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Tower Repairs At Bow Church

July 18, 2018
by the gentle author

Over recent months, I have been up and down the tower of Bow Church many times to observe the progress of repairs but perhaps the most memorable moment was when gilder Richard Harris applied the gold leaf to the cross on the top as the finishing touch. Richard is a veteran gilder who is responsible for the lustre on the pinnacles of Tower Bridge and spent an entire summer gilding all the decorative bosses on Blackfriars Bridge. Once Richard had applied the leaf and burnished it in place with his old toothbrush, the golden cross on top of Bow Church was visible all the way along the Bow Rd and will shine out over the East End for many decades to come.

The repair of the seven hundred year old tower has been supervised by a committed band of volunteers who raised the funding, hired the contractors and oversaw the project from beginning to end. Built in the fourteenth century on a piece of land granted by Edward II in the middle of the King’s Highway, St Mary At Bow was constructed to permit access to a place of worship when St Dunstan’s Stepney was unreachable due to deep mud in the winter months.

Over all this time, the tower has suffered its share of mishaps, including lightning damage in 1829 and a bomb in 1941. The rebuilding after the lightning strike sought to emphasise the medieval architecture of the church by adding battlements, yet when C.R. Ashbee of the Guild of Handicrafts repaired the fabric in 1900 he took a more enlightened approach. Using traditional materials and employing skilled craftsmen, his philosophy was to repair the church so that new work might be easily distinguishable from old. Thus the history of the building is readable to the critical observer.

This approach was that favoured by William Morris and is adopted by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings today. Consequently, if you look at the tower of Bow Church you can clearly distinguish the old weathered blocks of Kentish Ragstone from the newly-installed pieces with their crisp corners that in generations to come will wear to resemble the earlier ones.

Much of the top half of the tower was rebuilt after the war in brick, with a wooden pergola in a Renaissance style upon the top to house the clock. In time, this pergola had become rotten and the clock faces of painted plywood needed replacing. New timber was spliced in to replace the rotten fabric, a new copper roof was installed to weatherproof the tower and four new steel clock faces were manufactured and enamelled to stand the test of time.

Much of this painstaking work was undertaken through the winter months, high up on scaffolding exposed to the wind and weather, but now the repair to the tower is complete and an ancient East End landmark is revealed afresh.

The cross prior to gilding

Looking towards the City in the spring

Looking east along the church roof

Weathered stone tracery on the east window

Preparation for a new lintel

Pieces of Kentish Ragstone cut to shape for the new lintel

The new lintel in place

A new stone is postioned

A new stone is slid into place

New corner stones in place on the tower

View into the church from the east window

Repairs to the wooden pergola, replaced rotten timber

Newly installed lightning conductor

Installing a new copper roof on the tower

A new clockface of enamelled steel arrives

New clockfaces installed with freshly gilded numerals

Tower under repair

The repaired tower is revealed

Celebratory cake by Erin Hiscock in honour of the completion of repairs

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. July 18, 2018

    Fascinating. What a little jewel this place is.

  2. July 18, 2018

    Thanks for sharing the photos, it’s wonderful to be able to see the process of restoration. The volunteers did a fantastic job. Valerie

  3. stephanie permalink
    July 18, 2018

    Beautiful. Will add to my pending Church day in search of Thomas Hardy at St Pancreas Old Church. What an achievement for a band of volunteers in Bow. An emotive new fabric to delight worshipers, visitors and the community.

  4. Paul Phillips permalink
    July 18, 2018

    I am sure that these worthy volunteers who have undertook to get this restoration project completed will be blessed and should be congratulated by everyone who has a voice to do so. Congratulations also go to the many expert Craftsmen who have carried out the work.
    Long may it stand as a bastion to our faith.
    My prayers are raised for you all.


  5. John Barrett permalink
    July 18, 2018

    Praise be the volunteers – they could save the world no money for things now. Poet John The Poetry Soc on the road with the Bus Pass Poets++

  6. July 18, 2018

    A heart warming story about another much loved East End landmark, saved by the kindness, care and skills of the volunteers and craftsmen/women.
    Very well done to you all.

  7. Marion Marples permalink
    July 18, 2018

    Thank you for compiling this record. My mother’s family belonged to the Church pre and post war and were involved with rebuilding after bomb damage. My mother knew and admired George Lansbury. My parents were married there 3 Nov 1945 and I was baptised August 1950 in that wonderful font.

  8. Jill permalink
    July 18, 2018

    Wonderful photos and so good to know there are still crafts people to carry out the work.

  9. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    July 18, 2018

    Beautifully done! What a triumph for Bow Church, and it’s undaunted volunteers!

  10. stuart goodman permalink
    July 18, 2018

    thanks again for these wonderful tales. i taught in the east end donkey’s years ago. i took a party of boys by bus to play football in deepest bow and all was well until we saw the sign ‘bow locks’. it was the only time i thought we’d taught them to read too well.

  11. EJ Wilkinson permalink
    July 20, 2018

    So many congratulations to all on such a stunning church restoration.

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