I wonder who made the first bell? It must have been quite a discovery, perhaps in a cave, that striking one piece of metal with another could have such an effect. The simple fact is that bells are important and they have been with us for a long, long time. Along the way, making bells became a business, and I’ve been writing about one such business – the Whitechapel Bell Foundry – for a book called Established: Lessons from the world’s oldest businesses. Because the Foundry was established in 1570, when Shakespeare was a boy, and it’s an interesting question to ask: How on earth did you manage it?
We’re raising the money to get the book published through Unbound, the crowd-funding publisher. Twelve of us have written chapters about different companies, and the book is coming together. This is how my chapter starts:
I ring. The woman at the other end of the telephone asks me “Which parish are you?”
This tells me much that I need to know about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. I know that it was established in 1570 and has been making bells ever since. In fact its real history goes back to the early 15th century but the archives don’t reach so far, and what are 150 years in this span of time?
Time. Bells and time are close family members. The bells mark the passing of time, the curfew tolls the knell of parting day and the alarm bell wakes us up so that the church bell can summon us to start the day, perhaps with a prayer.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry seems to depend on prayer. Its owner Alan Hughes tells me that the church trades – bell founders, stone masons, stained glass artists and many more – are united by one fact. None of them really make money. All of them are more interested in what they do than making money out of it. I imagine the Tudor poet John Skelton (as a priest he would have known such bells soon after their casting):
From casters of metals
To soakers of petals
The makers of pews
The sellers of views
Masons in stone
Carvers of bone
Coming hand in hand
Ready to stand
On holy land.
But never cease to wonder
The bellman is the founder.
I ponder the word ‘founder’. It is fundamental to industrial development. Of course metal casting goes back far beyond the upstart days of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. We even define the early ages of human development by the act of casting: Iron Age, Bronze Age.…
Other chapters, each written by Dark Angels, deal with companies that are stone masons and scale-makers, porters and butchers, ferrymen and brewers, merchants of wine and beer and sheep, sellers of gum and knowledge. There’s much to learn from these old survivors of business life.
I hope you’ll want to read the stories in a beautiful book. To do so we need your help by supporting the book’s publication – thank you if you already have. We’re about halfway to our target but we’d really like to get on with it now. Please help make the book happen by pledging at https://unbound.co.uk/books/established