Keeping it in the family

By Charlie Wellingham

A key element of conserving historic buildings is the specification and application of suitable traditional materials. The SPAB believes passionately in supporting traditional craftsmen and sustaining their skills through the encouragement of apprentice schemes to ensure that they are passed down through the generations. As such, an important part of the Scholarship programme is time set aside for visiting forges, brickworks, quarries, masons’ yards, and numerous other types of factories and manufacturers – and viewing the processes and crafts first hand. Many of these companies pride themselves on their production of materials in the exact same way as they would have been executed originally, and as such the premises of these industrial processes have remained unchanged for decades. Due to the nature of passing on traditional skills, several of them have also been run by the same family for several generations. It has been a real privilege to see some of the UK’s oldest surviving manufacturers and family companies as a part of the SPAB Lethaby Scholarship.

Whitechapel Bell Foundry (WBF) was established in east London in 1570 and has endured generations of ownership by just 4 families until the present day. It remains one of just 2 bell foundries casting new bells within the UK. It has been in continuous operation since the 16th century, and is cited in the Guinness Book of Records as Britain’s oldest manufacturing company. The current foundry buildings date back to 1670, when much of London was being rebuilt following the Great Fire. In the intervening years the foundry has produced the United States Liberty Bell (in 1752) and Big Ben (in 1858), as well as surviving the legacy of Whitechapel’s most notorious resident, Jack the Ripper (in 1888).

We were met for the day by Alan Hughes, the managing director and 5th generation of the Hughes family (who have lead the foundry since 1904), who explained the complexities of manufacturing bells – including the exact sizing and shaping of the bell’s profile in order to create the correct 5 note harmonic when struck. Alan explained how WBF has amended its techniques over the centuries as the fashion and technology of bell ringing has developed; including the evolution of bell wheels (from striking hammers), ‘Simpson Tuning’ (harmonics within a single bell), peel ringing (timed ringing across numerous bells), and steel bell frames (from the earlier oak and iroko).

Norman & Underwood (N&U) Ltd began as a glazing and plumbing contractor in Leicester in 1825, set up as a partnership between Henry Thomas Norman and his nephew John Underwood. From these modest beginnings the company has grown over 190 years into a large-scale glazing and cladding manufacturer with particular expertise in building conservation – lead by the production and installation of sand cast lead sheeting in the traditional technique. Throughout this time N&U has been commissioned to produce glazing for such prestigious projects as St Pancras Station (1866), and sand cast lead for Westminster Abbey (1953) and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral (1955).

We were shown around the 20th century factory by Dr Jon Castleman, managing director and 7th generation descendent of Henry Thomas Norman. Jon explained that although sand-casting lead is more costly and time consuming, it produces a stronger and more reliable product than the contemporary ‘rolling’ technique. The ‘puddling’ of the lead allows for a more complex interlocking structure within the sheet, rather than a stretched directional structure which develops weaknesses more readily. N&U are also able to remove the failing lead from a church roof, melt it down and re-cast it into new sheets.

N&U sketch

N&U photo

Sadly there is not enough space in this blog to describe all of the amazing heritage manufacturers we have visited and who have generously given their time to explain their crafts to us. Thanks also to Ridgeway Forge, Shaws of Darwen, Holywell Glass and Bulmer’s Brick & Tile and the many others I haven’t mentioned. It has been an incredible privilege to see these historic operations continuing – unchanged since before many of the buildings we conserve were even originally built. As architects we hope to continue to contribute to an industry that supports the legacies of these fascinating institutions.

We would also like to thank Dr Jon Castleman of Norman & Underwood once again for the generosity of his sponsorship of the Scholarship and Fellowship – supplying and insuring the much loved spabmobile for use by Scholars and Fellows throughout the 9 month tour. Thanks Jon!Car




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