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    The Grocers’ Company’s Wing of the former Royal London Hospital

    By the Survey of London, on 3 February 2017

    The long former Royal London Hospital complex on the south side of Whitechapel Road has its origins in the hospital built in 1752–78 to designs by Boulton Mainwaring. Its eastern section was constructed in 1873–6 as part of the Grocers’ Company’s Wing, built at the same time as a Post Mortem Department and Nurses Home. Their completion secured the hospital’s status as the largest general hospital in the country, with almost 800 beds. The only remnant of this building programme is the north range of the Grocers’ Company’s Wing, which presents an orderly 120ft frontage to Whitechapel Road terminating at its junction with East Mount Street. Two bays of the south part of the wing survive; the rest was cleared in the 1960s for the construction of the Holland Wing (demolished).

    At the time of writing, the north range of the Grocers’ Company Wing lies empty as the former hospital awaits conversion into a civic centre for Tower Hamlets Council. Despite 140-years of hospital use, the surviving portion of the Grocers’ Company’s Wing retains its back-to-back ‘Nightingale’ wards and neat brick frontage overlooking Whitechapel Road.

    Survey of London - Whitechapel Volume The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets, London. Central entrance block View from north west.

    The main front of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel Road, with the Grocers’ Company’s Wing in the background. Photographed by Derek Kendall in 2016

    This significant wing extension was catalysed by rising numbers of inpatients. Despite the completion of the Alexandra Wing in 1866, the hospital struggled to keep pace with demand for beds. In 1870 the House Governor, William Nixon, recorded an ‘extreme pressure of inpatients’, averaging at over 500 at any one time. Despite the opening of quarantine wards in the old medical college, the hospital failed to secure a long-term solution to overcrowding. A few years later, Nixon reported an alarming ‘state of repletion’ in the wards. He declared that the hospital was ‘not large enough’ to fulfil the demands of the surrounding district, despite its strict policy of admitting only urgent cases. [1]

    The proposed solution was to extend the hospital to provide 200 additional beds. A public fundraising campaign was launched with the aim of securing £100,000 towards new buildings and the operating costs of an enlarged hospital. A new wing extending east from the front block was deemed preferable to ensure the proximity of new wards to the ‘working centres’ of the hospital, namely the lifts, the staff offices, the laundry, the kitchen, the operating theatre, and the depository. The intended site was occupied by the old medical college and a carriage shed fronting Whitechapel Road, along with various workshops, sheds and stables in East Mount Street.

    Survey of London - Whitechapel Volume The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets, London. East block, View from north west.

    The Grocers’ Company’s Wing from the north-west. Photographed by Derek Kendall in 2016

    The centrepiece of this wave of hospital expansion was the Grocers’ Company’s Wing, named in recognition of a donation from the City livery company. Their ‘princely gift’ was accompanied by numerous conditions, including that the proposed wing should be completed within three years. Whilst the House Committee had intended to postpone work on the new east wing until the fundraising campaign had realised its target, the Company stipulated that construction should begin immediately.

    As the projected cost of the wing exceeded £25,000, it was reasoned that sole responsibility for its design should be entrusted to Charles Barry, Consulting Architect to the hospital. He planned an L-plan three-storey wing with basement and attics, composed of two blocks; a north range extending east from the front block in line with Whitechapel Road, and a south range running along East Mount Street. This arrangement preserved a yard between the extension and the main building, with the benefit of supplying light and ventilation to the inward-facing wards. The plan of the principal floors of each block followed the pattern of the earlier ward wings, comprising paired back-to-back wards separated by a central spine wall with fireplaces. On each floor, the north range was accessed from its south-west corner via lobbies connected with the long corridors of the front block. Partitions at the west end of the wards formed linen stores and areas for water closets, kitchens and sinks. The attics provided dormitories for seventy nurses.

    Survey of London - Whitechapel Volume East block, The Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel Road, Whitechapel, Tower Hamlets, London. View from north.

    The Grocers’ Company’s Wing from the north side of Whitechapel Road. Photographed by Derek Kendall in 2016

    A foundation stone was laid on 27 June 1874. Construction by Perry & Co. was complicated by the intended route of the East London Railway, set to curve beneath the north-east corner of the new wing. As a precautionary measure, the foundations nearest the railway line were excavated to a depth of thirty-five feet and filled with concrete. The outward appearance of the new wing matched the austerity of the Alexandra Wing, with plain brick elevations decorated by a string course and a dentil cornice of Portland stone. The tiled roof was punctuated by pedimented dormer windows that admitted light into the attic dormitories, and tall brick chimneys with oversailing tops and stone string courses. Two rear towers rose above the roofline of the wing, displaying louvered openings and steeply pitched roofs; one contained a water tank and the other was fitted with a ventilation shaft. There were fireproof floors. At street level, a wooden carriage shed built in 1876 occupied the narrow stretch between the north front of the new wing and Whitechapel Road.

