Above: Looking east at the church along the footpath in the churchyard on the island site in the centre of Bow Road.
Before we go any further, it may be useful to explain that this church stands on an island site in the centre of Bow Road, once in the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar that is now part of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. There is a church in the City of London with a similar name – St Mary le Bow – which stands on the south side of Cheapside. The City church has a similar name but is not related to the one at Bow.
The village of Bow – so-named because it stood near Bow Bridge, a single-arched bridge over the River Lea – was situated on the main route running east out of the City of London. The route had been a Roman road leading via Stratford to Colchester – one of the principal Roman towns. The long road bears several names today – Aldgate High Street, Whitechapel High Street, Whitechapel Road, Mile End Road and eventually Bow Road before it once crossed Bow Bridge. The bridge has been replaced by the Bow Flyover.
It is a crazy place to have a church in these modern times but when the church was first built it was at the centre of a sleepy village that just happened to be situated on the main road leading to the County of Essex. As has already been mentioned, this part of London was near the River Lea and quite a few miles from the parish church of St Dunstan, in the village of Stepney. All the land around Bow was once part of the large parish of St Dunstan. On a Sunday, religious villagers would have had to walk across the fields, a distance of several miles, to reach the parish church. In 1311 a Bishop’s licence for a Chapel of Ease at Bow was obtained. This meant that a priest from St Dunstan’s church would come to the chapel at Bow on a Sunday for morning prayers, instead of the locals having to trek across the fields to the parish church. A Chapel of Ease was not able to perform marriages or funerals but at least the locals of Bow could celebrate Sunday worship more easily.
The chapel was built in the centre of the main road which, in those times, was even wider than it is today. Even in the early 19th century, the roadway was just as wide. In 1719 the building was made into a parish church, with its parish formed from part of the large parish of St Dunstan. Around the church, was a churchyard so it was then possible to bury the parishioners in the churchyard.
During the Second World War, the church was severely damaged due to the bombing. The site was visited by Queen Elizabeth II in 1951 to mark the start of a campaign to restore the church. The work was overseen by the architect H S Goodhart-Rendel. The gothic-style iron railings around the churchyard were reinstated in 1984. The building is now listed Grade II*. The lower part of the tower dates from the 15th century and the upper storeys date from 1829. In 2011 the church celebrated 700 years of existence on the site.
Standing outside the church, with the endless traffic and heavy trucks thundering by, you start to be amazed that the fabric of the whole building is strong enough to stand up to the constant vibration from the busy road. The idyllic site beside the River Lea, with the quaint stone Bow Bridge, has also changed with time. Because the eastern end of Bow Road formed an interchange with the arterial route leading to the Blackwall Tunnel – a large roundabout and road flyover that was constructed in the 1970s – all concepts of a country church on the edge of London, near the River Lea has been ended once and for all. A better solution to the present jumble of badly laid out roads is under consideration but it is unlikely to improve the situation very much. Traffic is not going away any time soon.
Finally, a brief note about the name. The name in the title – St Mary, Stratford le Bow – alludes to the fact that the church stands in what was once a village called Bow that is close to the larger town of Stratford on its eastern side. Other historical sources list the church as ‘Stratford le Bow’ or ‘St Mary Bow, Stratford’. There is no ‘standard’ name for the church. The only important consideration is that this church is not confused with the one in Cheapside.
Comment – 700th Blog
This marks the 700th blog on this Website. Started in September 2014, there are three blogs produced each week in a series that seeks to tell the story of Inner London. Thank you all for all your comments and appreciation of my work. Keep the comments coming in.