Summoned By Bells

It all began one morning in Whitechapel Road when I made an impromptu visit to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. DSCF4733 The elegant Georgian wooden frontage, now Grade II listed, faces the busy road. Dating back to 1570 the foundry was established during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and is listed today in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest continuous manufacturing company in Great Britain. DSCF4735 Bells cast here can be found around the world among them the St Mary’s Cathedral bells in Sydney and those of the National Cathedral in Washington DC. Two of its most famous bells are the Liberty Bell and Big Ben. DSCN2190 Originally cast in 1856 in Stockton on Tees, Big Ben was recast in 1858 at the Whitechapel foundry as the first bell had cracked. This was the largest bell ever cast in Whitechapel weighing 13 and half tons. Unfortunately this second bell also cracked and was repaired by turning the bell so the hammer struck a different spot, replacing the hammer with a lighter one and by cutting a small square into the bell to stop the crack from spreading further. This is the bell we hear today and this repair accounts for its distinctive sound. Big Ben’s chime is still broadcast live today on BBC Radio 4. DSCF4726 A profile template of Big Ben’s bell surrounds the entrance door to the shop today which is filled with historical memorabilia and photographs. DSCF4722 A small copy of the Liberty Bell on display in the foundry shop The foundry has had a long line of bell founders from Robert Mot in 1570’s, through William and Thomas Mears and Alfred Lawson to Arthur Hughes in 1904. In fact the Hughes family still run it today and recent research has found that the company may go back even further to 1420. Today its main business is the founding and manufacture of church bells, their fittings and accessories, although it also provides single tolling bells, carillon bells, door bells and hand bells. To this day bells tolling across the world continue to be cast in Whitechapel. More recently the foundry designed the Olympic Bell seen at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Games. It is the largest harmonically tuned bell in the world and bears an inscription from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises”. The 23 tons of molten metal required to make it exceeded todays capacity of the Whitechapel furnaces, so its manufacture was undertaken by a Dutch company whose more usual trade is the production of ship’s propellers. DSCF4729 View into the courtyard behind the shop DSCF4736 DSCF4739 Views inside the workshop with craftsman at work DSCF4737 Bells old and new lined up in the workshop Walking out of the foundry and back onto the busy Whitechapel Road, or the A11, a former a Roman road from the City of London to Colchester, I decided to investigate the nearby market. Whitechapel is synonymous with tales of Jack the Ripper stalking his victims in dark squalid alleyways in the late 1800’s but the scene couldn’t have been more different today. The colourful weekend street market stretching between Vallance Road and Cambridge Heath Road, was in full swing with stalls laden with all types of exotic fruit and Asian vegetables, bright yards of clothing fabrics and more mobile phone stalls than I had ever seen! Opposite the market stalls stands the impressive new Royal London Hospital designed by HOK American architects and opened in 2012. A hospital was first opened on this site in 1752 and it received its Royal title in 1990. It was to this hospital that Joseph Merrick, the so-called Elephant Man, was admitted, dying there in 1890. Whitechapel Bell Foundry manufactured a bell which still hangs in the hospital today which was known as the “Operation Bell” which was allegedly rung to summon attendants to keep patients still during surgery! I didn’t venture in to investigate further! Perhaps it was the bells or the array of fruit in the market, that brought to mind the playground nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”. So after a bit of smart phone Google research, I decided to try to track down some the city churches that feature in the poem. Whilst there is a longer version of the rhyme, the following verse is the one that is most commonly known: Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement’s. You owe me five farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s. When will you pay me? Say the bells of Old Bailey  When I grow rich, Say the bells of Shoreditch  When will that be? Say the bells of Stepney. I do not know, Says the great bell of Bow Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head Chop Chop Chop the last mans dead! 1pic4oranges The game that I recall from my school days is beautifully illustrated by Walter Crane pictured above. For those unfamiliar with it, here are the “rules” of play as I remember it. Two children decide in secret which of them shall be an ‘orange’ and which a ‘lemon’, hold hands and form an arch with their arms. Everyone sings the “Oranges and Lemons” song with other children in the game taking turns to run under the arch until one of them is caught when the arch falls at the end of the song. At the moment of the word “chop” the child who is “caught” chooses to stand behind one of the oranges or lemons forming the arch. The game and singing then starts over again until every child is “caught”.  