The earliest bell-founders of the metropolis are met with towards the end of the 13th century, and the trade was located near the City's eastern boundary, being chiefly connected with the parishes of St. Andrew Cornhill (now Undershaft), and St. Botolph Aldga'e. The Reformation brought disaster to the craft of the bell-founders, but it is not until after the great change of religion that foundries are met with in Middlesex. From Aldgate the trade extended to the neighbouring district of Whitechapel, where Robert Mot established a business on the north side of the High Street where Tewkesbury Court now is, which after nearly three and a half centuries still exists in a flourishing state. The earliest known bell from his foundry is one bearing his name and the date 1575, formerly at Danbury in Essex. Other bells cast by him still exist at Banstead, Chertsey, Merstham, and elsewhere; and in London the sanctus bells at St. Andrew's Holborn, and St. Clement Danes, and four of the six bells of St. Andrew Undershaft, three of which are dated 1597, and the fourth 1600. Two of the fine bells at Westminster Abbey, the third and fifth, are also Mot's work, and bear the inscription in black letter:—
Campanis Patrem Laudate Sonantirus Altum
Gabriell Good Man Westmon' Decanus
Both are dated, one 1598 and the other 1583, and their lettering is very elaborate. Mot was in business for about thirty years; many of his bells have been recast, but eighty still remain. They frequently bear his circular stamp containing the letters I.H.S., his own initials, a crown, and three bells, and are almost always dated. Most of the bells bear the inscription in black letter, 'Robertus mot me fecit,' in which he invariably spells his surname with a small m.
There are two petitions (fn. 2) from Mot in November 1577 to Lord Burghley, praying for the payment of debts of £10 10s. and £5 5s. due to him for eight years past from Henry Howard, esq. He complains (fn. 3) that 'your said poor orator is greatly impoverished and come into decay, and is likely every day to be arrested for such debts as he oweth.' His petition for payment of the larger sum was repeated on 7 June 1578, and again on the same date in conjunction with two other creditors of Howard. The petition was apparently hopeless; Howard, who was the son of Viscount Bindon, was overwhelmed with debt, and abundant evidence of his ill-conduct exists in the State Papers of this period.
Mot died in 1608, (fn. 4) and was succeeded in business by Joseph Carter, who was a bellfounder at Reading from 1579 to 1610. He was in business in London in 1606, apparently at the Whitechapel Foundry, of which his son William became manager. The elder Carter died in 1610, and very few of his bells are known; there is one at Walton on Thames dated 1608, (fn. 5) and one formerly belonged to Allhallows Staining, but is now melted down. William Carter succeeded his father in business, but only lived to carry it on for nine years. The inscriptions on his bells are in Gothic capitals, the alphabet being regarded by some as identical with that used by the Brasyers, Norwich founders of the 15th century. (fn. 6) Some of the younger Carter's bells have the private mark (a trefoil) of his foreman, Thomas Bartlett, who succeeded him as proprietor in 1619.
The Bartlett family remained at the head of the Whitechapel foundry to the close of the 17th century, and worthily maintained its reputation. Many of Thomas Bartlett's bells remain, although most of those which he cast for City churches must have perished in the Great Fire. One, however—that of St. Margaret Pattens, set up in 1624—survived even that catastrophe, although the church lay within the doomed district. Another of his bells, a very fine specimen, which has survived is the Curfew bell, still rung nightly in the chapel of the Charterhouse. This was cast in 1631, and bears the arms and initials of Thomas Sutton, the famous founder of that institution. Thomas Bartlett died in or before the year 1632, and his son Anthony being apparently only a child the business was carried on during the next eight years by John Clifton, whose bells are chiefly found in south-west Essex. They did not bear the trade mark of the Whitechapel foundry until 1640; a bell at Lambourne, Essex, marked with that date and the initials A. B., seems to show that young Anthony had then advanced in age sufficiently to take charge of the business. He began his career at an unfortunate time, when the church was laid low and church requisites were destroyed instead of being purchased or renewed. But he survived this gloomy period in spite of the vigorous competition of a famous City firm. The revival of Church life at the Restoration, and the repair of the ravages caused by the terrible conflagration, brought a welcome change to the fortunes of the head of the Whitechapel foundry, and examples of Anthony Bartlett's work remain at St. Edmund Lombard Street, St. George Botolph Lane (recently united with St. Mary at Hill), and St. Olave Hart Street. The bells at the latter church, which escaped the Fire, are dated 1662. Anthony died in 1676 and was succeeded by his son James, who was a member of the Founders' Company, becoming a liveryman in 1677, and serving as under-warden in 1691 and upper-warden in 1695. He supplied many of the bells required for Wren's new churches, four at Christ Church Southwark, dated 1700, and four at Richmond, Surrey, dated 1680. One of the latter has the following somewhat boastful inscription:—
Lambert Made Me Weak, Not Fit To Ring, But Bartlet Amongst The Rest Hath Made Me Sing.