    The Grocers’ Company’s Wing was formally opened by Queen Victoria in March 1876, in a grand celebration reported to have lent ‘an attractive and joyous aspect to (an) ordinarily dull and dingy but busy quarter’. [2] In the following months, patients were gradually moved into the new wards, which were praised for their ‘light and pleasant aspect’. [3] The wards were fitted with specialised ventilation systems devised by T. Elsey and George Jennings. Two rows of evenly spaced beds extended across the long walls of each ward, facing inwards. This utilitarian arrangement was relieved by potted flowers and pictures on the walls amongst formal plaques bearing the name of each ward. At the time of writing (January 2017), the appearance and plan of the north range of the Grocers’ Company’s Wing had survived with only minor alterations, despite changes in room use. By the 1930s an operating theatre was located on the north side of the ground floor, lit by a large bay window overlooking Whitechapel Road. On the ground floor of the south range, wards were converted into isolation rooms. The X-Ray Department was housed in the basement of the north range and later extended to accommodate a suite of rooms, including several X-Ray rooms, dark rooms, a film store and offices. The building closed in 2012, when the hospital moved into its new premises.

    References

    [1] Royal London Hospital Archives & Museum (RLHA), RLHLH/A/5/35, pp. 58, 86, 110–1, 123, 208, 425, 439.

    [2] ‘London: Saturday, March 11, 1876’, Illustrated London News, Issue 1911, p. 242.

    [3] ‘The Queen’s Visit to Whitechapel, Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday 12 March 1876.

    Whitechapel Bell Foundry

    By the Survey of London, on 9 December 2016

    On 2 December it was announced that the Whitechapel Bell Foundry will close in May 2017. This will mark the end of what has been a remarkable story. Business cards claim the bell foundry as ‘Britain’s oldest manufacturing company’ and ‘the world’s most famous bell foundry’ – the first not readily contradicted, the second unverifiable but plausible. It has been said that the foundry ‘is so connected with the history of Whitechapel that it would be impossible to move it without wanton disregard of the associations of many generations.’[1] The business, principally the making of church bells, has operated continuously in Whitechapel since at least the 1570s, on its present site with the existing house and office buildings since the mid 1740s.

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Exterior, view fron north.

    Shopfront at the east end of 32–34 Whitechapel Road in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    The foundry’s origins have been traced to either Robert Doddes in 1567 or Robert Mot in 1572, giving rise to a traditional foundation date of 1570. It is said then to have been in Essex Court (later Tewkesbury Court, where Gunthorpe Street is now). There is no continuous thread, but it has also been suggested that the Elizabethan establishment had grown out of a foundry in Aldgate that can be tracked back to Stephen Norton in 1363.

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Exterior, view fron north east.

    Whitechapel Bell Foundry in 2010, from the north-east at the corner of Whitechapel Road and Plumber’s Row (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    From 1701 Richard Phelps was in charge. He made the great (5¼ ton) clock bell for St Paul’s Cathedral in 1716. When he died in August 1738 he was succeeded by Thomas Lester, aged about 35, who had been his foreman. It has been supposed that within the year Lester had moved the foundry into new buildings on the present site on Whitechapel Road, a belief which can be traced to Amherst Tyssen’s account of the history of the foundry in 1923, where he related that ‘according to the tradition preserved in the foundry and communicated to me by Mr John Mears more than sixty years ago, Thomas Lester built the present foundry in the year 1738 and moved his business to it. The site was said to have been previously occupied by the Artichoke Inn.[2] That has never been corroborated and it is implausible as such a move would take more than a few months.

    bell foundry ground floor plan

    Ground-floor plan of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry (Survey of London, Helen Jones)

    Contemporary documentation suggests a slightly later date for the move. An advertisement in the Daily Advertiser of 31 August 1743 reads: ‘To be let on a Building Lease, The Old Artichoke Alehouse, together with the House adjoining, in front fifty feet, and in Depth a hundred and six, situated in Whitechapel Street, the Corner turning into Stepney Fields.’ Those measurements tally well with the foundry site. Stepney Manor Court Rolls (at London Metropolitan Archives) refer to ‘the Artichoke Alehouse, late in the occupation of John Cowell now empty’ on 8 April 1743 and to ‘a new built messuage now in possession of Thomas Leicester, formerly two old houses’ on 15 May 1747. A sewer rates listing of February 1743/4 does not mention Lester at the site. The advertised building lease was no doubt taken by or sold on to Lester, who undertook redevelopment of the site in 1744–6, clearing the Artichoke. The motive for the move would have been the opportunity for a larger foundry and superior accommodation on this more easterly and therefore open site.

