Whitechapel Bell Foundry (26)

I have been reading the minutes of the London Advisory Committee, the sub-committee of Historic England which has dealt with the decision to revise its listing and support the Raycliff scheme for the redevelopment of the Foundry as a hotel. They have been provided to me through what was construed as a freedom-of-information request. They make revealing, but – to me, at least – somewhat mournful reading as at no point did the Committee stop to think whether or not it might be better for the building qua building if the Foundry was retained as a foundry (not necessarily as just a bell foundry), instead of being converted into a restaurant as was originally proposed according to the papers provided on the first occasion at which the plans were discussed on 2 February 2017. The idea was suggested then of ‘scheduling the Old Foundry and its equipment’, but much of the equipment was modern, so was either sold or removed to new premises in Bromley. No visit was organised so that members of the committee could see the building in action, which was essential to a proper understanding of its industrial and historical significance as a survival of an eighteenth-century working foundry, still in use, not just a group of interesting buildings. The only expression of sorrow at what was about to happen was in the minutes of the meeting when it was recorded that ‘The LAC recognised that loss of bell production on this site represented the end of a tradition of London’s ‘back garden’ industries’.

There was then a long gap in which it was scarcely discussed until 28 September 2017, when it was reported that ‘a representative from the UK Historic Building Preservation Trust’ had expressed an interest in the acquisition of the site. It’s odd that it took so long for this to be considered because, as I understand it, the UKHBPT had taken an interest from very early on, and certainly before the internal fittings were sold. But, let that pass. It may be that representations were made to the Chief Executive, not to the relevant planning officers.

There was no further discussion until 21 February 2019 when the Raycliff scheme to turn the site into a hotel was discussed. There was reference in the Principals’ Report to the fact that ‘there is a high profile campaign against the proposals’, but, in the minutes, this is downgraded to ‘a local campaign against the proposal was continuing’. Then, on 21 November 2019, it was reported that the Raycliff scheme had been granted consent in red letters, as if it was a matter for congratulation. Again, the minutes report that a hotel development ‘was contentious locally’.

Having read the minutes carefully, I can only regret that it appears that none of the officers, nor members of the committee felt very strongly about the destruction of such an important site of industrial archaeology. They were encouraged to think that the sale of the contents and the change-of-use was a foregone conclusion and that turning the ground floor into a restaurant was perfectly acceptable.

The only point I would make in reading the minutes is that opposition to the scheme is always described as a local issue, as if it were of concern only to local residents like myself, whereas, from the beginning, it has been an issue of much more than local concern. Tristram Hunt, the Director of the V&A, expressed concern early on; so did Antony Gormley; Factum Foundation, which has put forward such imaginative alternative proposals, is based in Madrid; United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust was established under HRH the Prince of Wales and is based in Stoke-on-Trent. Dismay has been expressed not just in E1, but from all corners of the globe, and in articles in the Financial Times and Daily Mail.

It is for this reason, above all, that the scheme should be called in. It is not just about merchant bankers swimming on the top-floor swimming pool next door to the local mosque. It is about wanton damage to a site of exceptional national and international significance, as the London Advisory Committee should have recognised back in February 2017.

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One thought on “Whitechapel Bell Foundry (26)

  1. Gloomy reading. The decisions made by bodies such as the UKHBPT depend so much on the quality of the people on them. As you say, they’ve not lacked good advice, from Tristram Hunt, Antony Gormley etc, which they should heed.

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