Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, 2 Fieldgate Street and workshops to the rear


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Date of most recent amendment:
Statutory Address:
Church Bell Foundry, 32 and 34, Whitechapel Road, and 2 Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel, London, E1 1DY


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Statutory Address:
Church Bell Foundry, 32 and 34, Whitechapel Road, and 2 Fieldgate Street, Whitechapel, London, E1 1DY

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Greater London Authority
Tower Hamlets (London Borough)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TQ3421981540, TQ3422181543


Bell foundry established in the 1740s with extensions and modifications of the early and late C19 and C20.

Reasons for Designation

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, a complex established in the mid C18, with alterations of the C19 and C20, is listed at Grade II* for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: a distinctive, cohesive complex of domestic and industrial buildings spanning nearly 300 years of occupation including the dignified residence of the foundry owner at nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road, no 2 Fieldgate Street and the industrial ranges to the rear; * Historic interest: for the national cultural and industrial significance as the mid C18 site of a specialised industry known to have been located elsewhere in Whitechapel since the medieval period, where well-known bells including Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, Philadelphia, were cast; * Degree of survival: nos 32 and 34 Whitechapel Road have a high level of exterior and interior intactness including the early-C19 shop at no 34; * Interiors: distinctive for the mid-C18 plan-form, and the mid-C18 and early-C19 shop fittings, wall panelling, chimney pieces, stairs, ironmongery and joinery in nos 32 and 34 Whitechapel Road, industrial workshops containing specialist bell-founding equipment, and the timber crane on the Plumbers Row frontage; * Rarity: one of only two remaining bell foundries in England, the other being Taylor’s of Loughborough, also listed at Grade II*.


BELL-FOUNDING IN THE C18, C19 AND C20 Bells have played an important part in our culture; the ringing of bells for commemoration, timekeeping and warning is embedded in our national consciousness. Bell-founding in this country has medieval originals at least and remains a highly specialised craft; the casting, finishing and tuning processes are specific to the manufacture of bells. The preparation of moulds for the core and cope, casting, finishing and tuning have changed considerably since the C12 when the process was described in infinite detail by a monk. By the C18 the shape of bells had changed enormously as had the method of manufacture, although the process of firstly creating the core, secondly creating a false bell and thirdly creating a clay cope followed the same medieval practice. The moulds were prepared and assembled within a casting pit so that metal could be run from a reverberatory furnace, usually timber fired, by gravity. Tuning was by hammer and chisel with only the harmonic that we now refer to as the ‘nominal’ being adjusted; by the end of the C18 the first tuning machine was in use (at a foundry in Gloucester).

By the latter half of the C19 the false bell method of moulding had been abandoned in favour of producing the cores and copes independently and with the copes created in bell-shaped cast iron flasks. The introduction of overhead cranes in the late C19 and early C20 allowed the moulds to be assembled on the foundry floor, rather than in casting pits, and with the metal transferred from the furnace to the mould by overhead crane.

The end of the C19 also saw the development of harmonic tuning which required a greater sophistication in the design of the tuning machine. This period also saw the concept of bells being tuned to an external pitch standard so that they were in tune with other instruments. Whilst the accuracy of early harmonically tuning bells was reasonable, tuning accuracies have been improved gradually through the C20 with a greater number of harmonic tones being controlled. To accommodate the introduction of harmonic tuning the shape of bells was changed subtly and these changes have continued into the early C21. The wide use of electricity to power machinery from the early part of the C20 has seen the introduction of electrically powered cranes as well as electrically powered furnaces. Fuel has moved from timber to coal and again from coal to oil or gas. These newer cleaner fuels also provide a greater predictability in both temperature and melting times.

WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY Whitechapel Bell Foundry has operated continuously in Whitechapel since at least the 1570s, but on this site probably since the mid-1740s. The foundry originated with either Robert Doddes in 1567 or Robert Mot in 1572 and may have been located in Essex Court, in the present Gunthorpe Street area. The C16 foundry may have grown out of a foundry in Aldgate, established in 1363 by Stephen Norton. In 1716, the foundry, ran by Richard Phelps, made the great clock bell for St Paul’s Cathedral. It has been long believed that when Phelps died in 1738, his successor Thomas Lester moved the foundry to the current site, which had previously been occupied by the Artichoke Inn. However, contemporary reports suggest that this site was probably occupied a little later. The Survey of London records an advertisement to let the site in the Daily Advertiser of 31 August 1743. The Stepney Manor Court Rolls refer to the Artichoke Alehouse as being empty in April 1743 and to a ‘newly built messuage now in possession of Thomas Leicester’ in 1747. It is probable that Lester redeveloped the site of the Artichoke in 1744-6 and in doing so provided the opportunity for a larger foundry with bespoke accommodation on the frontage of Whitechapel Road.

