It’s an improbable sight, but the Whitechapel Bell Foundry still stands on east London’s busy Whitechapel Road, an island in an area all but obliterated in the Second World War. Moreover, it is a business that has been fighting for survival for years, centuries even, and in a high-tech, ever more competitive world is still going strong. It’s no more than what you’d expect from a company that has been in continuous operation since 1570 and claims the title of Britain’s oldest manufacturer.
Alan Hughes’s family has run what is one of only two remaining bell foundries in the UK for four generations. “In its early years,” he says, “there was very little by way of continuity of ownership. The company changed hands frequently, usually staying with one family for just one generation.”
He can be forgiven for having little sympathy for businesses that have seen profits crumble because of something as recent as the arrival of the internet. His sector peaked in the 18th century, shrank and then levelled off again before sinking into steady decline for the past hundred or so years.