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At St Mary Stratford Atte Bow

March 16, 2014
by the gentle author

In 1311, the residents of Bow became sick of trudging through the mud each winter to get to the parish church of St Dunstan’s over in Stepney, so they raised money to build a chapel of ease upon a piece of land granted by Edward II ‘in the middle of the King’s Highway.’ Seven hundred years later, it is still there and now the traffic hurtles past on either side, yet in spite of injuries inflicted by time, the ancient chapel retains the tranquillity of another age.

Even as you step through the churchyard gates of St Mary and cast your eyes along the undulating stone path bordered by yews, the hubbub recedes as the fifteenth century tower looms up before you. At this time of year, a galaxy of celandines spangles the grass among the tombs as a reminder of the former rural landscape of Bow that has been overtaken by the metropolis. Partly rebuilt in 1829 after a great storm brought down the tower, new ashlar stone may be easily distinguished from the earlier construction, topped off in the last century by red bricks after the church took a direct hit in World War II.

Once you enter the door, the subtly splayed walls of the nave, the magnificent wooden vaulted roof and the irregular octagonal stone pillars reveal the medieval provenance of the ancient structure which is domestic in proportion and pleasing in its modest vernacular. Escaping the radical alterations which damaged too many old churches, St Mary was restored gently in 1899 by C R Ashbee, who set up his School of Handicrafts in Bow at the end of the nineteenth century. Ashbee inserted twenty-two foot oak beams across the nave at ceiling height to hold the structure together, fitted discreet double-glazing to exclude the sound of iron cartwheels upon the cobbles and added a choir vestry at the rear in understated Arts & Crafts design.

Beneath your feet, previous residents of Bow lie packed together in a vault sealed by a Health Inspector in 1890, now rehydrated by rising water as tributaries of the River Lea flow beneath the shallow foundations. Meanwhile, on the day of my visit, a mother and toddler group played happily upon the floor inches above above the charnel house and laughing children delighted in racing up and down the nave – past the stone font of 1410, replaced in 1624 with a one of more modern design and which lay in the rector’s garden for three hundred years before it was re-instated.

Monuments to members of the wealthy Coborn family loom overhead. One is for Alice who died of smallpox at fifteen years old on her wedding day in 1699 and, challenging it from across the nave, a much more elaborate memorial to her wealthy step-mother Prisca who died two years later – hinting perhaps at long-forgotten family tensions.

Diverting the eye from such distractions, the architecture draws your attention forward and an elaborate Tudor ceiling rewards your gaze in the chancel, where C R Ashbee’s richly-coloured encaustic tiles rival the drama of the celandines in the churchyard outside and a curious post-war Renaissance style window offers whimsical amusement with its concealed animals lurking within the design.

Not overburdened with history, yet laced with myriad stories – St Mary’s was once the parish of  Samuel Henshall who saw the potential in patenting the corkscrew before anyone else and of George Lansbury, the pioneering Socialist, whose granddaughter, the actress Angela Lansbury, who came back to honour his centenary recently.

Reflecting the nature of our era, the current focus of work at St Mary’s is the organisation of a food bank to serve the needs of local people, but if Geoffrey Chaucer or Samuel Pepys came through Bow – as they did centuries ago – they would still recognise the chapel of ease of their own times and its lively East End parish, of rich and poor, fish merchants, reformers and entrepreneurs.

The bells of Bow

Oak beam added by C R Ashbee as part of his restoration of 1900 and double-glazing, against the noise of the cartwheels upon the cobbles, which is the oldest example in a church in Britain

Tudor roof in the chancel

Bow’s oldest monument, commemorating Grace Amcott, wife of wealthy ‘ffyshmongr’ 1551

Encaustic tiles of 1900 by C R Ashbee

Iron Flag from the tower discovered among the bomb damage of World War II

East Window with architectural design and concealed animals

Cat from the east window

Parish chest, seventeenth century

Medieval font of 1410, rescued after three hundred years in a garden

C R Ashbee’s choir vestry of 1900

Medieval tower restored in 1829 with ashlar stone and with brick after World War II bomb damage