    Project: Hidden London Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Exterior, roofscape over house.

    View of the Bell Foundry’s workshops from the roof of the front range, looking south in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    The seven-bay brick range that is 32 and 34 Whitechapel Road is a single room deep with three rooms in line on each storey, all heated from the back wall. It was built to be Lester’s house and has probably always incorporated an office. The Doric doorcase appears to be an original feature, while the shopfront at the east end is of the early nineteenth century, either an insertion or a replacement. Internally the house retains much original fielded panelling, a good original staircase, chimneypieces of several eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dates and, in the central room on the first floor, a fine apsidal niche cupboard. Behind the east end is 2 Fieldgate Street, a separately built house of just one room per storey, perhaps for a foreman. Its Gibbsian door surround is of timber, as is its back wall.

    Project: Hidden London Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Interior of shop with casting profile of Big Ben over door..

    The ground-floor front ‘lobby’ (former shop) at 34 Whitechapel Road in 2010, showing the casting profile of Big Ben over the front door (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    Eighteenth-century outbuildings to the south are single storeyed: a former stables, coach-house and smithery range along Fieldgate Street; and the former foundry (latterly moulding shop) itself, across a yard behind the west part of the house. Facing the street on the former stabling range is a tablet inscribed: ‘This is Baynes Street’ with an illegible date, perhaps 1766, a reference to what later became Fieldgate Street. This junction, which now incorporates Plumber’s Row, bisected property owned by Edward Baynes from 1729.

    Project: Hidden London Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Etxrior, side elevation to Plumbers Row.

    Plumber’s Row range in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    Tablet inscribed ‘This is Baynes Street’ on the foundry’s former stabling range (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    Thomas Lester took Thomas Pack into partnership in 1752 and acquired ownership of the foundry from a younger Edward Baynes in 1767. Lester’s nephew William Chapman was a foundry foreman who, working at Canterbury Cathedral in 1762, met William Mears, a young man he brought back to London to learn the bell-founding trade. Lester died in 1769 and left the foundry to relatives to be leased to Pack and Chapman as partners. After Pack died in 1781 Chapman was pushed out and for a few years descendants of Lester ran the establishment. Their initiative failed and William Mears returned in partnership with his brother Thomas, who came to Whitechapel from Canterbury. Ownership of the property remained divided among descendants of Lester and in 1810 Thomas Mears was still trading as ‘late Lester, Pack and Chapman’. On a promotional sheet he listed all the bells cast at the foundry since 1738, 1,858 in total, around 25 per year – including some for St Mary le Bow in 1738, Petersburg in Russia in 1747, and Christ Church, Philadelphia, in 1754.

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Exerior, bells in courtyard.

    Inner yard of the bell foundry, looking north-west in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    A son, also Thomas Mears, acquired full control of the foundry in October 1818 when Lester’s descendants sold up. The younger Mears took over the businesses of four rival bell-founders and undertook works of improvement. By 1840 the firm had only one major competitor in Britain (W. & J. Taylor of Oxford and Loughborough). The next generation, Charles and George Mears, ran the foundry from 1844 to 1859, the highlight of this period being the casting in 1858 of Big Ben (13.7 tons), still the foundry’s largest bell. From 1865 George Mears was partnered by Robert Stainbank. Thereafter the business traded as Mears & Stainbank up to 1968. Arthur Hughes became the foundry manager in 1884 and took charge of operations in 1904.

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Exerior, bells in courtyard.