On the death of James Bartlett in January 1700–1 the Whitechapel foundry passed into the hands of Richard Phelps, who was born at Avebury, Wiltshire. He continued at the head of the firm for thirty-seven years, during which time the business grew to be the most successful in the kingdom. His bells are met with in many different localities, and among his best work are the peals at St. Michael Cornhill, St. Magnus, Allhallows Lombard Street, and St. Andrew Holborn. His inscriptions are much longer, if not more intelligent, than those of his predecessors. The following appears on the tenth bell of St. Michael Cornhill:—
To Prayer We Do Call St. Michael's People All We Honour To The King And Ioy To Brides Do Sing Triumphs We Loudly Tell And Ring The Dead Man's Knell.
Phelps is chiefly known as the founder of the great hour-bell of St. Paul's, which now hangs in the south-west tower of the cathedral and bears the inscription: 'Richard Phelps Made Me 1716.' It weighs 5 tons 4 cwt., and its diameter is 6ft. 105/8 in.; this bell is only used for tolling the hour, and for tolling at the death and funeral of a member of the royal family, the Bishop of London, the Dean of the Cathedral, or the Lord Mayor. The larger part of the metal of which it is made belonged to the bell formerly hanging in the clock-tower opposite Westminster Hall and known first as 'Edward,' after the Confessor, and afterwards as 'Great Tom'; the price paid for it was £3,025 17s. 6d. (fn. 7) St. Paul's received in 1877 the gift of a new ring of twelve bells cast by Messrs. Taylor of Loughborough, and 'Great Paul' by the same firm, weighing 17 tons, was safely hung in the north-west tower in May 1882.
The latest bell bearing Phelps's name is the priests' bell at St. George's Southwark, inscribed: R. Phelps 1738 T. Lester Fecit. Phelps died in 1738, and the order for this bell was completed by his foreman Thomas Lester, to whom he bequeathed his business and the lease of the foundry. Lester removed the business from Essex Street to the premises which it has continued to occupy until now at 32 and 34, Whitechapel Road. His first peal was cast for Shoreditch parish church in 1739 and the commission greatly pleased him. The tenor bell of St. Mary-le-Bow, which weighs 53 cwt. 24 lb., was cast by Phelps and Lester in 1738, nine others by Lester and Pack in 1762, and two trebles (increasing the peal to twelve) by the successors of the firm in 1881. (fn. 8) In the same year (1738) the tenor at Westminster Abbey, which once belonged to St. Michael's Cornhill, was recast by the firm. Lester's management, however, was not successful, and the fortunes of the foundry were at a low ebb until 1752, when he took into partnership Thomas Pack, who appears to have been his foreman. The partnership of Lester and Pack was more prosperous, and was marked by several changes in the style of lettering on the bells and the extensive use of rhyming couplets. One instance of the latter will suffice, taken from the treble at Ingatestone, Essex:—
The Founder He Has Play'd His Part Which Shews Him Master Of His Art
So Hang Me Well And Ring Me True And I Will Sing Your Praises Due.
In the decoration of their bells they used various ornamental devices, one of which, consisting of alternate loops and V-shaped terminations, became known as the Whitechapel pattern and lasted till 1835. They also introduced the practice of inscribing each bell with its weight. Lester died in 1769, when his nephew William Chapman was taken into partnership, and the firm continued as Pack and Chapman until the death of Thomas Pack in 1781. Chapman then took into partnership William Mears, whom, as a young man, he had for some time employed and taught the business, and who had afterwards set up in business for himself. (fn. 9) On the death of Chapman in 1784 Mears remained sole partner until 1789, when he retired, leaving the foundry in the hands of his son Thomas Mears. (fn. 10) It is interesting to note, as Mr. Walters points out, that the name of Mears has been connected with the firm for 125 years, although the last representative died in 1873.
