Thursday, 9 August 2012


More than a year ago, I used to have my CAD classes in Commercial Road. We used to travel from Holloway road after the other modules through Kings Cross, waiting patiently for Hammersmith & City, endlessly, until our arrival to Aldgate East. Then we discovered that actually, the new Overground lines opened in February 2011 could easily take us to Whitechapel, involving the same amount of walk that would normally take us from Aldgate.

This new route from Whitechapel Road discovered me a new area of East London: another perspective of Brick Lane, Whitechapel Market, Royal London Hospital, Mulberry St (always reminded me of the bags) and Plumbers Rd. I also ended up discovering Petticoat Lane Market one day getting lost.

But it was while transferring from Whitechapel Road to Commercial, in that Plumbers Rd corner, there was this brown wooden Front Shop announcing 'Church Bell Foundry', and at the back, sometimes  the big industrial garage door open that let me sneak peak the activity inside.

And I was able to see what I suspected: part of the foundry and the freshly made church bells. I remember how every time I had to come to my classes, I would cross the road, closer and closer to the foundry, trying to get a better glimpse of the activity.

As I usually do, by the time my interest on it grew to high level, I google-ed the foundry to know more about it and exploring the possibility of getting inside; to my dismay, the very few tours around available were fully booked even a year in advance, so I resigned myself to sneak over the fence every now and then.

Summer 2012. More than a year after and with my Masters finished, and again, through a discrete tweet by The Gentle Author (I just find amusing how many cool things I am managing to find lately via Twitter), lead me to find out that their doors were opening.

Funnily enough, the reason for this exception is a pure coincidence between logistics and chance. Turns out, due to the Olympics, trade in and out of London, specially the one involving big heavy trucks was predicted to be affected by the road closures, plus the normal expected disruptions from the Games and half of the country going away from holiday. Such amount of inconvenience lead to the board of the Foundry to decide to stop the manufacture for a couple of weeks and use up that time for exceptionally open its doors for the public during the time.

Obviously, I went to see it. First thing in the morning. 

The views from the main office.


According to the tour lady, Big Ben, Liberty Bell and the Olympic Bell were designed and manufactured on the site (actually the Olympic bell had to be manufactured elsewhere, as they don't have enough melting capacity, so it was secretly transported). Mega!

As soon as the lovely tour lady told us about the Liberty bell from Philadelphia having being made at that site, I couldn't help but visualising the episode from How I met your mother in which the talk about licking the Liberty Bell. Yum... lovely taste of metal...

And the courtyard, between the main office and the factory. 

Although the Foundry was founded in 1570, it was originally based in Aldgate and subsequently moved to its current location around 1600 if I remember correctly. 

As the space was limited and the business was growing, eventually they had to grow towards the inside of the property, turning it into a very quirky and lovely courtyard.

The office building was actually and add-on.

A Burmese bell from around 1200 that came to the foundry to be recycled into a new bell but kept it. It was beautiful. 


Now inside the workshop...

Benches for preparing the bricks

Tea cabinet. Essential


Just like the Three Wise Men brought gold, frankincense and myrrh, the bell makers need horse's hair, manure, clay, sand and water: the recipe for the mould. And just like making bread, they chuck the mix into an industrial mixer to come up with the doug for the bricks. The doug is called Loam.

For those geeks into metallurgy or just curious about bell manufacturing, HERE, a very clear explanation of how the process works.

Clay is a ceramic material. Porous and therefore refractary. Resistant to high temperature, allows and even and relatively slow cooling down of the molten metal. The manure probably provides with the bonding of all the substances involved.

Hairy bits. I imagine the hair acts assuring the structural integrity of the mix. Just like carbon fibre on the epoxy matrix in composite materials (here trying to apply my field to the matter).

Good old fuses

Different bases for different sizes of bell

And the form is filled with the bricks and the paste that will hold the molten metal when poured and provide the shape. The wholes allow the black paste to be relieved with the pressure. The central jig, called Strickle gives the internal shape.

An internal former, made of the same mix is needed. When given the shape, the mud is painted with graphite, to ease the remoulding.

Lumps of loam

In the process

Cooling down

The rebel alliance stronghold guardians of the...

The manager of the foundry cracking on...

Bolts, washers and nuts. I've seen a lot of those lately.

G-clamps: always handy

The workshop

Big Ben strickle on the left. Olympic Bell on the right

Tuning area

Massive drill. I bet I would not only not be able to drill anything with it but also, I would not be able to lift it at all...

Tongues or clappers to make the bell sound

Sand mould for the hand bells. Different process and different shape.

Clock in, clock out

What a lovely place and lovely staff. I am so glad that I managed to come. One off definitely, as there are no more bookings available until next year...

By the time I finished the tour it was poring.

But I had to run away to meet my friend K, waiting for me in Hackney Wick to go for a lovely walk. But as you know, that WAS another story

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