Both Sides Now – The Curious Case Of The Whitechapel Bells

We’ve worked with so many audio collections here on Unlocking Our Sound Heritage that it’s sometimes hard to imagine a part of London life that doesn’t feature somewhere among the thousands of items that have passed through our hands. Art and culture, education and faith, stories of love, war and smuggled oranges – it’s all here, safely preserved for the benefit of future generations. But there can’t be too many archives that fire up the imagination more than that of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which London Metropolitan Archives acquired back in 2019. Can there be anything that has proved a more enduring part of the Capitals’ changing soundtrack over the centuries than the ringing of the bells, chiming in celebration or mourning, summoning generations of the faithful and above all marking the passing of hours, days and years?  

Until it finally closed its doors in 2017, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry was a steadfast part of the city itself – indeed one piece of correspondence included with the collection contains the amusing footnote on the envelope ‘don’t know the postcode – but it’s been there for 400 years’!

Britain’s oldest manufacturing company, it was established in 1570 and cast Bow Bells, the Liberty Bell and hundreds more for churches across Britain, Europe and the world – and also famously recast Big Ben. The Foundry’s audio collection predominantly consists of tapes recorded and acquired by master founder Douglas Hughes, whose grandfather Arthur Hughes took over the foundry in 1904. There are recordings of bell-ringing across London – including St Mary-le-Bow and St Paul’s Cathedral, both cast by the foundry – and around the globe, from Guernsey to Jamaica, Australia and America. Highlights from the United States include the first peal of the bells of Washington National Cathedral in 1964, a recording of the Liberty Bell beamed from the Atlas satellite in 1975, and – on a more personal scale – tape letters sent to the Hughes family from clients and friends in Missouri, New Jersey, Illinois and Philadelphia. All these audio treasures arrived in our studio as an assemblage of tape reels of various sizes and ages (plus a handful of cassettes) with accompanying notes and correspondence, all of which were carefully documented and catalogued by the UOSH project team.

In early 2019 we came across a spool of tape in the collection labelled simply ‘Kent 16’ and containing ‘extracts from ‘a peal of treble bob 16 in’ rung [on handbells] at Watford by John Maine and his band’. As luck would have it, playing such a vintage two-track mono spool on a ‘modern’ stereo tape machine creates an interesting side-effect for the listener: you end up hearing both sides of the tape simultaneously, one playing forward and the other in reverse.

By pure chance we discovered that when both sides of this particular recording were heard together in this way, a beautiful new soundwork was created entirely by accident: the chiming and reverberant soundings of the forward and reverse bells mulched together into a sort of hypnotic groove  –  a glorious wash of drifting ethereal ambience that transforms an already beautiful performance into something not too far from the territory of such modernist composers as Terry Riley, La Monte Young or perhaps Brian Eno. The latter is of course widely credited with inventing much of the concept of ambient music as we think of it today, with numerous classics of the genre as Music For Airports and On Land bearing his name. But equally fittingly, Eno is also renown for Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards he developed with Peter Schmidt in the 1970s that contain gnomic instructions designed to aid musicians and other artistic types experiencing creative block. Within such a collection the instruction ‘play both sides at the same time’ would certainly not feel out of place, and so in that spirit, we’re presenting the recording exactly as we found it – hiss, hum and all. Here’s what it sounded like:

It goes without saying of course that the original contents of the tape went on to be digitised, catalogued and preserved in an entirely correct and appropriate manner, along with all the other recordings in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry sound archive. But we’ve kept this little outtake as a special by-product of the digitisation process, a ‘Happy Accident’ that we thought you might enjoy too. We called it ‘Treble Bob 16 In Accidental Ambience’ and the name has stuck. We did consult a respected campanologist to enquire as to whether placing two sides of the recording together entitled us to brand the new piece a ‘Hextuple bob 32 In’, but while they enjoyed the recording our query was met with an emphatic ‘absolutely not’!

While the UOSH project exists chiefly to preserve and safeguard vintage recordings such as these, an equally crucial aspect of our work is inspiring new generations to listen and respond; and it wasn’t long before our Accidental Ambient recording was heard by Kirsty Kerr, an Archives and Digital Media Trainee on placement at LMA and working alongside the UOSH project team. A conceptual visual artist and curator outside of her archive work, she was inspired to use this recording and others from the Foundry archives in the realisation of a performance and installation piece at the Church of St. Leonard’s in Shoreditch later that year.

The Woven performance and installation at St Leonard’s Shoreditch

Kirsty takes up the story: The Woven was a site-specific arts event celebrating the heritage of St Leonard’s Shoreditch, a church whose bells get a mention in the ‘Oranges and Lemons’ nursery rhyme: ‘When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch’. Through an artist residency at the church – and some exciting discoveries at the London Metropolitan Archives – I had the opportunity to showcase a new work inspired by these famous bells, and the local foundry that cast them. 

At the time, I was volunteering with the LMA’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage team, assisting with cataloguing and digitising the Whitechapel Bell Foundry sound archive. The archive contains interviews and recordings of bell ringing and tuning at the foundry, which is best known for casting famous bells like Big Ben and the Liberty Bell. Through volunteering with the UOSH team, I discovered that the foundry also cast the ‘Bells of Shoreditch’.

The present-day St Leonard’s was designed by George Dance the Elder, and opened in 1740 on the site of a collapsed medieval church. Its original ring of 8 bells cost £800 5s, and were cast by Thomas Lester, Master Founder at Whitechapel. These were gradually recast and replaced over the centuries (including the old tenor on display in the church – the largest bell cast by Barwells of Birmingham), but the first bells date back to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry.

I wanted to create an artwork that highlighted this link between the foundry and the church. While exploring the Whitechapel Bell Foundry archive, I had the idea of playing some bell-ringing recordings back into the church building. When Robin (the UOSH Sound Engineer) played me the ‘Accidental Ambient Bells’ track he’d made when digitising the old tapes, I thought it would be the perfect sound! The layered peals created a sense of layered time, bells recorded in the past being played in the present, into a church that had perhaps heard them before…

I used this digitised recording as part of a multi-sensory installation and performance in the church portico, using taste and smell as well as sound to animate the heritage of the space. While the bell peals played, visitors were greeted with the scent of citrus oil and dried orange slices, and offered a ‘Eucharist’ of oranges and lemon juice as they entered.

The Woven event was part of St Leonard’s creative engagement programme in 2019, inviting artists and community members to respond to the heritage of the site. This was part of a wider church restoration project with the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which included the renovation of the bell tower. Last year, the ‘Bells of Shoreditch’ rang a special peal to celebrate the completion of the programme – and ‘Len’s 280th Birthday’.

It’s a wonderful thing indeed to think this archive material made over half a century ago is already helping to inspire radical new work in a space so inherently connected to the bells’ history –  even if it did take a slight twist of fate and a little bending of the rules to make it happen. What would John Maine and his band say, we can’t help wondering? And while the Foundry’s historic Whitechapel home may face an uncertain future, its legacy lives on in the bells that can still be found in active service all over the world and its tape collection now safely digitised and held at London Metropolitan Archives for anyone who cares to listen.

To give Kirsty the last word, Another reminder of the importance of projects like UOSH, working to save intangible heritage at risk of being lost. Who could disagree? You can discover more about Kirsty’s work here and more about the long and distinguished history of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry here.

The church portico held a number plaques commemorating bell-ringers for their “extraordinary peals”- including this one from 1777

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