Some footage of bells being cast at the foundry
It’s going to be a busy summer for the East End, with both the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. And the events will be marked with that most English of sounds – the ringing of bells. But for a change, it won’t just be the traditional ‘change ringing’ from a church tower. This time we can all get involved.
Depending on whether you’re a Betjeman or a Meldrew when it comes to being summoned (or simply woken up) by bells, the morning of 27 July this year will be either a day of moist-eyed nostalgic joy or one for burying your head under the pillow. At 8am on the first day of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Work No.1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes by Turner Prize-winning artist and musician Martin Creed*, will be performed throughout the UK. Martin is inviting the nation to get outside and ring thousands of bells at the same time: whether schools bells, church bells, town hall bells, bicycle bells or doorbells.
It won’t just be the amateurs having a go. Mark Backhouse is the works manager at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which has been casting bells in the East End since at least 1570 (though it can trace its Aldgate roots and list of master founders back to 1420), and he’ll be playing his part. “Eight in the morning is a tricky time for people going to work, but our staff will be outside ringing handbells and I will be in my local church out in Erith ringing the changes,” he says. And there’s a particular cause for celebration for the Foundry: this summer has been very good for business.
First, the Jubilee celebrations kick off on 3 June, when a 500-tonne barge sets off down the Thames, with eight specially cast bells on board (each one named after a senior member of the royal family). The barge will lead the seven-mile long jubilee flotilla of 1000 boats, and Mark is surprisingly cool about what the bell ringers aboard have to achieve, musing: “Tower bells have never been rung on a barge before, and they’re obviously not going to be rung full circle [when the bell faces right up]. I wonder if people realise how loud they will be outside a church tower!” Perhaps when you’ve cast thousands of bells down the centuries, including the Liberty Bell (which cracked) and Big Ben (which also cracked) you develop a certain coolness under pressure.
The foundry was probably the only choice when you’re commissioning bells for a royal celebration. Having been established during the reign of Elizabeth I, its history spans the reign of 27 English monarchs. King George V and Queen Mary came to witness the casting of two bells for Westminster Abbey, and the present Queen visited in 2009. Managing director Alan Hughes and his family are relative newcomers, his great grandfather taking over the foundry a mere 108 years ago.
But Alan discovered a shared history when welcoming our present Queen to Whitechapel in 2009, greeting the monarch with: “My grandfather welcomed your grandfather. So, welcome back!” And so the barge bells were cast in Whitechapel: from Elizabeth (the biggest), then Philip (second biggest) and down through William, Andrew, Charles, Anne, Edward and Henry. Each bears the Royal crest, the names of sponsors (including the City livery companies, and its own inscription, Elizabeth proclaiming “The Royal Jubilee Bells ring today to the glory of God.”
That fan of all things traditionally English, former poet laureate John Betjeman would have loved it. Bells, after all, crop up time and again in his verse, whether it be in celebration of the English countryside, as in the Bells of Westgate:
Hark, I hear the bells of Westgate,
I will tell you what they sigh,
Where those minarets and steeples
Prick the open Thanet sky.
Happy bells of eighteen-ninety,
Bursting from your freestone tower!
Recalling laurel, shrubs and privet,
Red geraniums in flower.
Or in celebration of Christmas:
The bells of waiting Advent ring,
The Tortoise stove is lit again
And lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green.
The next link in the campanological chain came when film-maker Danny Boyle, in charge of the Olympic opening ceremony, had the idea for ringing in the Games with a big bell. He was struck by the idea after buying an old one from the Whitechapel foundry to use at the National Theatre for his superb production of Frankenstein, featuring Sherlock actor Benedict Cumberbatch.
Boyle decided that a bell would strike a suitably patriotic note for the opening of the Games. A two-metre-tall, three-metre-wide bell was duly commissioned from the foundry, though it has been cast in Asten, in the Netherlands, as it is too big for the Whitechapel works. After the ceremony it will be moved to the Olympic Park. The Olympic Bell, a 23-tonne monster that is the world’s largest tuned bell, bears its own inscription, taken from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,” it counsels. On the morning of 27 July, the noise could well be deafening … get your bells ready!