The statue of Gladstone has his hands daubed with red paint

Bow in 1702

Bow Church seen from the east, early eighteenth century

Bow Church seen from the west, eighteenth century

Bow Church seen from the west, early nineteenth century


C R Ashbee’s drawing of his proposal for the renovation of the church in 1899

St Mary’s Football Team, 1910

St Mary’s Football Team, 1938

Wartime damage

With grateful thanks to Joy Wotton for her kind assistance with this feature

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Easter Flowers at St Dunstan’s

The Secrets of Christ Church Spitalfields

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In City Churchyards

31 Responses leave one →
  1. Erin permalink
    March 16, 2014

    What a lovely tribute to this building – I spent many hours there rehearsing with amateur orchestras. So many hours staring at those floors, waiting for the first violins to figure out their fingerings…! We found two slugs mating on top of the toilet cistern one night too. It was one of my favourite churches for rehearsing it, nice acoustic and not too cold in the winter. Well, relatively speaking.

  2. Carolyn Badcock - nee Hooper permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Many thanks, gentle author, for a delightful post with such wonderful London history. It really makes one stop and ponder…….1311…….700 years which equates to approximately 28 generations who knelt within those walls. Incredible!! Think of all the stories…..

    I particularly love that the font came back into “being” after a stint in the garden.

    Best wishes from Australia

  3. March 16, 2014

    When I lived in London, I used to enjoy exploring the city’s churches, but this one is new to me. Must visit!

  4. March 16, 2014

    Thanks for sharing the beautiful photos, another bouquet of happy memories for me. Valerie

  5. Robert permalink
    March 16, 2014

    I’m charmed by this story of the church in situ in an island plot divided by heavy traffic. Love the attention to detail such as the tiles.

    Also I wish to mention next to the statue is a disused Victorian walk down public toilet which has been closed for decades. I’m a little bit surprised that it hadn’t been repurposed for an art gallery. I don’t see a demand for catering like the disused public WCs in Chatsworth rd, now a cafe or a upmarket coffee bar like the Attendant in fitzrovia.

  6. Greg Tingey permalink
    March 16, 2014

    I didn’t realise it had been so badly blown up in WWII.
    Next – please … the next church in the middle of the traffic – at Stratford itself?
    With a memorial in the grounds, that ought to be better remembered, as well.

  7. March 16, 2014

    Amazing story about a beautiful church. — I like the early 20th century tiles by C R Ashbee!

    Love & Peace

  8. Brian permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Workers at Bryant and Mays spilled their blood on the statue of Gladstone at its unveiling and threw bricks at dignitaries present. The story is that William Bryant paid for the statue on behalf of East Londoners and, if he didn’t take a contribution from the pitifully low wagers of his workers directly, then he DID take it via their exploitation. In any event, the people of East London believe the story, and enough of them are prepared to ensure that the hands are always secretly repainted where necessary. Liberal Prime Ministers, we must remember, represented the interests of manufacturers, not of their workers and, despite rumours to the contrary, it remains so ever.

  9. March 16, 2014

    lovely Sunday post with great photographs.

  10. sprite permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Nice to have the addition of Brian’s comments on why the hand of the statue are repainted red. Always found it ironic that the old match factory with such a strong history of early trade unions is now a gated community.


  11. Peter permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Thankyou for this today.A wonderful building,brilliant glass and beautiful tiles.

  12. Penny Wythes permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Loved reading this – can’t wait to come and have a look for myself. One thing I’ve always wondered about – was this the location of Bow bells/the great Bell at Bow? or is there another church at Bow? And Thanks Brian – I was wondering how the hands had stayed red all this time.

  13. Susan permalink
    March 16, 2014

    I am always so envious of the history you live with – and you do such a lovely job of capturing the stories! (I live on the west coast of Canada, where everything was essentially built yesterday, and most things that manage to have survived our whopping 100 -year history invariably get torn down, or are left with the historic facade with a gutted interior. That’s how we “save” our history here… *sigh*).

  14. Gary Arber permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Two pence was deducted from the wages of the workers at Bryant & Mayes to pay towards the Gladstone statue, this was the equivilant of making members of the RMT pay towards a statue to Thatcher. Red paint was thrown over the statue about 25 years ago by members of the womens group, it ran from the head down one side and they also covered the hands, no attempt was made to clean it and now it is renewed when necessary.

