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry
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.
Loughborough Bell Foundry Trust
When the bellfoundry at Whitechapel closed, Loughborough was left as the last major bellfoundry in the UK. Whilst the business is viable, the site needed considerable investment to ensure its future. The Loughborough Bellfoundry Trust has spent the last few years preparing detailed plans to restore the historic bellfoundry to its former glory and ensure its rich heritage is not lost. In 2020 the LBT was awarded £3.45 million from the National Lottery to complete the renovation works and to implement a training and education programme.
Finite element analysis
This is now being used in bell design and innovation has leapt forward Until this computer programme there was not much further that bells could go harmonically. Now that we are able to design and create new harmonic relationships within a bell, and as the sound contains the meaning, new contexts become possible outside where we usually think of bells; in a religious context, Big Ben, sea bouys, school bells, carillons, etc. ( from Marcus Verdette).
- Whitechapel Bell Foundry, News