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At Bow Church

May 31, 2017
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, daisies spangle 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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In City Churchyards

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    May 31, 2017

    A very poignant post – the old girl’s seen some trying times, yet still serves a real need even in our secular times (who, ten years ago, would have predicted the massive growth in the number of food banks?)

  2. Chris permalink
    May 31, 2017

    Very interesting must visit when next in London, thank you

  3. May 31, 2017

    St. Mary’s F.C. 1938. Far left is local M.P. George Lansbury.

  4. Shawdian permalink
    May 31, 2017

    Such a treasure, our past in our future. Buildings made to last. Old Churches hold something of calmness beauty and mystery where we all tend to ‘whisper’ as we take in the beautiful architecture and the spirits of time past.

  5. May 31, 2017

    This church brought to us today is par excellence . It is packed with features including an armoured parish chest, it would have held Parish Registers & Census Docs also shown is stain glass window cat, I would love to know it’s name ?was it a good mouser. Spitalfields bloggers out there will love & wish to visit Bow Church which survived ‘just’ WW2. !Top spot listen to Bow Church bells in Cheapside if you can, Cockneys have they were born within their sound range. Glad to see S Pepys Esq has a mention. If him and I, were both working today – he would have been my Boss that’s cool, so I understand his mind-set just a little. GA I am pleased you have brought this peoples church to us this day . I also like the other small church of St Olave’s in Hart St. Both Sanctuary’s in the big city Poet John

  6. May 31, 2017

    This is such a wonderful building & it’s amazing it has survived to today. Unusually all the different elements hang together. The C R Ashbee tiles and the Tudor roof seem to talk to each other.

  7. Gary Arber permalink
    May 31, 2017

    An interesting coincidence told to me by my friend Rev. Derek Waxham, now deceased, who used to be one of the priests at St. Mary’s, Stratford atte Bow (The full name of the Church), was that when the council closed the public toilets outside they had to put a toilet in the Church, during the digging for the pipe some old bones, were disturbed, Derek and his fellow priest had a little ceremony and re-interred them in another part of the Churchyard. At the same time the BBC programme “The Archers” ran a story of putting a toilet in the Church and re-interring the bones found by the digging, Derek said that to his knowledge no BBC writer went to the Church.

  8. J M Parham permalink
    May 31, 2017

    Great piece. Used to live near by and so passed by that lovely church all the time. Though I’d never have considered even buying a second-hand wheelbarrow off of Mr Gladstone it does irk that his statue has been vandalised with red paint!

  9. Helen Breen permalink
    May 31, 2017

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for describing the layers of history contained in this lovely church. Kudos to its parishioners who maintained it through storms and war time.

    The old paintings and photos add to the richness of the study. Love the details…

  10. Gary Arber permalink
    May 31, 2017

    r.e. the red paint on Gladstone’s statue. This was not the usual mindless vandalism that occurs today. This was different, there was a lot of action from the womens’ movement locally at the time.
    There was a lot of talk of the match girls and Annie Beasant, Gladstone was the leader of the government that sided with the management of Bryant & Mays and was therefore a hate figure, a full pot of red paint was thrown. The Tower Hamlets council at the time was run by the Liberal Democrats and they wanted to move the statue to their new development in Roman Road Market but they had to scrap the idea as the statue would be in a better place to be attacked.

  11. Gary Arber permalink
    May 31, 2017

    A further part from my memory. two pence was deducted from the Bryant & Mays workers wages to pay for the statue

  12. June 1, 2017

    Thanks for this enlightening post,Murali. Sadly, each time I have passed by Bow Church and wanted to enter–both to worship and explore–I have found it locked. Gandhi lived for a while not too far away in Kingsley Hall–when he attended the Round Table Conference in 1930.

  13. Connie Unangst permalink
    June 8, 2017

    This a most fascinating piece of history. I just want to thank you for all your good research I love this blog!!

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