  15. Brian permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Penny Wythes …….. there’s a lot of confusion about Bow Bells, not reduced by the presence of a pub with that name in walking distance of the church. The REAL Bow Bells live at the church in Cheapside in the City – THIS one has nothing really to do with the cockney legend.

  16. Mary permalink
    March 16, 2014

    Thank you for this post: I doubly enjoyed it as I am a child of Bow and the church is very familiar to me, though I do not live in London now. I also attended the Coborn School for Girls which was founded by Prisca Coborn in 1701 for the education of 50 poor girls and boys of the parish, the boys to be taught reading, writing and arithmetic, and the girls to be taught reading, writing and needlework. Presumably they were clever enough to count their own stitches without the benefit of maths education. I know that I won’t delay past this year my long-yearned for visit back to my roots! I love reading your posts, just can’t live without them now, and quite often I forward one to a friend or two as they are so interesting.

  17. annie permalink
    March 17, 2014

    Thank you for the interesting article and for posting the beautiful pictures of the church in Bow, I have passed it on the bus a number of times and would never have realised it was so lovely inside. Glad to hear it’s still being used.

  18. Michael permalink
    March 26, 2014

    Lovely article and photos. One minor quibble, though. If the church was licensed by the King in 1311, it can’t have been Edward III. Edward of Windsor did not become King until 13th November, 1312. For that matter, he was only 14 when crowned and the country was de facto ruled by his Mother’s lover, Roger de Mortimer. Edward wouldn’t take full control of the throne for another 3 years. It would have been his father, Edward II, who granted the town of Bow the license.

  19. Michael permalink
    March 26, 2014

    Please excuse me! Edward of Windsor was BORN in 1312, not crowned. He became King on 1st February, 1327. So it definitely could not have been any King other than Edward II who granted the people of Bow the license to build their chapel in 1311.

  20. Barbara Hague permalink
    May 11, 2015

    Lovely to see the church I was baptised in during the war.

  21. May 13, 2015

    Thank you very much it is fabulously presented with great pictures, I worked in an office within the Electric House building on the corner of Bow Road and Alfred Street, in the 1990s and recollect the church was a place I visited. I cannot remember the detail of my visits, though my recollections of the area are very powerful.

    As I went along the Bow Road, I had a real sense of history realising that once the Old Ford was superseded by the Strat Ford (I am not sure when) that I was on the same route that had, for many centuries, been used by folk travelling between Norfolk and London,

    It was a particular delight to read in the history section of the church website, some details of the fellow said to have danced to Norwich and gained much publicity thus: -” 11 February 1600

    Will Kemp, the country’s leading comic actor and entertainer (and a friend of Shakespeare), began to dance all the way from London to Norwich – 130 miles – for publicity and sponsorship money. He set off with a drummer and a referee, and an enormous crowd cheering him on.

    “Mile End is no walk without a recreation at Stratford Bow and cream and cakes… and many a thousand brought me to Bow where I rested a while from dancing, but had small rest from those who urged me to drinking!” – from his book, ‘Kemp’s Nine Days Wonder’

    After Bow, he danced over the bridge and on to Romford to end his first day. He made it all the way to Norwich. It took him a month. ”

    It is a shame there continues to be misunderstanding between the site of Bow Bridge and Bow Bells, the Bells Church is about 3 or 4 miles to the West in the City of London, whereas our Church was not ‘technically’ in London but on the Middlesex County border with Essex, but London has just kept growing!

    I would like to know more about the 1702 map shown here and would be interested in seeing a larger version.

    It is confusing that the church is named as being at “Stratford-atte-Bow”, which makes it easy to confuse with the town now called just Stratford on the East side of the River Lea, which was previously in Essex, now the London Borough of Newham. I understand the explanation is that earlier that place was fully named “Stratford Langthorne”, but that in time – Langthorne was dropped therefore making it all the more easy to confuse with every other place name that derives from the location of a “straight ford!”