In addition to nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road, the residence of the foundry owner, an attached building to the rear of no 34, no 2 Fieldgate Street, was constructed perhaps to accommodate a foreman. It is probably broadly contemporary with the front range, although the brick is slightly larger in size, laid in a different bond, and the window treatment differs. The former smithery, stables and coach house building at the rear of no 2 Fieldgate Street was replaced by a three-storey workshop and warehouse building in c1840. The foundry itself, which originally contained four crucible furnaces, was located across a yard to the rear of the front range. The mixed fortunes of the foundry in the late C18 and early C19, and the somewhat complicated changes in ownership, are recorded in detail in the Survey of London and other sources and will not be repeated here. It should be noted, however, that during this time the foundry cast around 25 bells per year including some for St Mary le Bow in 1738, Petersburg in Russia in 1747 and Christ Church, Philadelphia in 1754. The most famous bell cast during this period is the Liberty Bell of 1752. Thomas Mears acquired full control of the foundry from the descendants of Lester in October 1818 and embarked on a building campaign, extending no 32 Whitechapel Road at the rear and replacing some of the internal fixtures. The shop front to no 34 probably dates from this period. A building to the S of a former gateway into the foundry was probably built for Mears in 1820; these may have been cottages that were extended and altered by the late C19 when externally the door openings were curtailed and infilled, and internally they were entirely remodelled to house a steam engine at the ground floor, handbell workshops on the first floor and a carpenter’s shop on the second. The cranked blacksmiths, workshop and warehouse range N of the cottages is probably c1840 in date, replacing the earlier smithy building and gateway to the foundry. This range was re-roofed in the 1980s.

Charles and George Mears ran the foundry from 1844-1859; Big Ben was cast here in 1858, and at 13.7 tons is still the foundry’s largest bell. From 1865, George Mears and Robert Stainbank ran the foundry trading as Mears and Stainbank until 1968. Arthur Hughes became foundry manager in 1884, and his descendants ran the business from 1968 to the current day.

The foundry buildings evolved during the ownerships of Mears and Stainbank and the Hughes family. The earliest workshop aligned N-S along the W boundary of the complex (known in 2017 as the loam shop or moulding shop) are mid-C18 in origin, but was extended to the W in 1846, encroaching onto the S part of the yard, to accommodate a new furnace required to make a 11.5 ton bell for Montreal Cathedral (this extension is known in 2017 as the Montreal foundry or sand foundry). Another furnace was added two years later and in 1850 a 19m (62ft) chimney was built against the S wall (later truncated). A tuning shop was added to the N of the 1846 extension in approximately 1848 to house the tuning machine brought to Whitechapel from Rudhalls Gloucester foundry. The machine was powered by a steam engine, located on the ground floor of the former cottages remodelled for the purpose. The tuning machine was replaced in 1922. A back foundry added to the rear of the complex by the 1870s was damaged during the Second World War. Post-war plans to rebuild did not proceed until a new frame workshop was added to the S of the earlier outbuildings in 1979-81; this S workshop is excluded from the listing. In the mid-1960s, the E wall of the loam shop and the W wall of no 2 Fieldgate Street including the weatherboard cladding, and the interior, were rebuilt. The roof coverings of the single storey link, loam shop and former cottages were replaced. The second floor of the southernmost cottage was extended to form a small mezzanine within the 1846 foundry space. A new drying oven was inserted into the N end of the loam shop and steel stanchions were added to its W wall. All of the equipment in use is C20 in date, and where not itemised in the description below is excluded from the listing.

Nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road are little altered. The railings to no 32 are 1950s replicas of the originals and the steps are concrete.

The uses of some areas of the complex changed in the late C20. The ground floor of no 2 Fieldgate Street is the shop, the upper floors are the drawing rooms, interlinked with the ground, first and second floors of the eastern bay of no 34 Whitechapel Road. The single storey building to the S of no 2 Fieldgate Street is part of the visitor attraction. The ground floors of the warehouse range and former cottages have been further modified to provide facilities for the foundry workers and a fire escape. The Greater London Council (GLC) were involved in the conservation of the premises in the 1980s.


