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 – the Romans probably built this. 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 ordered to build a bridge over the water.
Places to Visit in the East End of London – Bow
Legend says you can only be a true Cockney if born within the sound of Bow bells. You won’t make a child a Cockney by camping close to Bow Church, as the legend relates to the bells of St Mary-le-Bow 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.
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 travel into London from Essex 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 developed a lot in the 14th century. It was a small and relatively insignificant village that only sometimes had 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 permitted a chapel to be built on the road over the bridge, effectively creating 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 previous big raid in the Blitz. This caused much damage to parts of the church, which weren’t fully restored until the 1950s.
Things got a bit gorier as time passed, and Bow became notorious as a site for burning Protestants during the reign of Mary I. Prisoners from Newgate would be transported to Bow church and burned outside it.
Bow became home to industries that needed to be more welcome in the city’s centre, as with many East End areas. It was typical for dangerous or smelly trades to operate outside of the central part of London, and in the 17th century, Bow was running a thriving trader in the slaughter of cattle.
As a by-product, the area became known for producing some incredibly delicate and famous blue and white porcelain, Bow Porcelain. This was made by mixing cattle bones and clay, and the Bow China Works was one of the country’s best-known porcelain producers 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 residents generally. In the 1880s, the local Bryant and May factory was the famous match girls’ strike scene.
Women in the match factory had to endure some reasonably dire working conditions. They worked 14 hours daily 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 in a former Bow Road shop. 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 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 to see if any policeman would recognise him!
Bow: A Historical Overview
Bow is a district in East London with a rich and fascinating history. Here are some of the highlights of its past and present:
- Bow was originally called Stratford-atte-Bow, which means “the paved way to a ford by the bow-shaped bridge”. The name refers to a causeway built by the Romans across the River Lea and a wooden bridge that replaced it in the 12th century.
- Bow was the birthplace of archery in England. According to legend, King Edward III ordered his soldiers to practice shooting longbows at the bridge in Bow, which gave rise to the phrase “to have a bow in hand”. Archery was a vital skill for medieval warfare, and Bow became famous for its bowyers and fletchers who made bows and arrows.
- Bow was also the site of a religious rebellion in the 14th century. A group of women known as the Bow Bells refused to pay the church tithe and claimed to have visions of the Virgin Mary. They were led by Marjorie Kempe, a mystic and writer considered one of the first English autobiographers. The Bow Bells were eventually excommunicated and imprisoned for heresy.
- Bow was involved in the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it became a centre for pottery, porcelain, match-making, and chemical manufacturing. Some unique products made in Bow were Bow porcelain, which rivalled Chinese porcelain in quality and design, and Bryant and May matches, the first safety matches in Britain.
- Bow was also a hub for social reform and political activism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the influential figures who lived or worked in Bow were:
- William Morris, a poet, artist, and socialist who founded the Arts and Crafts movement and campaigned for environmental protection and workers’ rights.
- Annie Besant, a feminist, socialist, and theosophist, led the matchgirls’ strike of 1888, which improved the working conditions and wages of the match factory workers.
- Sylvia Pankhurst was a suffragette, communist, and anti-fascist who founded the East London Federation of Suffragettes and fought for women’s suffrage and social justice.
- George Lansbury, a Labour politician and pacifist, was the leader of the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921, which challenged the unfair taxation system that burdened low-income people.
- Clement Attlee, a Labour politician and prime minister who led the post-war government that created the welfare state and the National Health Service.
- Today, Bow is a diverse and vibrant area that retains its historical charm and character. Some of the landmarks that reflect its heritage are:
- St Mary’s Church dates back to the 14th century and contains a memorial to the Bow Bells.
- The Three Mills, among the oldest surviving industrial buildings in Britain, house a museum, a film studio, and a distillery.
- The Bryant and May Factory, which is now converted into apartments but still features its iconic red-brick facade and clock tower.
- The Bow Quarter is a gated community built on the former Match Girls’ home site.
- The Roman Road Market, one of the oldest street markets in London, sells various goods and food.
Bow is an area that has witnessed many changes and challenges throughout history but has always maintained its spirit of innovation, resistance, and community. It is a place that deserves to be explored and celebrated for its fantastic story and historical landmarks.