At the end of the game there is usually a tug of war contest to test whether the ‘oranges’ or ‘lemons’ are stronger. The rhyme also known as “The Bells of London” has passed down through playgrounds over the centuries and like other childhood rhymes such as “Pop Goes the Weasel” and “Ring a Ring of Roses” to name but two, appears quite childlike and innocent on the surface. However taking a closer look at the words and some quite sinister undertones with hidden meanings and allusions to people, historical events and places can be revealed. DSCF4732 The exact origin of this traditional English nursery rhyme and singing game is unknown but it is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index (produced by Steve Roud a former Librarian from Croydon) as Number 13190. The oldest documented version of it appears in 1744 but did not include the couplet ‘Oranges and Lemons’  which first appeared in 1858. There was a square dance without words called ‘Oranges and Lemons’ dating back to 1665. Jane Austen’s niece  Fanny refers to the rhyme in a letter to a friend in 1812… On Twelfth Night we had a delightful evening…we played at Oranges and Lemons… The rhyme is quoted in several chapters of George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” to serve as a reminder of the desirable and unattainable past that had been destroyed by Big Brother. The tune is reminiscent of change ringing and the intonation of each line allegedly corresponds with the distinct sound of each church’s bells. The commonly known verse includes bells that are within or close to the City of London so off I set to try to find them. umbra-tile-orangesandlemons I include above a lovely modern faux Delft tile designed and reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Paul Bommer. More of his work including prints of the rhyme can be found via this link So, to my first stop… “Oranges and Lemons say the bells of St Clements” clement_eastcheap5 Little has changed today! DSCF4857 A charter of 1067 first mentions the church which was destroyed in the Great Fire in 1666, and subsequently rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in the 1680’s. It is the City’s smallest Wren church.  At the time of rebuilding, the parish was combined with that of St Martin Orgar which lay on the south side of Eastcheap, which had also been damaged in the Fire. DSCF4854 But which church is the one in the rhyme as there is another St Clements? St Clements Danes, lies just beyond Temple Bar on The Strand has generally been discounted as the church of the rhyme, even though its bells peal the tune. St Clement Eastcheap claims that it is the one in the rhyme as it was close to the wharf on the Thames where citrus fruit was unloaded and then transported to the nearby Leadenhall Market. St_Clement_Eastcheap_(map,_1736)Yet researching a map of 1776 there were many churches that were closer to the Thames than St. Clement’s (Clement who by the way is patron saint of sailors), so perhaps it is just artistic licence to make it rhyme! DSCF4856 A short stroll away I find the next church…you owe me five farthings say the Bells of St Martins” St Martin Orgar in Martin Lane had also been left in ruins by the Great Fire, however the tower survived. Its odd name arises from a Deacon called Ordgarus who owned the church, which he presented in the 12th century to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. Following the unification of the parish with St Clement’s, the St Martin’s site was used by French Huguenots who restored the tower and worshipped there until 1820. Martin Lane was an area known notorious for its moneylenders, hence “you owe me five farthings” (an old English coin worth a quarter of an old penny until it ceased to be legal tender in 1960). farthing A Farthing from 1956 showing a Wren (how appropriate) on the tail side! The tower was rebuilt in 1851 as a rectory for St Clements, and the old bell was rehung as a clock bell in a projecting clock. Today all that exists is the tower which is currently occupied by a firm of solicitors, and the churchyard has become a raised private garden to the south of the campanile. DSCF4852 DSCF4851 And so onwards in my quest to find the third church… On my way, I passed by the interesting church ruins and gardens of the former Christchurch Greyfriars church, so I just had to divert and take a closer look. DSCF4838 This is yet another Wren church but unfortunately it was bombed during the Blitz in WWII. The gardens today have been laid out to represent the original Wren floor plan  with box hedging to show where the pews stood and climbing roses and clematis growing up frames to represent the pillars. It was a little oasis of calm today and empty being a weekend (the best time to explore the city I find), though I am sure it is much loved as a lunch spot by busy city workers. DSCF4837Christchurch Greyfriars Parish was merged with St Sepulchre in 1949 and this was my next church in the rhyme… DSCF4841“when will you pay me say the bells of Old Bailey” old bailey (1) This church refers to St Sepulchre-without-Newgate which is the largest church in the City of London. Founded in 1137, it was originally dedicated to St Edmund and being positioned just outside the City’s northwest gate in the London Wall it became a meeting place for the crusader knights bound for the Holy Land. It was this association with the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem that led to its rededication in the 15th century. imagesCTSX7FDI Again, it was another church to fall victim to the Great Fire which resulted in melting all of its bells. It again fell to Sir Christopher Wren (who else?) to rebuild it in 1670. Today its bell tower holds 12 bells some of which were cast at the Whitechapel foundry who also reframed and retuned them all in 1984. DSCF8111 The church stood opposite London’s Court House nicknamed the Old Bailey as it stood on Bailey Street which followed the line of the fortified