The Whitechapel Bell Foundry comprises: a front residential range at nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road, built for Thomas Lester in the mid-1740s, extended in the early C19: no 2 Fieldgate Street, probably also built for Lester in the 1740s, its rear (W) wall rebuilt and the interior reconfigured in the 1960s and later: a single storey range to the rear of no 2 Fieldgate Street probably mid-C18 in date, attached to a three storey stables and workshop range of c1840 with C20 modifications: cottages of 1820 modified and extended in the late C19 and C20: foundry outbuildings to the W and S of the front range of mid-C18 and C19 date, modified in the C20. Attached to the rear of the S outbuilding is a workshop extension of 1979-81*.


MATERIALS Dark purple-red brick and yellow stock brick, with tile roof coverings.

PLAN The plan of nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road comprises three axial rooms heated from the rear and one-room deep, with a stair hall between the central and W room. The early C19 extension to the rear of no 32 has a two room plan with a central hall bay. The plan of no 2 Fieldgate Street has been reconfigured in the mid C20, but is similarly one room deep with the stair at the S side.

EXTERIOR Nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road is a seven window-bay range of three storeys with an attic to the W and cellar to the centre. The roof is hipped at the E end and gabled to the W where it abuts the adjoining property; there are small dormers to the front and rear. The front (N) elevation has a variable bond, but is generally Flemish. At the ground floor is a Doric doorcase at the fifth bay from the E, flanked by two windows with external, panelled shutters with ironmongery; all windows on this elevation are mid-C18, slightly-recessed six-over-six timber sashes with glazing bars beneath straight brick heads. The door case has moulded pilasters, cornice and pediment. A glazed oblong fanlight is flanked by triglyph and guttae motifs. The door has six panels, the top two being smaller, divided by a central muntin; some of the ironmongery may be mid C18. The door is approached by two stone steps, surmounted by replica railings and a central gate. C18 boot-scrapers to either side of the steps are embedded in lead. At the E end of the building is a two-bay shop front, probably of the early C19, with a central, recessed panelled and glazed door approached by steps. The panelled stallrisers, flanked by moulded pilasters, support recessed arched windows with glazing bars. The words ‘CHURCH BELL FOUNDRY’ are painted on the fascia beneath the moulded cornice, with ‘ESTABLISHED AD 1570’ in the blind arched panel above the door. The fenestration on the first and second floors is uniformly spaced, the windows to the first floor being a little taller than those on the second. Above the top storey is a plat band beneath the yellow stock brick parapet with flat coping.

The rear (S) elevation is dominated by the two storey, early C19 extension with a recessed entrance to the rear of no 32, accessed from the yard through a brick arch of the mid-C20, with toilets to the S. The timber panelled door has top glazes. The extension, in yellow brick laid in Flemish bond, has horned three-over-three timber sash windows beneath straight heads to the ground and first floors: the windows appear to be late-C19 in date. The roof of the extension cannot be seen, but rising above are the two broad stacks of the front range, with some renewed pots. The blind E elevation is part-rendered at the base, the exposed bricks above laid in English bond; the plat band wraps around from the façade.

No 2 Fieldgate Street is a three window-bay and three storey former house attached to the rear of no 34 Whitechapel Road, projecting forward onto Fieldgate Street. The front (E) elevation is of red-purple bricks, the S and W elevations of yellow stock brick, all laid in Flemish bond. On the ground floor at the S is a timber, Gibbs door surround beneath a flat hood; the door has six panels, a boot scraper is set in the wall to its right. The windows are near-flush, with moulded timber surrounds beneath straight red brick heads. The two ground floor windows and three to the first floor are horned six-over-six timber sashes and post-1840 in date. The second floor windows are smaller, six-light casements; above, the eaves have dentils. The roof is hipped to the S, the tall chimney in yellow brick rises at the N end, next to a prominent gable-end marking the division of property. The rear (W) elevation was rebuilt in the 1960s with renewed timber cladding.

