02 Dec 2016

Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Oldest Manufacturing Company in Britain, Closing Its Doors

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Rafe Heydel-Mankoo shared some sad news.

Does any city have a sound more instantly recognisable than the toll of Big Ben? The mighty bell’s unmistakable hourly peal and the familiar Westminster Chime of its sister bells (“All through this hour; Lord, be my guide; And by Thy power; No foot shall slide”) are famous throughout the world, immediately conjuring up evocative images of a foggy day in old London town.

Bells have echoed through London’s soundscape for centuries.

When London was a walled city, church bells rang out the curfew every evening to signal the locking of the city gates. Traditionally, true cockneys are said to be born within earshot of “Bow Bells” (the bells of the church of St. Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside), and generations of children have grown up singing “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St. Clements”, a nursery rhyme identifying the bells of various City churches.

Since 1570 many of London’s most important bells have been produced by the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the oldest manufacturing company in Britain and the most famous bell manufacturer in the world.

In 1752 America’s famous Liberty Bell was struck here and just over a century later, in 1858, the Foundry cast Big Ben, its most famous bell. Visitors to the Whitechapel premises walk through a cross section of Big Ben upon entering the front door.

Over the centuries, the bells of the Whitechapel Foundry have rung out over cities as far afield as imperial St. Petersburg, Chennai, Washington DC and Toronto.

Alas, I am sad to announce that despite this magnificent history, after over two centuries in the same ancient building, this great London institution is to extinguish its Whitechapel furnace and close its doors forever in May 2017. The building is likely to be sold. What will become of the almost 450 year old company remains to be seen.

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Mosques don’t have bells.

André M. Smith

My introduction to English handbells was sixty-six years ago during a performance on The Garry Moore Show telecast in its first season from New York in 1950. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Garry_Moore_Show#Original_version_.281950.E2.80.931958.29 The ringers were based in Brick Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. http://www.brickchurch.org/RelId/606377/ISvars/default/Home.htm The conductress was Doris Watson. http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/mycentraljersey/obituary.aspx?n=doris-watson&pid=175651837&fhid=16591 and http://handbellmusicians.org/memorial/watson/ (Her book on handbell ringing is readily available online at https://archive.org/stream/handbellchoir002231mbp/handbellchoir002231mbp_djvu.txt The original print edition of this book includes a picture of the Brick ringers.) The Church remains in possession of its Whitechapel bells, now silently stored in boxes in a tower closet that remains off-limits.

I was immediately enthralled with both the sound and the idea that ringers of handbells played only one or two pitches which, together, formed the whole. The only other way of approaching a complete composition in such a manner with which I was then familiar was that of the Russian horn band, founded in 1750 in Saint Petersburg. https://hornworld.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/bruchle-9.jpg and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrDCZaPWpx8&list=RDKrDCZaPWpx8#t=89. And that’s the point in time during which my interest in handbells, otherwise unknown widely in The United States in that era, began its dormancy.

In 1970 a friend of mine who ran his own music shop in Baltimore acquired twenty-five used Whitechapel bells as a part of an estate sale. Believing, quite rightly, that there was no local market for these instruments, he offered the whole two octaves to me for $100! Considering their source and the family recollections he had been given with the bells, our speculation then was that they had been cast sometime between 1950 and 1961. This set later served me, but not always well, suspended individually as a carillon I had designed in 1982. It remained their basic mount until my wife decided in 2009 to buy the entire Whitechapel catalogue of seventy-eight bells for me as a birthday gift.

Before her death in June 2013 she significantly enhanced the bell fund to permit me, in continuum, to buy whatever quantity of bells will be required to make this instrument as full as possible. The count to date is two-hundred-forty-one bells; about half of which are in designs and custom pitches unique to this instrument.

There are several other distinctive features of this carillon as it’s currently developing. Among them are, First, it’s the only carillon of its kind in the world. Second, singularity aside, when finished it also will be the largest instrument of its kind. The frame from which the entire ensemble is currently suspended is 5’ deep x 8’ wide x 7’ high. Its present form has taken five years (2010-15) to reach.
The future? I’ll play the seer here on only one point : Faoiteséipéal go Brách!

André M. Smith, Bach Mus, Mas Sci (Juilliard)
Diploma (Lenox Hill Hospital School of Respiratory Therapy)
Postgraduate studies in Human and Comparative Anatomy (Columbia University)
Formerly Bass Trombonist
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra of New York,
Leopold Stokowski’s American Symphony Orchestra (Carnegie Hall),
The Juilliard Orchestra, Aspen Festival Orchestra, etc.


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