By Mark Michael
The Loughborough Foundry, Britain’s last remaining large bell foundry, is in danger of closing if it fails to raise nearly five million pounds to restore its deteriorating 19th century buildings. The firm, also called John Taylor & Company, dates back to the 14th century, and the current foundry was built in the Leicestershire town of Loughborough in 1859.
The foundry has cast over 25,000 bells, including “Great Paul,” Britain’s largest bell, which hangs in the tower of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London; the carillon bells of Washington National Cathedral and the carillon bells of many American universities, including Yale, Duke, and UC-Berkeley. The foundry is the world’s largest, and since the closing of London’s Whitechapel Foundry two years ago, it is the only establishment in Britain capable of casting, repairing and rehanging large sets of bells.
The foundry continues to use traditional casting methods, including the burying of each bell in a specially dug pit in the earth of the foundry floor, where it cools for several days after casting. All bells are also hand-tuned. However, the firm also uses state-of-the-art digital modelling that allows it to cast identical copies of older bells, including models produced by its former competitors in the trade. The firm employs 31 people, including four apprentices.
The potential closure is especially worrisome to English change-ringers, who continue the national tradition of ringing “changes” of differently pitched bells in mathematical patterns, producing the peals deeply associated with festive occasions. The Taylor Foundry played an important role in the development of change-ringing, pioneering the five-tone standard system of bell tuning in the nineteenth century that prevails universally today.
John Taylor & Company had experienced major financial pressure in the early 2000’s and was taken under administration in 2008 to prevent financial insolvency. In 2016, the Loughborough Bell Foundry Trust was established to safeguard its future, and the trust holds title to the Foundry buildings, which include Britain’s only museum of bellringing and bell casting and a large bell tower that is more widely used for ringing than any other in the country. The company has relied on funding from historic preservation grantors in the past to repair these unique buildings.
The Trust is hoping to secure a 3.7 million pound grant from Britain’s Heritage Lottery Fund, but it must secure donations of a million pounds to qualify. Andrew Wilby, a trustee, told The Church Times, “At least 20 million people in Britain and hundreds of millions worldwide hear a Taylor bell every day, with generations experiencing a ring of Taylor bells to mark significant events such as weddings, funerals, and moments of national importance. Our vision is for Loughborough Bell Foundry to become the global center for the art of bell-making and learning, and to secure the legacy of its bells to make sure future generations on every continent can be brought together by a ‘ring of Taylor bells.’ … We have already lost one bell foundry within the last two years — let’s not lose the last.”