  22. June 3, 2015

    Thank you for a very nicely written article and some great photos. You mention that the vault under the church is becoming “rehydrated” and that it has been sealed since 1890. What would it take to get this unsealed? It contains the tomb of Philip Ludwell, first Royal Governor of the Carolinas and of his grandson Philip Ludwell III who was a member of the Royal Governing Council of Virginia and the man who organized George Washinggton’s commission as an officer in the Virginia militia. The Ludwell’s are related to the Lee’s of Virginia, all of whom are descendants of Richard Lee the Emigrant. He purchased all the land around the church in 1658. I think archeology in the crypt could help uncover some fascinating information about this family group.

  23. Alan Lewin permalink
    August 21, 2015

    I went to school (1958 – 1963) at Bow Boys which is in Fairfield Road close to the church. Each Christmas the school choir would be invited to sing in the choir stalls in the church which I did on, I think, three occasions.
    I lived close to Mile end Station and Holy Trinity Church Morgan Street was our local church. The church was closed due to falling congregation numbers and the remaining members of the congregation were eventually transferred to Bow Church.

    Unfortunately Holy Trinity was left to stand and decay which gave the vandals an opportunity to obtain access and do tremendous damage. Luckily the two panels containing the names of the WW1 war dead were saved and are now inside Bow Church alongside its war memorial.

    In the pictures you will see the brass altar cross and brass candlesticks that were from Holy Trinity and there is also a brass collection plate . Other items that are there are the vicars and church wardens staffs ( my father occupied both posts at different periods) and the vicars vestments which were paid for by my sister in laws family.

    How do I know all this? I paid a visit to Bow Church a few years ago and spent approximately an hour with the then incumbent vicar chatting about all the above and he graciously allowed me to take some pictures.

  24. January 18, 2016

    Thank you so much for sharing the interior photos of this lovely old church. My husband’s grandfather Conrad von Hagen wed his beloved fiancée (9 years correspondence between London and Australia) in August 1881. When we visited the chapel it was closed for repairs so we came away with no peep at the interior and big container box outside the front door!

  25. Jean Etchepare permalink
    May 23, 2017

    I love this church inside the little island between two busy roads. I have spent many hours during the Spring and Summer months sitting or reading in the benches in the aisle outside the church and I found it very relaxing

  26. Joanna Davies permalink
    November 30, 2018

    I was a nurse at The London Hospital in the 1980’s and lived in Ordell Road, Bow. I now live in Devon but the church is very familiar to me. On the recent death of my mother I have found that one of my ancestors was the church organist for forty years receiving a testimonial in 1878. The only information I have is that her name was Miss Drury and she lived at 19, Coburn Street, Bow. If anyone has any information about her I would be very grateful to receive it.

  27. Barbara Hague permalink
    April 12, 2019

    Does anybody know where the old records of baptism, marriage and death are kept?

  28. Jeanette Hollick permalink
    April 14, 2020

    Very beautiful church. Lovely images and informative article.
    Thanks for posting.

  29. August 16, 2020

    The Church is beautiful and the history associated with it was a nice read. Thanks for the informative article. Keep bringing more like this.

  30. Edward Simmons permalink
    March 23, 2021

    Thank you so much for this article and the pictures. My Mother’s cousin, Rev. George Ansell, was vicar of St. Mary’s for many years in the 1930’s and can be seen in the picture of the Football Team together with George Lansbury. To my regret I never knew him or his family but he was fortunate to be connected with such a beautiful and historic church.

  31. Judy permalink
    April 19, 2022

    Coming late to the joys of The Gentle Author (2020) these Covid years have been made bearable by the daily posts, and even more so, by delving back into past comments. Thank you G.A. You have no idea how much delight they bring.
    Of this post, and of all the pictures of this beautiful Church’s interior, the East Window gave me the greatest pleasure, with its inclusion of the kitten squeezing towards us in the corner.!What a human touch, by the designer/maker or Archetect who envisioned this window. A touch of whimsy in such formal a composition! Then, finding the bird, and the mouse, in the right hand panel, made me feel part of all those in previous congregations of Sunday mornings long ago!
    I bet secret delight was felt by many !!!! And not only the young ones!!!

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