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St Mary Stratford Atte Bow Church

March 31, 2023
by the gentle author

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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

You may also like to read about

Upon The Origins of Bow Church

Tower Repairs At Bow Church

Easter Flowers at St Dunstan’s

The Secrets of Christ Church Spitalfields

At St Leonards Shoreditch

In City Churchyards

5 Responses leave one →
  1. March 31, 2023

    Thank you GA and Joy for another fascinating read. Many walk by old churches unaware of their history. I think the tower of St Mary illustrates this well. London is built upon the ancient land, had been remodeled to meet the current need and repaired to put right damage. Unfortunately, the current fashion of remodeling seems to be to encase what was beautiful in a hideous glass and steel box or hide it behind an overbearing concrete monstrosity. Long may London’s faithful citizens rally against this to keep our history for all to enjoy. Hopefully the joyful toddlers playing there will remember their play place and feel a similar affection and secure its future.

  2. Andy permalink
    March 31, 2023

    Evocative and moving.

  3. Bernie permalink
    March 31, 2023

    ” the church took a direct hit in World War II. ”

    So did the nearest church (at Amhurst Rd) to our home, and many others. These could not have been the result of random hits but indicate selective bomb aiming. But I have never seen any analysis of the distribution of hits on churches. Is there one? Were churches deliberately targeted? I would not be surprised if they were. If so, why? Because of their (generally) large size or because of the effect on morale? Or some other reason? Having lived through the London Blitz I would like to know the answer. (There cannot be very many of us remaining alive!)

  4. Pamela Bough permalink
    March 31, 2023

    I was sure the oldest church in England was still standing. Made from round oak tree trunks with a hearing hole for the people with the plague or lepers to hear the services. Outside of Braintree or Brentwood in Essex. It has been a while since I last viewed it as I live in Canada, now. The roof was being replaced last time I saw it 1999. Pam Bough

  5. Saba permalink
    March 31, 2023

    I find today’s photo and text essay extremely thorough as it presents the material from various perspectives. I enjoyed visualizing the people so long ago who sat in the chairs, probably shivering in winter, and watching whatever each one perceived to be the powers of the Eucharist. Well done, GA, and thank you.

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