bailey of  London’s Roman Wall. Also opposite stood Newgate Prison which housed not only criminals but also debtors hence the line of the rhyme, “when will you pay me”. Another victim of the Great Fire, the prison was rebuilt and ultimately demolished in 1904. On part of the site stands the Central Criminal Court which is still known today as the Old Bailey. old bailey (7) View of Old Bailey…it wouldn’t be this quiet during the week! As neither the court nor the prison had a bell, St Sepulchre’s church bells were tolled on days of an execution at the prison. Prior to an execution day, the condemned prisoners were visited by the bellman of St. Sepulchre, lit by candles at midnight via an underground passage between the church and the prison – hence the line in the rhyme “here comes the candle to light you to bed”. This handbell known as the “executioners bell” is today installed in a glass case inside the church. NewgateExecutionBell An interesting fact I found when researching the history of this area was that the church would also toll the bell when condemned prisoners went past on the way to the gallows at Tyburn where Marble Arch stands today. Prisoners would be taken there by a horse drawn carriage and were allowed one drink at a hostelry on the route. They were only allowed one drink and if offered more their guards would say “they are going on the wagon”  a phrase still used today for beginning a period of abstinence from drink! Leaving the City precincts I headed towards Hackney in search of my next church… …”When I grow rich, say the bells of Shoreditch” Shoreditch (14) St Leonard’s stands on Shoreditch High Street close to the busy junction of the A10 and is now in the Borough of Hackney. A church has existed on this site since the middle of the 12th century and a previous church had to be demolished as part of the bell tower collapsed in high winds showering the worshipping congregation below with masonry! DSCF0368 This was finally demolished in 1736 and replaced by the church we see today which opened in 1740. Designed by George Dance the Elder who was a favourite pupil of Christopher Wren, its innovative design with slender columns and colonnades and bright windows caused a scandal. Its critics found it difficult to accept it as a church especially when contrasted with Nicholas Hawksmoor’s more chunky and ornate style in this late Baroque period. The bell tower today houses ten bells all made at the Whitechapel foundry. umbra-tile-whenIgrowrich Another faux Delft tile designed and reproduced with the kind permission of the artist Paul Bommer. The housing area around Shoreditch and Hackney Road was known as Old Nichol in Victorian days. A notorious rookery, it was home to over 5,500 people living in a dense network of 30 squalid, crowded streets and courts was brought to public attention by Arthur Morrison’s book published in 1896, “A Child of the Jago”. Poverty_map_old_nichol_1889 “Poverty Map Old Nichol 1889” by Charles Booth Booth’s survey shows the extent of the poverty by highlighting the dark blue areas which he denotes as  “very poor, casual, chronic want”, and black areas are the “lowest class…occasional labourers, street sellers, loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”…meanwhile by contrast the red areas show “middle class, well-to-do”…  hence the line in the rhyme…”when I grow rich…” Today it is a different story. Shoreditch and nearby Hoxton are now popular and very fashionable areas of London and its “gentrification” over the past 20 years has led to accompanying rises in land and property prices. And so I continue my journey eastwards by tube to Stepney Green to see “…When will that be, say the bells of Stepney” stepney (10) St Dunstan’s and All Saints Church is my next port of call, appropriate given it is known as “the Church of the High Seas” which today still flies the Red Ensign (or the “Red Duster” as it is affectionately known), because of its historic links with ship builders and merchants on the nearby Thames. The church tower was a clearly visible landmark for ships’ captains on the river who required to record any birth, death or marriage that took place at sea anywhere in the world on a British owned ship. These records were automatically registered at St Dunstans so as to enable people to claim rights to relief or sanctuary. DSCF3000 A Grade I listed building it is one of the most ancient churches in London dating back to before AD 952 when the Bishop of London and also Stepney’s mayor, replaced the existing wooden church with a stone built one dedicated to All Saints. On the canonisation of Dunstan in 1092, the church was rededicated to incorporate him and this is still the name it retains. Built of Kentish ragstone and so unlike all the white stone edifices of my journey so far, this present church is the third structure on the site and was subject to heavy bomb damage during in the Blitz in the East End. stepney (2) It has an unusual stained glass window which depicts the bombed surroundings of Stepney during WWII. Below the window is an Anglo Saxon carved stone panel depicting the crucifixion. Its bells too were cast at the Whitechapel foundry but unfortunately today I arrived too late to hear them as the service had just ended. The link to the rhyme allegedly comes from the wives of seafarers who would look down the river to see when their menfolk would return. stepney mapAs I walked around the extensive churchyard, admiring the crocuses fully open in the spring sunshine, St Dunstans was a little oasis in the busy city and with the sounds and smells from the City Farm opposite, only adding to its bucolic feel! Stepney is today part of the borough of Tower Hamlets, a