    Inner yard of the bell foundry, looking south in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    Given the ownership history, there was little significant investment in the buildings before 1818. However, the smithery end of the eastern outbuilding does appear to have been altered if not rebuilt between 1794 and 1813. Around 1820 a small pair of three-storey houses was added beyond a gateway that gave access to the foundry yard. There are also early nineteenth-century additions behind the centre and west bays of the main house, the last room incorporating a chimneypiece bearing ‘TM 1820’. Thereafter, possibly following a fire in 1837 or in the 1850s, the smithery site was redeveloped as a three-storey workshop/warehouse block extending across a retained gateway. In 1846 the foundry was enlarged with a new furnace by enclosing the south end of the yard, to make an 11.5 ton bell for Montreal Cathedral. Another furnace was added in 1848 when a tuning machine was housed in a specially built room that ate further into the yard with a largely glazed north wall. Two years later a 62ft-tall chimney was erected against the south wall. A large additional workshop or back foundry had been added to the far south-west by the 1870s, by when the pair of houses to the south-east had been cleared for a carpenter’s shop, the front wall retained with its doors and windows blocked. The whole Plumber’s Row range has latterly been used for making handbells and timber bell wheels.

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Interior, hand bell blanks.

    Handbell workshop in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Interior, casting room, preparing the moulds.

    Moulding shop, showing moulds being prepared in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    The back foundry was damaged during the Second World War. Proposals to rebuild entirely behind the Whitechapel Road houses emerged in 1958 by when the foundry was already protected by listing. The workshops were considered expendable, but even then it was suggested that the timber jib crane on the east wall should be preserved. First plans were shelved and a more modest scheme of 1964–5 was postponed for want of capital, though plant and furnaces were replaced and there were repairs. In 1972 Moss Sprawson tried to acquire the site for office development. For the foundry, Douglas Hughes (one of Arthur’s grandsons) proposed a move east across Fieldgate Street to what was then a car park owned by the Greater London Council. A move entirely out of London was also considered. The GLC’s Historic Buildings Division involved itself in trying to maintain what it considered ‘a unique and important living industry where crafts essentially unchanged for 400 years are practised by local craftsmen.’[3] But plans came unstuck again in 1976 when the GLC conceded it had no locus to help keep the business in situ. In the same year the UK gave the USA a Bicentennial Bell cast in Whitechapel.

    A large new engineering workshop was at last built in 1979–81, with James Strike as architect. At the back of the site, it was faced with arcaded yellow stock brick on conservation grounds. In 1984–5 the GLC oversaw and helped pay for underpinning and refurbishment of the front buildings. The shopfront was grained and the external window shutters were renewed and painted dark green. In 1997 proprietorship passed to Douglas Hughes’s nephew, Alan Hughes, and his wife, Kathryn. The foundry has since continued to manufacture, though not without growing concerns as to its tenability in Whitechapel. Now the Hughes have announced that the foundry will close in May 2017 after sale of the site. The future of the business is to be negotiated.

    We are very grateful to Alan Hughes for showing us round the premises and sharing his knowledge of the foundry.

    The Survey of London has launched a participative website, ‘Histories of Whitechapel’. Please visit at: https://surveyoflondon.org. We welcome contributions from any and all. For more information about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, and to add your memories and photographs, please visit https://surveyoflondon.org/map/feature/155/detail/.

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Interior, casting room, filling the moulds.

    Sand foundry, filling the moulds in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Interior, bell tuning room.

    Tuning shop in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    Project: Site: Whitechapel Bell Foundry, 32-34 Whitechapel Road, Tower Hamlets, London. Interior, bell store, recently cast bells.

    Bell recast in 2010 (© Historic England Archive, photographed by Derek Kendall)

    References

    [1] D. L. Munby, Industry and Planning in Stepney, 1951, p. 254

    [2] Amherst D. Tyssen, ‘The History of the Whitechapel Bell-Foundry’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, vol. 5, 1923, p. 211

    [3] London Metropolitan Archives, LMA/4441/01/0821

    East London Mail Centre and E1 Delivery Office, 180–206 Whitechapel Road

    By the Survey of London, on 11 November 2016

    The large concrete building which dominates the corner of Whitechapel Road and Cavell Street represents the last expression of postal activity on an extensive site which was once the centre of the Post Office’s operations in the East End. Before its closure in 2012, the East London Mail Centre (formerly known as the Eastern District Post Office) processed mail for the entire ‘E’ postal district, an area covering over 50 square miles from Chingford to Poplar, and was the eastern terminus of the Post Office Railway. During its 130-year association with the Post Office, the site has seen successive building projects prompted by rising workloads, technological developments and changing patterns of consumption.

    Survey of London - Whitechapel Volume East London Mail Centre, Cavell Street. View from south east.

    East London Mail Centre, view from Cavell Street in 2016 (© Survey of London, Derek Kendall).

