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Notes and news — February 2017

In this issue:

Whitechapel Bell Foundry to close?

It is now probable that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London will cease work on its present site. There has been a report that following the retirement of the present master bell founder Alan Hughes in May 2017 the business will be put up for sale.

The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is the UK's oldest manufacturing company with a history going back to 1570. The foundry has been on its present site for more than 250 years. Here Big Ben and the American Liberty Bell were made, as well as bells for churches throughout the world including Westminster Abbey, St Paul's Cathedral and numerous other cathedrals across the country.

The chances are that the business will now move again, with the current building which dates from 1670 and is listed grade II* having already been sold. Before 1739 this building was a coaching inn called the Artichoke. Bob Carr

Whitechapel Bell Foundry wooden wall crane Whitechapel Bell Foundry wooden wall crane

According to the only other bell founders in the country are the relatively well-known John Taylor of Loughborough, with a lengthy history (if one shorter than that of Whitechapel), and the — to me — not-previously-heard-of Matthew Higby, who seem to be concerned with only small bells.

According to the Historic England listings web page (, the building is listed Grade II* (first listed 1950, presumably II, upgraded 1973); but the listing text is brief and would appear to date from a time when industrial archaeological significance counted for nothing. It needs updating!

The foundry must be one of the few 'manufacturing' sites still functioning in the role it had when it was included in our 1969 gazetteer of Greater London's industrial monuments. It also featured in the late Aubrey Wilson's London's Industrial Heritage of 1967, with a rather dark photo of a lathe. We noted that much was still done by hand, as indeed it has to be in a specialised craft foundry.

Bob and Pam Carr gave a valuably informative account (GLIAS Newsletter August 1989) of the bell-founding process, as gleaned from a visit in 1988. And Tim Smith noted (GLIAS Newsletter October 2009) the presence of a wall-crane there, as of others elsewhere.

While there are doubtless films of the foundry at work and indeed photos taken by GLIAS members during visits, I would hope that — if the foundry is indeed to close — then the Survey of London and/or Museum of London will stir stumps to make a decent record (before, not after, closure!) by inventory, measured survey, photos and video, and oral recording. Michael Bussell

Gasholder news

At Hornsey the fine Cutler guide frame of gasholder No.1 of 1892 has now been demolished. The later gasholder of 1929 is still there but two cranes were noted inside the guide frame in late December 2016. It seems that priority is given to the demolition of gasholders which might perhaps be listed — just to make sure that they are not. Further north the gasholder at New Barnet is still intact.

Regarding Bethnal Green and Poplar, the East London Waterways Group have organised a petition to urge the local authority to retain three gasholders and GLIAS members are urged to sign this. The petition asks Tower Hamlets council to add three historic gasholders to their local list, Nos 2 and 5 at Bethnal Green and No 1 at Poplar. The Council is also asked to alter Site Allocations 20 and 22 in the Emerging Local Plan to ensure their retention and incorporation within proposed open spaces. In 2014, gasholder No 2 at Bethnal Green was the oldest holder still use in this country. It was built in 1866. Bob Carr

News of MV Royal Iris

MV Royal Iris at Charlton © Robert Carr

It is reported that this vessel is now registered as a floating pier at Charlton rather than a ship. Apparently this works out cheaper than paying the usual port dues for a ship that is laid up. The Royal Iris (GLIAS Newsletter June 2005) can now only move vertically with the tide and is in no condition to go anywhere. The long-term future for what is now a wreck will almost certainly be to have her remains scrapped on site which will be an expensive operation. The cost of this will probably far exceed the value of the scrap recovered.

The Royal Iris was very much a Liverpool icon and is remembered with affection there. A number of people in that city would like to have her back on the Mersey. However, the expense that would be incurred, now probably involving the building of a new hull really makes this out of question.