reminder that this area was indeed a rural hamlet of the Tower of London. In the 17th century the churchyard was enlarged to cope with the massive number of deaths during the Great Plague. During one eighteen month period 6,583 died, with 154 victims being buried there in one day in September 1665. stepney (7) Spring crocuses I spent some time following the call of a ring necked parakeet which seemed to be playing hide and seek in the tops of the London Plane trees, but I spotted him in the end! DSCF3013And so turning back towards the City again for the final church… stepney (12)View past the urban farm towards the City from the church gates “…I do not Know, says the great bell of Bow” Most people know that the prerequisite of a “True Cockney” is that they must be born within the sound of Bow bells. Until recently I had always assumed this to be the church in Bow in the east of the capital. It is in fact St Mary le Bow which stands on Cheapside within the precincts of the City of London. A noise pollution survey carried out in 2012 showed that ambient noise and traffic levels today means that the bells cannot be heard over as wide an area as they used to be, when they could be heard across much of north and east London and as far south as Southwark. Today they are audible only within the City and as far as Shoreditch. In addition there is only one hospital in the vicinity now and that has no maternity ward on site these days, but if you really want to raise a true cockney child you can always download an MP3 version of the bells! Bow (11) Bow bells are famous throughout the world and for centuries they have been woven into the City’s folklore. It was these bells which were said to have made Dick Whittington cancel his plans to leave London and turn back to become Lord Mayor. During the Second World War the BBC’s World Service broadcast a recording of the bells as a symbol of hope to the people in occupied Europe and this same recording made in 1926 is still used today as an interval signal. The first known reference is in 1469, when the Common Council ordered the bells to be rung at 9pm each evening to signal a curfew and the end of an apprentice’s working day. The ringing of the curfew bell ceased in 1876. The bell tower has contained many bells over the centuries and, guess what, the original bells were again victims of the Great Fire. In 1856 the bells were silenced following protests of an eccentric neighbour Mrs Elisabeth Bird who feared the bells might end her life! After two years of silence the bells were rung again and she lived to hear them for a few more years. In 1926 the bells were declared unfit to ring and this gave rise to some national concerns. In 1933 they were restored and recast, the work being undertaken as a gift from H Gordon Selfridge of department store fame, although it has never been proved that he did actually pay for the work! Unfortunately these restored bells were destroyed in a German air raid in May 1941 as this photo from Getty images show. 138592248 The twelve bells that hang in the bell tower today were cast at Whitechapel foundry in 1956 using some salvaged metal from the destroyed bells, they are now lighter and hang 30 metres above the ground. The “Great bell of Bow” of the rhyme is the tenor bell which weighs some 2135 kgs! Much of the costs involved in the recasting and rehanging came from a gift of the Bernard Sunley Charity and Holy Trinity Wall Street New York. Each of the bells has an inscription on it from the psalms and the first letter of each psalm bell spells out D WHITTINGTON. DSCF4834 St Mary le Bow was founded around 1080 as the London headquarters of the archbishops of Canterbury and the medieval church survived three devastating collapses before being completely destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. Rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, yes it’s that man again, it was destroyed once more in 1941 but was again rebuilt and re-consecrated in 1964. Bow (8) Today the stained glass and the pale blue ceiling give the interior a light and airy atmosphere a haven of calm in a busy city. The crypt is also in use today as a popular café called Café Below Bow Bells. Bow (24) And so here in the City I end my search for “the bells” – or do I? There is a longer and somewhat lesser known version of this venerable rhyme which lists even more churches and their bells! Gay go up, and gay go down, To ring the bells of London Town Bull’s eyes and targets, Say the bells of St. Marg’ret’s Brickbats and tiles, Say the bells of St. Giles’ Oranges and lemons, Say the bells of St. Clement’s Pancakes and fritters/(Old shoes and slippers), Say the bells of St. Peter’s Two sticks and an apple, Say the bells at Whitechapel Old Father Baldpate, Say the slow bells at Aldgate Maids in white aprons, Say the bells at St Catherine’s Pokers and tongs, Say the bells of St. John’s Kettles and pans, Say the bells of St. Anne’s Halfpence and farthings, Say the bells of St. Martin’s When will you pay me? Say the bells at Old Bailey When I grow rich, Say the bells at Shoreditch Pray, when will that be? Say the bells of Stepney I do not know, Says the great bell at Bow Here comes a candle to light you to bed, Here comes a chopper to chop off your head So another quest in prospect…for another day… This journey across the city and the centuries has given me a whole new insight into places which in the past I had simply walked past without a second thought. I have also discovered places that I hadn’t planned to visit and have yet again learnt so much about this remarkable city from its buildings and people. DSCF5306 A small bell bought at foundry to serve as a reminder of my journey!

