East London, a History of Bow

Legend has it that you can only be a true Cockney if you were born within the sound of Bow bells. You won’t, however, make a child a Cockney by camping close to Bow Church, as the legend actually relates to the bells of St Mary-le-Bow, which are in the City of London. You also won’t be able to trace the history of London’s first police force to Bow.




The force was called the Bow Street Runners, but they were based in Covent Garden! Nevertheless, Bow sits in the heart of the East End and, like much of this area of London, is rich in history, dating back to Roman Times.

Places to Visit in the East End of London – Bow

It is thought that the first recording of Bow as a settlement was in the 1100s. At that time, the area was known as Stratford-atte-Bow. This name refers to the stone causeway that led to a ford in the area – this was probably built by the Romans. It also caused a hiccup for Henry I’s wife, Matilda, who allegedly fell into the ford on a visit to Barking Abbey. Royally disgruntled and determined not to get wet on her next visit, she gave an order to build a bridge over the water.

The three bow arches on the bridge gave Bow its name; it was also allegedly the first stone bridge in the country. Apart from Queen Matilda, the most famous people to cross the bridge are probably Jack Straw and his 100,000 men who used it to cross into London from Essex on their way to join Wat Tyler’s Peasant Revolt in the 1380s. Until the 15th century, this bridge came with a chapel, which was the home of various hermits. Despite the work of Matilda as Queen, the bridge road became known as the King’s Way.

History and Development of Bow

Bow didn’t develop much until the 14th century. It was a small and fairly insignificant village that didn’t always have easy access because it was prone to flooding from the river Lea. This also meant that locals couldn’t always get to the closest church in Stepney. So, in the early 1300s, Edward III gave permission for a chapel to be built on the road over the bridge, effectively building a church on an island.

Although the church in Bow has been rebuilt over the years, parts date back to the 13th century. The church was unlucky enough to be hit by one of the last bombs dropped by the Germans in the Second World War in the last big raid in the Blitz. This caused a lot of damage to parts of the church, which weren’t fully restored until the 1950s.

Things got a little bit gorier as time passed and Bow became notorious as a site for burning Catholics during the reign of Mary I. Prisoners from Newgate would be transported to Bow church and burned outside it.

As with many East End areas, Bow became home to the kinds of industries that weren’t welcome in the centre of the city. It was common for dangerous or even just smelly trades to operate outside of the main part of London and, in the 17th century, Bow was running a thriving trader in the slaughter of cattle. As a by-product of this, the area became known for producing some incredibly delicate and popular blue and white porcelain, known as Bow Porcelain. This was made by mixing cattle bones and clay. The Bow China Works was one of the best known producers of porcelain in the country until the 1770s.

East London Federation of Suffragettes

Bow was also home to a fair bit of suffragette activity, or early girl power, in the Victorian period. Sylvia Pankhurst based her East London Federation of Suffragettes organisation in Bow Road and did a lot of work to improve conditions for the local residents generally. In the 1880s, the local Bryant and May factory was the scene of the famous match girls’ strike. Women working in the match factory had to put up with some fairly dire working conditions. They worked for 14 hours a day for paltry pay and many became ill with ‘phossy jaw’ from working with dangerous phosphorous. Their strike improved conditions.

In the 1950s, Bow, like much of the East End, fell under the influence of the Kray Twins. Their ‘Double R’ club was located in a former shop on Bow Road. Far from being just a gangster’s social club, Ronnie and Reggie’s drinking club became well known all over London and attracted a lot of famous celebrity guests.  Rumour has it that Ronnie Kray also used to find it funny to walk up and down outside the police station on Bow Road when he was on the run just to see if any policeman would recognise him!

East London History - East End Facts

Malcolm Oakley - East London History - A Guide to London's East End.

I grew up on the fringes of London's true East End and have been fascinated by the ever changing history and landscape of the area.

Visitors and tourists to London may only ever explore the City centre but for those that care to travel further east, a rich and rewarding travel adventure awaits. So much of London's history owes a debt to the East End. Colourful characters, famous architecture, hidden treasures of changing life over the years.

Author by Malcolm Oakley.

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5 comments on “East London, a History of Bow
  1. Graham Johnson says:

    Following the success of the 1888 Matchgirls Strike, a Working Women’s Club was set up in Bow by Helena Blavatsky in August 1890 with Laura Cooper and Annie Besant in charge.

    Does anyone know it’s location?

    My interest arises because my wife’s GrGrandmother, Sarah Chapman, was a leader in the Strike.

  2. The church in Cheapside is St Mary’s. There is only one bell in the church and is known as the Great bell of Bow.
    The bell was made in Whitchapel and is enormous.It acquired its name because there is a small lane that runs along side St Mary’s that is called Bow Lane.
    I was born and brought up in Bow. I became a press photographer, and during my career was asked to photograph the great bell after it had been refurbished.

  3. Tony Scarlo says:

    Cockneys are one born within the sound of bow bells in cheapside in the city of London, they are called the bells of st mary le bow, the same bells that said turn again dick Whittington Lord Mayor of London, not bow bells in bow, this information can be seen in all the city livery halls in the city of London.

  4. John hills says:

    Please ,does anyone have pictures of Washington street prefabs or mile end arena.many thanks

    • I wonder if John Hills has asked his questions in one of the Facebook Reminiscence Groups that deal with the are – I have seen many pictures of Mile End area but do not recall the washington street Prefabs.

      I have been fascinated by the fact that the statue of Gladstone outside Bow Bridge Church – part financed by compulsory deductions from workers wages at the match factory – are always fresshly painted red – to signify the blood of those workers.

      https://www.facebook.com/groups/livinginbow/?ref=br_rs

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