St Mary le Bow in London

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!

22 thoughts on “East London, a History of Bow”

  1. Hi, I am researching my families history and I have come across a birth certificate that names a “George Cooper” married to “Eliza LeMay”. He was a surgeon living at “3 Alexander Terrace, Bow”. the only details I have is that he passed away in 1889?
    I cannot even find that address so I guess it may have been destroyed in the war or maybe renamed?
    Please can anyone help identify George and put together some pieces to my puzzle.

  2. Judith M. Henderson

    I am looking for family of Charles Selby, Undertaker of 31 Campbell Road, Bromley by Bow. In the 1891 census my grandmother Mary Elizabeth Phillips of Boston, Lincolnshire, age about 11 years old, niece to Charles, lived with the family for a few years and went to school there, before obtaining employment as a domestic servant in Yorkshire where she met my grandfather. I have recently read that the family are still undertakers in the area. My great grandmother was Mary Selby, Charles’ sister. I would love to hear from anyone in the family who may have heard the story about the Phillips family being split up when their father John Phillips died. I was brought up by my grandmother and she used to talk very fondly about the family, especially about the Hackney horses used to pull the hearse.

  3. Hi, I’m looking for information about the Lord Campbell which was located at 142 Campbell Road. Does anyone remember the pub?

    1. Charles W M Parker

      Hello Hilda, you did not mention your grandparents names.
      The Pub was built in the early 1860s and first landlord was Thomas A Moore for one year in1866.
      Then in 1866 until 1869 it was Elizabeth Morgue.
      Then in 1869 until 1872 it was Richard Robert Parry.

      Charlotte P Gibbs bought it in 1872 and was the L/Victualler, the census of 1881 shows Charlotte P Gibbs / Widow, age 61 as the L/Victualler and her son James W Gibbs/ Manager.
      Emma L Gibbs / Daughter/ 27.
      Edgar A Gibbs / 19.
      Horatio G Gibbs / 17.
      Matilda B Gibbs / 16.
      Charlotte was the Landlady still in 1886, then in 1891census James W Gibbs is now the L/Victualler with Edgar, Horatio, Emma and a niece called Emma G Jordan age 11. And a Nephew Valentine J Jordan age 9.

      In the 1901 census James W Gibbs is still the Landlord with three staff,but no family listed, in 1910 a lady called Mrs Matilda Blanch West was the Landlady of The Bow Bells, 116 Bow Road.

  4. i grew up on Blondin street in the sixties ,anyone out there have photo,s of the street or nearby, would love it.

  5. Does anyone know of william Crawley the pawnbroker of Bow, who traded during the latter part of the 1800s. he was also the landlord of over 30 addresses on Bow Road, not far from the Brymay factory, he himself resided in Leyton.

    1. Charles W M Parker

      Hello Stan,
      William M Crawley Pawnbroker, lived at 228 Bow Road at his own pawnbrokers shop with his staff according to the 1881 Census.
      He was 24 years old born in Bow and not married and employed Henry Rhodes as manager / pawnbroker age 36 with his wife Louisa 36 and 2 children under 10.

      He also employed three others, two male assistant pawnbrokers one 16 and one 17 years old and a female domestic servant age 19, all living with him at the shop premises.

      It looks like William was quite the businessman Stan!! at his age of 24 to employ people and have a shop and property on Bow Road at that time.

    2. Charles W M Parker

      Hello Stan,
      I have been able to find more information on William Crawley from Bow.In the 1891 Census he is living at 80, Holly Bush Hill Wanstead.He is now married to Louisa age 31 and the house belongs to her mother Elizabeth Bangs / Widow age 64. It also lists Percy Bangs / son age 22. William M Crawley Son- In – Law age 34 Pawnbroker. There was 2 female domestic servants aged 33 and 22 and a male Coachman / Groom aged 26.
      He had got married to Louisa Bangs In 1889 and I assume he had moved from Bow Road to her mothers house at that time.
      In 1892 they had a baby daughter Doris Mary Bangs.

      I could not find him or his family on the 1901 Census, perhaps records were lost for this time.

      He does appear again in the 1911 Census he is living at ” Trenance “ Woodland Grove Weybridge Surrey. He is now listed as William M Crawley age 54 Jeweller / Dealer. Louisa Crawley age 51 and a daughter Doris M Crawley age 19.
      They had 2 female servants, a cook and a housemaid both single and both aged 25.
      His business premises ( Shop ) was at 33 – 35 High St. Putney.

      William Mitchell Crawley died on the 2nd March1925 aged 67 and was buried at St Mary’s Churchyard Walton on Thames.

      1. hi prudence

        i lived in sumner house on devons rd in 1950 and went to devons rd school, as did a friend robert hampshire who lived in one of those pre-fabs.
        do you recall him at all.


        1. hello Chris my name is John Burnett i iived in Bow in the 50 and 60s. i rember sumner house very well.I lived in Broxbourne house in devas street near
          st andrews hospital I also lived in barton house opposite bow church and next to the old regal cinema .

          1. Tracy , I lived in Sumner house at No 22 . So your dad lived on the first landing Just along from us

  6. 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.

  7. Len Dance FRPS FIOD

    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.

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. Gill Patterson-Roberts

        Would anyone perhaps know if there are any surviving relatives of the Irwin family, who were Apothecaries in Poplar – approx Late 1800’s / 1900’s and earlier? There were five children, that we are aware of.

        A large house/ building of the Irwin’s still remained in 2000, but could have been demolished since then.

        I am the daughter of the last Irwin child (Charles Henry ) born 1915..Our family is trying to get more information on our family.
        We would all be appreciative of any information in this regard.Thank you.
        Gillian Patterson-Roberts

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