About Anne Guy

I am a garden designer living and working in rural Worcestershire For more information and to see examples of my work see
This entry was posted in Oranges and Lemons Churches, Sir Christopher Wren, Whitechapel Bell Foundry and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Summoned By Bells

  1. Nan Quick says:

    I am entranced! More new (old) London churches for me to explore next time I’m in England.
    Paul Bommer’s faux Delft tiles. The gardens in the ruins of Christchurch Greyfriars.
    And now I understand the Oranges & Lemons game, played by Jane Austen’s favorite niece, Fanny. This article has been an enormous treat, and is one that warrants many re-readings.

  2. Janet Hardwick says:

    Yer another fascinating article, researched in such great detail, and beautifully told. Apart from the information it. has brought back many childhood memories of games in the playground. Well done once again.


  3. Barry West says:

    This is an article that can be read and re-read because it is full of fascinating detail,particularly origins of sayings commonly used today. I didn’t know that London had a bell foundry. I always learn something new from your articles. Well done Anne.

  4. Hilary says:

    What a fascinating topic. I knew you had done the “Oranges and Lemons”church walk but the research you have put in since has certainly borne fruit! A great achievement and very inspiring. Off to research Paul Bommer as I loved his tiles.

  5. Ian & Mary says:

    A really fascinating tour! I was especially interested to find out the origin of the expression ” on the wagon”, even if it’s rather grisly!

  6. Terry says:

    Thanks Anne for wonderful tour. Informative, concise full of unexpected facts and beautiful photographs. Will be of great interest to Irina.

  7. Beryl Wilkinson nee Allen says:

    My Dad Thomas William Allen worked at Whitechapel Bell Foundry for many many years, sustaining many injuries when metal exploded and chains broke, but he always went back because he loved the work. Two of my brothers also went and worked there for some time, but on the small hand bell side of it. My Dad worked on the big ones, he was the bell moulder, along with my (as we called him) uncle Sid Pascoe, they worked together until my Dad had to retire through I’ll health. But I remember as a child one of the Mr. Hughes coming to see my dad after he was burnt with sprays of metal, I remember my Mum telling us not to take anything from the tea table until Dad’s boss had taken what he wanted first, those were the days.

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