Author Archives: Eva

Visit to Whitechapel bell foundry

Whitechapel, a 500-year-old marvel in the 21st Century in the Heart of London

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One Thursday morning, 18 September 2014 I cycled up to Whitechapel to witness something amazing: three new bells being cast. Once everyone (including nosy bell ringers) had arrived, Mark Backhouse, the Works Manager showed us through the courtyard and into the main workshop, where we took our place behind the almost invisible yellow line that serves as a sign of the health and safety zone. We immediately travelled 500 years back in time, as nothing had changed much over the centuries, except perhaps, that the furnace is now not fuelled by charcoal but oil. However, we wouldn’t witness that, only the roaring of the immense heat that – over 5 hours – melted 20 cwt of bell metal, mainly copper and tin.

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The floor was covered in dust, while the walls were full of handcrafted tools, bell shaped gauges to form moulds, among them the one that had formed the famous Big Ben; human-operated, chain-driven pullies and lifting systems; a great tank of sticky moulding material (loam); an oven as big as a double room to air dry the moulds (this place does not need too much heating in winter). This is a craft that produces handmade bells from beginning to end using hardly any machinery. By the way, did you know that each foundry has their own shape of bells, their own individual sound? This is called the “Whitechapel profile”. And as Ben Kipling was kind to explain: “Actually there are a few slightly different “Whitechapel profiles”: “Whitechapel Old-Style profile”, “Whitechapel Mark I Simpson profile”, “Whitechapel Mark II Simpson profile” and “Whitechapel Mark III Simpson profile”. “The sound bow of a Whitechapel bell is typically slightly larger and taller than the sound bows of most other bells, and the exact curve of the waist and crown also varies slightly.”

Pic 3As we learned, the loam for the moulds is made up of sand, clay, horse manure, goats’ hair and water, to add up to a sticky, mud-like substance that is shaped to fill in the inside and cover up the outside of the wannabe bell. When the desired shape and size is formed using the locally crafted tool (the gauge), the mould is set into the drying oven. Any cracks appearing during this process will be filled in until the surface is perfectly smooth. You don’t want any excess metal.

Pic 4The mould is then sealed together and placed on an iron stands, ready for the metal. The metal needs 4-6 hours to melt in the furnace at around 1100 degrees Celsius, depending, of course on the size of the future bells. Believe it or not, there aren’t overly complicated mathematical calculations on how much metal is needed for the bells, it is in the instincts of the foundry workers and in the air and tradition of the foundry, I guess. Then it is poured into a huge “bucket” (crucible) that helps carry it to each mould.

Pic 5But before that, any impurities that there may be get scraped off the top of the liquid bell metal: only the finest bronze deserves to become a bell.

Pic 6And the magic started here: a water-like, glowing, fiery metal was poured into the mould letting out hot air and methane gas. It resembled a mini volcano. The powder on top helped retain the temperature to keep the top metal molten until the rest of the bell had begun to solidify. And another fun fact: the animal hair in the mould does not only keep the mould together but burns from the heat during the casting, giving its place to tiny air vents that allow extra pressure to escape and prevent the mould from blowing up.

Then they were left to cool. It can take 3 days, but if they are huge tenors, it can take up to a week or two. When done – it starts feeling like a recipe –, the mould is carefully lifted to reveal the newly cast bell.

Pic 7Pic 8The bell is then taken to the neighbouring workshop to get tuned. I never have thought it was this complicated, but they don’t only get tuned for one, but five notes, so that the overall tone will give the most pleasant possible sound, that will distinguish them from buckets. In the tuning workshop we learned from Ben, that as a bell gets thinner its sound gets to lower and lower notes. It is again not without importance which part of the bell the metal gets removed: as we saw on two old bells (so old that they were tuned with chisel and hammer), if you carve the inside of the sound rim, the note gets lower, whereas if you chip off metal from the lip, the note gets higher. Isn’t it interesting? Pic 9Tuning today is done with a machine, making it somewhat faster, but still a lot depends on the bell tuner’s perception of and satisfaction from the overall sound of the bell. Pic 10When the bell is trained to sing properly, it goes to be prepared to get hung in towers. In earlier times, they had loops or canons, cast together with the main bell, today bells are cast with a flat head in which holes are drilled that serve to attach a headstock to it. Such canons, and quite fancy ones too, can be seen in this picture with monkeys who want to “hear no evil” (or are they just complaining that the tuner neglected his job? I don’t know).  Pic 11

The craftsmen here are all wonderful people and pay careful attention to what they are doing, maybe that’s why Whitechapel’s bells are so outstanding across the world. I cannot thank them enough to let me witness such a magnificent event, but can only encourage everyone to visit the foundry and experience one of the few workshops where the products are still handmade after hundreds and hundreds of years of tradition and thus individually unique and marvellous.

Written by Eva Redei

Proofread and adjusted by Ben Kipling

Narrated by Mark Backhouse

How Eva came to ring at Stepney on Remembrance Sunday

Towers are fun. Bell ringing is fun. And beautiful.

The bells of Stepney (St. Dunstan and All Saints Church, that is) amazed me on that late August morning, when Julian took us on a tour of the tower. Before that time I had only seen the architectural and historical beauty of the church. Such tours are rare and available to few tourists, so I jumped at the opportunity – not anticipating where it would take me. I was soon hooked and started to attend the regular ringing practices.

The more I learn the stronger is the bond between me and the bells and, of course, the ringers.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to experience something even more amazing than “chiming of a few tonnes of metal” and this was the annual half-muffled ringing on Remembrance Sunday. On Saturday I joined Elizabeth, Ed and Julian, who went up the tower to put on the muffles.

Halloween still lingering in the air and the masquerade potential of the muffle too difficult to resist, Ed and I had fun “calling some changes” of personality. (Ed declining to appear with me here, but believe me, he did look funny.)


Eva modelling the muffles for Remembrance Sunday at Stepney

This irreverent bit of fun was followed by a dash of worry: Julian questioning not the propriety of playing dress-up with muffles, but whether the muffles were on the correct side of the clappers. Ringing the bells up – starting with the tenor, since its “new” clapper needs to be flipped over anyway – and turning them over a few times confirmed all was well and gave a sneak preview of the magnificent concert to come on Sunday morning.

Audio of half-muffled bells on Remembrance Sunday 2013 recorded outside of St Dunstans, Stepney

That morning dawned on us with beautiful sunshine and a fantastic, clear blue sky. Grandsire Triples and call changes filled the air. Then, as a final tribute to all those who lost their lives in the wars and never came home – all those ringers who never returned to their home towers – at Elizabeth’s suggestion the bells stood silent one by one ending with the tenor’s graceful and lonely chime to bless all souls.

Video of the half-muffled tenor being rung up on Remembrance Sunday 2013

Video of Elizabeth, Ed, and Julian ringing up the 3,5 and 7 bells on Remembrance Sunday

Note from webmaster – all of these videos, and others, are available at the Docklandsringers YouTube channel. Click on icon at bottom of right hand sidebar