Above: One of the few early prints of the second stone bridge over the River Lea.
The first Bow Bridge is said to have been the first stone bridge built in England. It was built around 1110 across the River Lea which has always been the boundary between the counties of Middlesex (to the west) and Essex (to the east). Before providing further details, some background to the bridge and the immediate area need to be understood.
A short distance east of the River Lea is Stratford which was an ancient settlement, whose first recorded mention was in 1177. Its name derived from Old English meaning ‘a paved way to a ford’. Because the land between the River Lea and the village of Stratford was so marshy, there was a stone causeway across the land leading to a ford. The ford originally lay on a pre-Roman trackway at a site now known as Old Ford which was about 0.4 miles (600 metres) to the north of where Bow Bridge once stood. When the Romans decided on Colchester as the initial capital for their occupation of Britain, the road was upgraded to run from Londinium across a new fording point near the site of Bow Bridge. It became one of the first paved Roman roads in Britain.
Above: Part of Cary’s map of 1786 showing the village of Bow (labelled ‘Stratford le Bow’) and Bow Bridge. Between the bridge and the village of Stratford is Bow Marsh with the road crossing several small streams. The name ‘Abbey Marsh’ shows the original site of Stratford Lanthorne Abbey. Barking Abbey stood near the village of Barking which is much further east of Stratford.
Building the First Bridge
In 1110 Matilda, wife of Henry I, reputedly fell into the water while using the ford across the River Lea on her way to Barking Abbey – a large abbey to the east of Stratford of which some remains can still be seen. She ordered a distinctively bow-shaped, three-arched bridge to be constructed over the River Lea. To put this bridge into context, it should be pointed out that this bridge was built 66 years before the stone bridge was started on the site of London Bridge in 1176.
Such a bridge had never been seen before and it gave its name to the area on the west of the Lea which became known variously as ‘Stradford of the Bow’, ‘Stratford of the Bow’, ‘Stratford the Bow’, ‘Stratforde the Bowe’, and ‘Stratford-atte-Bow’ (meaning at the Bow). Over time the name was shortened to Bow to distinguish it from Stratford Langthorne on the Essex side of the River Lea. Land and Abbey Mill were given to Barking Abbey for maintenance of the bridge, who also maintained a chapel on the bridge dedicated to St Katherine, occupied until the 15th century by a hermit. This endowment was later administered by Stratford Langthorne Abbey. By 1549, this route had become known as ‘The Kings Way’.
Responsibility for repairs to the bridge was always in dispute, especially at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536) when local landowners who had taken over the Abbey lands were found to be responsible. The bridge was widened in 1741 and tolls were levied to defray the expense but litigation over maintenance lasted until the 19th century. Unfortunately, there are no prints of how the original bridge looked.
A New Stone Bridge
In 1834 the bridge needed to be rebuilt and landowners agreed to pay half of the cost, with Essex and Middlesex sharing the other half. Upkeep of the bridge was later taken over by the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Trust. In 1866 West Ham took responsibility for its upkeep and that of the causeway and smaller bridges that formed the route across the River Lea.
In 1967 this bridge was replaced by a new modern bridge by the Greater London Council (GLC) who also installed a two-lane flyover above it, designed by Andrei Tchernavin, son of Gulag escapee Vladimir V. The work involved spanning the wide Blackwall Tunnel approach road and the traffic interchange with Bow Road, in the form of a large roundabout. The project was further complicated by the fact that the River Lea and some of the Bow Back Rivers were very close to the flyover. At a later date, the Bow Road approach was expanded to a four-lane roadway.
What was once a stone causeway approaching a narrow stone bridge has turned into a ‘monster’ of a highway interchange. It is not a pretty sight!