Stop 11: Bell Foundry
The Guinness Book of Records lists the Whitechapel Bell Foundry as Britain's oldest operating manufacturing company, established during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in 1570. The foundry first stood on the north side of Whitechapel High St and then moved to its current location in this Georgian Terraced building in 1738.
It is useful to consider the changing nature of the East End's economy as a backdrop to our tour and the Bell foundry provides a good pointer. John Stowe, the author of a late 16th century guidebook to London wrote that the Whitechapel Road was 'pestered with cottages and small tenements'. The Industrial Revolution changed everything. From the 1780s, the close proximity to the River Thames, the docks and trade routes changed the East End from early 18th century countryside to 19th century workplace. The Industrial Revolution brought work, wages and freedom from toil on the land but with it came overcrowding, low pay and slum living. The East End became home to the thousands flocking to London from further a-field to find work. Waves of immigrants settled here because it was a poor area and one of the few places they might afford to live and find work. Outside the city walls, the East End became home to what were called the 'smelly industries' such as tanneries, abattoirs and refineries.
Britain's relationship with its former colonies is reflected in the Foundry too. The master founder –owner of the Bell Foundry – at the beginning of the 1900s, one Alfred Lawson had previously worked as a colonial manager of the National Bank of India, in Bombay. Nationalist ideas, a belief in Empire and a direct stake in it, informed the thinking of British industrialists in this period. Apparently Lawson kept his distance from the great unwashed here in the East End, living elsewhere and leaving the day to day running of the Foundry to its manager.
As Britain's oldest former colony, America became increasingly industrialised too, many bells were made here for shipment across the Atlantic. These included the famous Liberty Bell, which in 1753 cracked after its first stroke. You can find out more about the bells and the foundry in the little museum and shop next to the Bell Foundry.
Today the slums have gone, so has the heavy industry; the smelly industries, the textile sweatshops and Britain has lost its Empire and its colonies. In this area we now have the cool inner-city creative industries. Around the corner for example, is a large building occupied by Atlantis Arts. Atlantis Arts sell art materials for local artists, have a mail order catalogue and last year served over 130,000 customers.
The creative industries, however, are not mass employers and this area still has extremely high unemployment (almost 12% of the working-age population in 2007) particularly among the Bengali population. This year too the new immigration rules will even affect creative arts outfits who want to invite artists from overseas. They will have to become officially registered sponsors at a cost and can only invite to the UK renowned artists who can prove they have lived entirely off their art practice for more than 12 months, a rare phenomenon for artists anywhere in the world.