INTERIOR Nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road retain their plan form and historic fixtures and fittings of the C18 and C19. On the ground floor, the far E room is the shop entrance to the foundry; panelling beneath the shop windows appears contemporary as do the wall-mounted cupboards to the right. A wooden hook projects from the middle of these cupboards; reams of brown paper are said to have been hung from here which could be fashioned into head-coverings for the foundry workers, shown in an illustration in the shop. A cabinet at the rear of the shop is of 1851. The central ground floor room, in use as an office, has wall panelling and a C19 fireplace. Further W is the panelled stair hall; the walls are half-panelled and the door has its original ironmongery. The quarter-turn stair is mid-C18 and intact, with a landing to the front at each floor level lit by a sash window. The stair has a curtail stop at the ground floor, a ramped, moulded handrail and open strings. The simply-moulded turned newels have flat caps; the balusters are turned and moulded. Beyond the hall, the western room (formerly the board room, then a dining room) and all three rooms on the first floor are fully panelled with simply moulded cornices and dado rails in places. There are four or six panel doors with moulded architraves. The windows have internal shutters, shutter boxes and panelled aprons. All rooms retain their chimney pieces, mostly hob grates with simple surrounds; all are of mid-C18 or early-C19 date and flanked by arched alcoves or cupboards with two-panel doors. In the central first floor room, there is a good apsidal niche cupboard with marble surround to the right of the chimney piece; it is probably early-C19 in date. The floorboards in general are wide, except where replaced. The third floor rooms are much simpler, without wall panelling or window shutters, but with simple chimney pieces to each room. The doors are four-panelled; all joinery on this floor is simply moulded. In the eastern room there is a two-panelled door to a corner cupboard; another cupboard has a round-headed strap hinge. The interconnecting door here has the ghost markings of a HL hinge, but all other hinges observed throughout are C19 or later. From the top landing, a narrow winder stair leads to the attic where the room has no historic fixtures or fittings.

The ground floor of the rear extension had a service function; the room to the W of the rear entrance door was the kitchen with matchboard panelling to the lower walls and a timber surround to the range recess carved with the initials TM and the date 1820. The first floor rooms of the extension accommodate a modern kitchen and bathroom.

The interior of no 2 Fieldgate Street is accessed from the eastern room of no 34 at all floor levels. The interior was reconfigured in the 1960s and no historic interior fixtures and fittings are thought to survive. At the ground floor, the entrance door has modern ironmongery. The stairs are in their original position, but the banisters are replaced on the ground to first floor flight. The upper two storeys were not inspected.


There are workshops to the S and W of the yard at the rear of nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road and buildings at the E side of the complex fronting Fieldgate Street and Plumbers Row ranging from the mid-C18 to the mid-C19 in date, all are modified in the late C19 and C20. The current process of bell-founding starts with making shaped inner (for the bell core) and outer (for the cope) moulds from loam and loam-bricks, which, after being baked, are clamped together to form the shape of the bell. Metal is heated in a furnace, poured into a crucible which is transported by a gantry crane and then poured into the bell mould. All of this takes place in the loam shop at the W of the site. After cooling, the outer mould is removed to reveal the newly-cast bell; after excess loam and metal is removed the bell is tuned to reach the required tone by using a lathe (tuning machine) that shaves off metal until the right sound is achieved. This takes place in the Montreal foundry (E of the loam shop) and tuning shop to the N. Hand bells are cast in sand and metal patterns, moulded conventionally and finished in the three-storey 1840 range fronting Plumbers Row. On the top floor of this building is the carpenter's shop where all formwork, including bell wheels, are made. This range incorporates the C19 vehicular access to the foundry.

MATERIALS Mostly yellow stock brick with slate and corrugated iron coverings to the roofs.

PLAN The east range is cranked and incorporates a pair of early-C19 cottages. The workshops to the rear of nos 32-34 Whitechapel Road and no 2 Fieldgate Street are located on the S and W sides of a small yard with a flagstone surface.

EXTERIOR Attached to the S side of no 2 Fieldgate Street is a single storey, red and yellow brick building of mid C18 date, but rebuilt at the rear in the 1960s when the pantile covering to the roof was renewed. The E elevation faces Fieldgate Street. The lower part of the wall is rendered set into which is a plaque (with a brick surround) incised with the words ‘This is Baynes Street 1766’; this was dug up from nearby and set into the wall in the 1980s. To the right is a metal casement window. A sign above reads ‘WHITECHAPEL BELL FOUNDRY’. To the S (left) is the 1840 blacksmiths and warehouse range of three bays and three storeys, with a recessed attic, built in yellow brick laid in Flemish bond. At the far left is a retained plank double-door for vehicular access in the C19 (not in use in 2017), above which, and to the left of, is a timber jib crane of c1840 beneath a bracketed canopy. The crane is thought to be one of the oldest timber cranes in London and was used, presumably, for taking in materials to the upper floors and lowering heavy items onto carts. The windows have elliptical-arched heads; three of the openings are blocked, and a fourth partly so. The other four openings have casement windows of the late C19 or C20. Attached to the S (left) of this range, cranked to follow the road line, is the pair of former cottages, again of three storeys with an attic, and with a hipped roof to the S. The round-arched door openings are blocked as are all of the elliptical-arched window openings to each floor; a ground floor window has an inserted casement, with a later window inset to the right of it.

