The bell tolls for Whitechapel Foundry, which made some of this nation's most beloved bells

Lesedauer: min

What do churches in downtown Charleston and Sullivan's Island have in common with Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia and London's Houses of Parliament?

All have bells cast by Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which decided earlier this year to shutter its downtown London location where it did business for centuries.

In the small circles of change ringing — where the Charleston area is a national leader, with four churches having tuned bells specially rung by hand — the news was a bit of a blow.

Whitechapel's closing marks a nostalgic milestone and the end of an era for one of the world's oldest manufacturers that began business 100 years before Carolina was a colony.

C.J. Cantwell, tower captain at St. Michael's Church, said the church was saddened to hear the news.

"Our bells were cast there and delivered to Charleston in 1764, the first of seven trips for the bells to and from Whitechapel," she said. "This link through history is certainly a loss to us.”

Wray Lemke, who rings bells at The Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, visited Whitechapel last year before the foundry closed its doors, talked with the owner and pored over the records on local bells.

"As far as it affecting Charleston, it's just a sad footnote in history," he said.

A 'heavy heart'

The Guinness World Records lists Whitechapel as Britain's oldest manufacturer. The company began in 1570, exactly 100 years before the Carolina colony began at what is now Charles Towne Landing.

Foundry directors Alan and Kathryn Hughes put out a statement essentially saying their business was gentrified out of London's Whitechapel district as it changes to mostly residential.

"New developments now in the process of being built adjacent to our site will give us neighbors who would find difficulties with our industrial output and noise," they said. "A much changed road network adjacent to the buildings makes it almost impossible for large vehicles to access our premises."

The Hughes said it was with a "heavy heart" they decided to close the family business, which has been owned by several families over time. While the business dates to 1570, its Whitechapel site has been its home since 1738, about a decade or so before St. Michael's was built.

The Hughes said they hope leaving the foundry's current site "will provide an opportunity for the business to move forward in a new direction," but those details are still in the works. Whites of Appleton Ltd. Church Bell Hangers has bought Whitechapel's pattern equipment and can continue to make components.

Cantwell said as a practical matter, the patents for the fittings required by the St Michael's bells have been assigned to a firm with almost 200 years of association with Whitechapel, "so maintenance of the bells will not be a problem going forward."

But Lemke said not having the original foundry does have implications. "Parts will be more difficult to source because the files for the bells with the part numbers, etc., is now in the London Metropolitan Archives," he said.

Legendary bells

The foundry also cast Big Ben, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and the bells in the U.S. National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. It also created a tribute bell that London gave to New York following the 9/11 attacks.

All of the foundry's bells in South Carolina are in the Charleston area, Lemke said.

Grace Church Cathedral built a bell tower more than a decade ago. It bought eight of its new bells from The Church of Mary Magdalene in Enfield, England, which were cast at John Warner & Sons in London in 1883. But Grace also bought two additional trebles cast at Whitechapel in 1999.

The Stella Maris Catholic Church on Sullivan's Island has eight bells cast by Whitechapel in 1995, the same year that Whitechapel cast a bell for a future landside chapel at Patriot's Point. That chapel hasn't been built, but its bell is currently on display aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown.

But it's St. Michael's Church, Charleston's oldest surviving church building, that has had the longest relationship with Whitechapel.

Its eight bells have rung for more than 250 years, and changes in the city's history, such as the Civil War and Hurricane Hugo, led to many of them being sent back to Whitechapel for recasting and resetting in their original molds. Their combined weight is almost four tons, which is quite heavy but notably less than Big Ben, Whitechapel's largest bell ever, which weighs 13.5 tons.

Lemke notes the importance of St. Michael's bells is underscored by an 1867 report in the Charleston Daily News, after the bells returned from Whitechapel following the war:

“Yesterday for the first time after a long and sad silence, the old bells of St. Michael rang out their well-remembered chimes," the report said, "and there was not a native heart that did not throb in unison. Many a manly lip quivered, many a gentle eye filled, for who could forget how often they had peaked in exultation with our hopes, or tolled in sympathy with the brave and good who perished in the bitter struggle.”

The Cathedral Church of St. Luke and St. Paul originally received bells cast by Abel Rudhall for a church in Dorchester, then were owned by St. Paul's Summerville. The bells went through several changes before the final single bell was sent to Columbia to be used for cannons during the Civil War. Union troops ruined that bell there.

"Interestingly, enough, the pieces of bell metal that were from St. Michael's and St. Paul's were gathered up, and with the four St. Michael's bells that had been spirited away for safe keeping, were sent back to England and cast into the bells that now hang in St. Michael's," Lemke said.

"Although none of the bells that rang at St. Paul's were ever cast by Whitechapel or its predecessors, it is kind of fitting that St. Michael's bells are tied to St. Paul's tower."

'Going to be missed'

After Hurricane Hugo in 1989, St. Michael's bells made their most recent trip back to Whitechapel.

Around that time is when Charleston architect Dan Beaman first learned of Whitechapel and met Allen Hughes.

Beaman said he watched the neighborhood around the foundry grow rapidly, adding, "I can only imagine that property is worth a fortune now."

Bruce Butler, president of the North American Guild of Change Ringers, said the Taylors foundry in England still survives "and is almost equally famous."

"I'm sure that not having Whitechapel around is going to make a difference," Butler said. "Allen was a good friend, personally and to the North American Guild. He'd come over and give talks on maintenance to members and advise various people. To a lot of people, Whitechapel is the place to go to make the bells. It's going to be missed."

Beaman agreed.

"It was a very fine company, and it's sad to see something that's worked for so long go out of business, but I can understand," he said. "There comes a point in time when we all need to retire. I did."

Shortly before Whitechapel went away, the United States got a foundry of its own. Benjamin Sunderlin of Ruther Glen, Virginia, studied the craft of bell making in Europe and then returned to start his new business in 2015 that he calls "the only traditional bell foundry in the United States."

Beaman noted that Sunderlin recently made a repair to a broken bell clapper at Grace Church Cathedral.