    By the 1880s the Eastern District Office had outgrown its premises in Commercial Road and sought land for a chief office with room for expansion. It purchased a piece of former waste ground near the London Hospital, occupied by a paper-stainer’s shop and two cottages. With a 50ft frontage extending south from Whitechapel Road to Raven Row, the site was generous in size and its situation ideal. A new post office was built to designs by Henry Tanner of the Office of Works. It comprised a three-storey red-brick range with a public office fronting Whitechapel Road, and a single-storey sorting office at the rear. The main elevation of the public office was grand in character, with a central pedimented gable and round-arched windows on the third floor. In contrast, the sorting office presented a robust brick elevation to Cavell Street, with a plain staff entrance and large recessed windows.

    Rapid growth in demand for postal services sparked plans to extend the building to relieve ‘cramped’ working conditions. By 1899 the number of letters processed at the Eastern District Office had increased twofold. Ground to the west of the building was acquired and a significant extension built to designs by Jasper Wager of the Office of Works, which nearly doubled the floor area. Further alterations followed with the construction of the Post Office Railway, or ‘Mail Rail’, to plans by William Slingo, engineer to the General Post Office, and Harley H. Dalrymple-Hay, consulting engineer. The underground electric railway was conceived in 1911 as a solution to the strain on London’s postal services caused by traffic congestion and a soaring volume of letters and parcels. It opened in 1927 to connect all of the capital’s major post offices, with its eastern terminus at Whitechapel. The line approached from Liverpool Street, following the route of Whitechapel Road before curving southwards to meet the station platform and terminating in a loop to the south of Raven Row. Although the railway was closed in 2003, the infrastructure survives and has attracted proposals for reuse.

    Map of the Post Office Railway in 1937 (British Postal Museum and Archive catalogue)

    IMG_6274

    East London Mail Centre, north elevation overlooking Whitechapel Road.

    The introduction of mechanised postal sorting equipment in the 1930s led to new requirements for sorting offices and Whitechapel Road’s was probably considered unsuitable for modernisation. A scheme for redevelopment of the site seems to have been in place by 1956, when plans indicate that the adaptation of the former clothing factory on the east side of Cavell Street for post-office use was considered, most likely as an interim measure. The acquisition of Nos 180–188 Whitechapel Road and the adjacent builder’s works provided a substantial site with a frontage of over 200ft.

    The earlier buildings were demolished and the present Modernist building constructed in two phases by 1970. The first phase comprised the eight-storey west block, which housed a ground-floor public post office with administrative offices above. It was followed by the adjoining four-storey sorting office, which extends along Cavell Street to Raven Row. The drab utilitarian exterior was the product of a short-lived initiative to standardise the design of post office buildings, in a new house style showcased in a 1960s exhibition produced by the architects’ department of the Ministry of Public Building and Works, headed by Eric Bedford. The main elevation facing Whitechapel Road is divided into eleven bays clad with prefabricated-concrete panels and horizontal bands of glazing. The structural frame of the building is exposed on the ground floor by four concrete columns flanking the van entrance to the sorting office. The widely publicised ‘modular system’ was contrived as a ‘common approach’ to building design to make post offices ‘instantly recognisable in any setting’.

    Photograph of a model of the Eastern District Office (BPMA catalogue)

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    Van entrance to the former sorting office, flanked by open concrete shafts.

    The interior of the sorting office was laid out for a mechanised workflow, which processed four million items each week. The ground floor functioned as a loading yard, with large entrances for postal vans opening onto Whitechapel Road and Raven Row. A warren of chutes and conveyors enabled the flow of letters, parcels and mail bags between stages in the sorting process. A chain conveyor brought inward mail bags from the yard to the sorting floors, to be processed by specialised machinery. The first, second and third floors of the sorting office comprised open-plan rooms with continuous steel-framed windows on each exterior wall to maximise light provision. Offices for inspectors were formed from light partitions. The Eastern District relied on over 2,000 postal staff working through the day and night, and a lounge, games room and bar were provided on the fourth floor.

    Isometric plan of the basement, ground floor, first floor and mezzanine (BPMA catalogue)

    Isometric plan of the second, third and fourth floors (BPMA catalogue)

    The East London Mail Centre did not survive plans announced in 2000 to modernise London’s sorting system and, at the time of writing (2016), its former offices are occupied by tenants and only a modest delivery desk continues to operate. As the site has been earmarked for redevelopment by Tower Hamlets Council, the building is likely to be demolished.

    The Survey of London has launched a participative website titled ‘Histories of Whitechapel’. Please visit at https://surveyoflondon.org.