The rear elevations of these structures are partly obscured by the foundry workshops to the W; where observed the construction and treatment are consistent with the front elevation. The roof coverings are slate.

The exterior elevations of the loam shop and Montreal foundry are mostly obscured; the E elevation of the loam shop was reconstructed in the 1960s in mixed yellow stock and red brick with straight yellow brick heads to the window openings. It is entered from the yard through doors on its E elevation, above which is casement window and clock of unknown date. On the S side of the yard is the N elevation of the 1848 tuning shop, with double timber panelled and glazed entrance doors from the yard. Above the door is a casement window of 25 lights and to the right is another with 40 lights. There is a plain timber cornice above; the lantern roof has a corrugated asbestos and slate covering. Fixed to the yard surface, beside the tuning shop door, is a modern electric bell chime of 9 bells erected in 1981.

The S workshop of 1979-81* is excluded from the listing.

INTERIOR The single storey building attached to no 2 Fieldgate Street is used as part of the visitor attraction and has no historic fixtures and fittings. The ground floors of the warehouse, including the former blacksmiths shop, and the former cottages, are entirely remodelled to provide a fire escape and washroom facilities, and are partly open to the workshops to the W. A C20 stair rises from the former vehicular entrance of the warehouse to the upper floors where hand-bell finishing and carpentry takes place. The external rear windows to the rear are blocked and there are no historic fixtures and fittings remaining, apart from a section of the forge chimney in one of the northern rooms. The roof structure comprises tie beams with raking shores, common rafters and ridge pieces, with some replaced members from when the structure was rebuilt in the late C20. The cottages evidently had rear wings, and the southernmost wing on the second floor was extended in the late C20 into the Montreal foundry to the W. This is the carpenters shop; features of note are the memorial slate plaques attached to the remaining part of the cottage's party wall which record the names, dates of birth and death of some of the foundry’s former employees. The hatches through which the bell-wheels were lowered from the carpenters shop remain.

The interiors of both the loam shop and Montreal foundry have painted brick walls. The loam shop has a late-C20 drying kiln* to the N and furnace* to the S. At approximately the centre of the shop is the casting pit, thought to be the location of the original C18 pit. It has C20 brick lining and was covered with boiler plates at the time of the inspection in 2017. The roof covering is corrugated iron, supported on king post trusses, with two louvred lanterns to the roof. The Montreal foundry opens to the E and has a bespoke timber roof structure, of common rafters and substantial tie beams and upright posts. The 1848 tuning shop has a tuning machine and steel supports of 1922, and retains the original timber beam to the earlier (removed) tuning machine (all included in the listing). The remains of the line shafting to the steam engine attached to the E wall of the tuning shop are also included in the listing. The roof structure has common rafters and diagonal bracing.

The workshops contain C20 equipment generic to small-scale manufacturing including travelling cranes/gantries*, furnaces*, lathes*, planes* and other wood-working equipment*, mills* and welders*. All of these items, and other unspecified C20 equipment not bespoke to the manufacture of bells, have limited heritage significance and are excluded from the listing.The tuning machine of 1976* in the Montreal Foundry, although specifically for the tuning of bells, is a late example of its type and is also excluded from the listing.

SUBSIDIARY FEATURES The railings to the front of no 32 Whitechapel Road are 1950s replicas of the originals. The steps are concrete and of the same date as the railings but the boot scrapers are mid-C18.

* Pursuant to s1(5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’) it is declared that these aforementioned features are not of special architectural or historic interest.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Pevsner, N, Cherry, B, O'Brien, C, The Buildings of England: London 5 East, (2005), 429-430
Survey of London entry, accessed 23/2/17 from https://surveyoflondon.org/map/feature/155/detail/
Whitechapel bell foundry website, accessed 24/2/17 from www.whitechapelbellfoundry.co.uk


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

The listed buildings are shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building (save those coloured blue on the map) are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act.

End of official listing

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