The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the maker of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, was established in 1570. In 2017 it closed its premises on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Plumbers Row, where it had been since the mid-1740s. The site was bought by Raycliff, an American private investment group, whose other assets include a stake in the hotel chain Soho House. Raycliff wants to convert the Whitechapel site – the original Grade II*-listed building and a number of later extensions – into a ‘boutique hotel’ with a roof pool, some shared workspace and a café with a small workshop tucked into a corner.

The plans have been opposed by Save the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, a campaign led by the UK Historic Buildings Protection Trust. The UKHBPT launched a petition and submitted a counterproposal, but on 14 November the Tower Hamlets development committee approved Raycliff’s application. Many objectors from across the world wrote to Robert Jenrick, the secretary of state for housing, communities and local government, and on 2 December he put the plans on hold.

The proposal put together by the UKHBPT and the Factum Foundation is for a ‘financially viable 21st-century artistic foundry based on … new technology and craft skills’. The project, to be funded through sponsorship, would allow the foundry to re-employ some of the workers and to create an apprenticeship scheme.

Earlier this month there was a ‘pop-up bell foundry’ at UCL’s Bartlett Faculty of the Built Development in Stratford. Peter Scully, a technical director at Bartlett, gave an introductory lecture on bell-making. The modern manufacturing technology, he explained, is sustainable, green and generally more reliable and agile than traditional techniques. Then he and his colleagues put on yellow jackets and grey aprons and cast two bells, pouring bright orange molten bronze from a small digital furnace into white ceramic shell moulds.

Afterwards, Scully talked about the shortage of manufacturing skills and the modernisation of traditional industries. If the Whitechapel foundry – the oldest single-purpose industrial site in Britain – were re-equipped to continue producing bells, it could still make a profit. The UKHBPT’s business plan for the foundry relies on three potential markets: the church, the art scene and China.

Ehtasham Haque, a Tower Hamlets councillor, described Raycliff’s proposal for the site as a ‘typical money-making venture with some bell-making element’. Whitechapel hardly needs another boutique hotel: an online search produces dozens of results, along with explanations about what makes them all ‘unique’.

Historic England (‘championing England’s heritage’) said that Raycliff’s proposals ‘have the makings of a successful heritage regeneration scheme’ but didn’t comment on the UKHBPT alternative. I asked the art historian Charles Saumarez Smith what he thought of this response. Conventionally trained architectural historians, he suggested, are more interested in ‘grand things’, such as cathedrals and country houses, than in industrial sites; they expect developers to preserve listed buildings but not necessarily the built environment as a whole. Remembering his visit to the foundry in 2017, Saumarez Smith said it was ‘still very atmospheric and well preserved’, but ‘once it’s turned into a hotel, I don’t think the building will be remotely interesting.’

As I left the workshop in Stratford, the bell-makers were breaking the moulds with hammers. The bells would be finished, tuned and auctioned. It was cold and wet outside. ‘It was said,’ Peter Ackroyd writes in London: The Biography, ‘that bell-ringing was a salutary way of keeping warm in winter.’ Walking along the river Lea in the howling wind, I thought of the moment in 1984 when Winston Smith imagines ‘the bells of a lost London that still existed somewhere or other, disguised and forgotten. From one ghostly steeple after another he seemed to hear them pealing forth.’