The Whitechapel foundry became at this time the most famous foundry in England, (fn. 11) Dobson's foundry at Downham Market, Norfolk, having been fused into it, as well as the Gloucester foundry, which was incorporated in 1732. The old foundry at Gloucester had existed for centuries. 'John of Gloster' was a bell-founder there in the 13th century; but it came chiefly into note under the Rudhall family in the 18th century.
Thomas Mears was at the head of the business until 1810, taking his son Thomas into partnership in 1806. The fine peal of bells at the parish church of St. Dunstan, Stepney, was cast by this firm in 1806. Thomas Mears the younger succeeded in 1810 and remained sole head until 1843, when the firm became Charles and George Mears and so continued until 1857. On the death of Charles Mears in that year the style of the firm was altered to George Mears and Co. The famous Big Ben which strikes the hours in the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament was recast by George Mears from a design by Mr. Denison (afterwards Lord Grimthorpe) in 1858. The bell weighs 13 tons 10 cwt. 3 qrs. 15 lb. and took the place of one weighing 16½ tons cast by John Warner and Sons in 1856, which was unfortunately cracked whilst being exhibited to the public before being mounted in the Clock Tower. In 1863 George Mears took as his partner Robert Stainbank, and the firm became known as Mears and Stainbank. On the death of Mears in 1873 Stainbank was the sole proprietor. He died in 1883, and was succeeded by Arthur Silva Lawson, on whose death in 1904 the business passed into the hands of Arthur Hughes, its present proprietor.
There were some minor Middlesex founders. Thomas Swain, who was born at West Bedfont in the county, succeeded in 1739 as executor and residuary legatee to the business of Robert Catlin, a founder in St. Andrew's Holborn. Swain removed the foundry to Longford near West Drayton; besides the peal at Thames Ditton, several bells cast by him are to be found in Surrey and Sussex. Another founder was Thomas Janeway, who left the Whitechapel firm to set up in business for himself at Chelsea. He was fairly successful, and his bells dating from 1763 to 1785 include those of old Chelsea Church, Kensington, Edgware, and Hornsey, peals of eight at Battersea and Blechingley, and many other bells in Surrey and Sussex. (fn. 12) His business, like that of Thomas Swain, does not appear to have continued after his death.
Robert Patrick married Sarah Oliver, granddaughter of Thomas Lester of the Whitechapel Foundry, (fn. 13) and started an opposition business in Whitechapel, being some time in partnership with one Osborn of Downham, Norfolk. He cast the bells of St. John at Hackney and St. Botolph Bishopsgate, and the peal of eight at Reigate, which bear the date 1784. C. Oliver, a bell-founder in Bethnal Green, cast a peal of bells for the church of Worth, Sussex, in 1844.
1. The writer is much indebted to Mr. H. B. Walters, M.A., F.S.A., for kindly placing at his disposal the result of his researches on this subject embodied in his paper on 'London Church Bells and Bell Founders,' contributed to the Transactions of the St. Paul's Ecclesiological Soc.
2. Cal. S.P. Dom. 1547–80, pp. 568, 591, 593.
3. A. D. Tyssen, Ch. Bells of Suss. (1864), 20.
4. A. D. Tyssen, Ch. Bells of Suss. (1864), 35.
5. J. C. L. Stahlschmidt, Surr. Bells and Lond. Bell-founders (1884), 94–5.
6. Ibid. 95; cf. Tyssen, op. cit. 36.
7. Harl. MS. 6824, fol. 31. An engraving with particulars of this bell is in the Antiq. Repertory, i, 11; ii, 162.
8. H. B. Walters, op. cit. 20.
9. A. D. Tvssen, op. cit. 41.
10. Stahlschmidt (Ch. Bells of Surr. 105) says that William Mears took his son Thomas into partnership in 1787, the partnership lasting till 1791
11. Ellacombe, Ch. Bells of Devon (1872), 9, 62.
12. Tyssen, Ch. Bells of Suss. 43.
13. Ibid. 40.