The Royal Iris played quite a prominent part in the Liverpool Merseybeat scene of the 1960s. Well-known names including The Beatles and Gerry & The Pacemakers are known to have performed on board during cruises and That Was Me, a song by Paul McCartney dating from 2007, mentions performing on the ferry:

The Royal Iris was withdrawn from service on the Mersey in 1991 and laid up. In November of that year she was sold — for conversion into a floating nightclub, restaurant and conference centre. This was to have been in Liverpool but the scheme does not appear to have been a success. In 1993 Royal Iris left the Mersey under tow with the intention of her being established as a floating nightspot in Cardiff. However, Cardiff Council rejected this proposal.

Sometime later in the 1990s the vessel appeared on the River Thames and has since occupied a berth at Charlton where, as before, she waited for a proposed refit as a floating nightclub. Bob Carr

First China-to-UK freight train arrives in London

The first demonstration rail freight service from China to the UK arrived at the London Eurohub terminal in Barking on 18 January.

The journey took 18 days and covered 12,000km from Yiwu Xi station in eastern China's Zhejiang province through Kazakhstan, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Belgium and France.

The inaugural train, which carried textiles and other consumer goods, is expected to be followed by weekly services for three or four months to assess customer demand.

The journey time is around half the time required for sea transport, and significantly cheaper than air freight.

The project supports the Chinese government's One Belt, One Road trade connectivity initiative to create a modern-day Silk Road.

Markfield Beam Engine & Museum — feasibility study update

Following a Feasibility Study carried out by consultants Creative Heritage the Trustees of Markfield Beam Engine & Museum have now identified their long-term aims:

To develop, complete the restoration and promote, the original Markfield Sewage Treatment Works site, its beam engine and premises, as a unique part of Tottenham and wider engineering heritage, so as to:


Sewer vents

Sewer vents are a familiar feature of the urban landscape; many of them are more than a hundred years old. Most of us are familiar with late Victorian sewer vents or stench pipes — cast iron pipes which are often surmounted by decorative finials. In Wolverhampton four of them are listed grade II.

However, in the last year or so numerous new vents seem to be appearing. These are plain grey steel pipes which have a larger cross-section at the top. Perhaps the nearest thing that they resemble in shape is a gun barrel fitted with a silencer. Is this rash of new vents a phenomenon confined to a few localities or is there now a policy to install this type of vent generally — they may be getting rather common? Bob Carr

London Archaeological book prize

The winner of the London Archaeological book prize for 2016 was 'Temples and Suburbs: Excavations at Tabard Square, Southwark' by Douglas Killock, with John Shepherd, James Gerrard, Kevin Hayward, Kevin Rielly and Victoria Ridgeway, published by Pre-Construct Archaeology. It was separated by only a point from the runner-up 'Roman Sculpture in London and the South-East' by Penny Coombe, Francis Grew, Kevin Hayward and Martin Henig, published by the British Academy and OUP.

For details of all of the entries, along with some of the judges' comments, see the London Archaeologist website.

Diamond Jubilee plaques

I notice the reports of Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee plaques in Wimbledon and Ealing which seem identical (GLIAS Newsletter August 2016). I must tell you that there are at least three of them as there is another in Nottingham. This one is above the front door of a building now occupied by a bar called 'Missoula' on High Pavement in the city's Lace Market district. It is opposite a former church which later became the Lace Hall. As with any industrial heritage museum in Nottingham it was poorly served by the City Council and closed; it is now a pub called the Pitcher & Piano. Mark Andrew Pardoe

East End Canal Festival

The film of the East End Canal Festival is now on YouTube.

It was the first festival of its kind to celebrate the history of the Regent's Canal and Hertford Canal in the area.

Heritage Counts 2016 — London

Each year, Heritage Counts provides new insights, key statistics, including the Local Authority Profile database, and an overview of developments in the heritage sector — creating a brief snapshot of how London has fared over the past 12 months.
This and more information can be found on the Heritage Counts website:

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© GLIAS, 2017