CHAPTER I. A FEW HISTORICAL
NOTES BEARING UPON THE
HISTORY OF S. MARY STRATFORD BOW.
Inaccuracy of Records
The fragmentary nature of the records relating to the venerable
parish church of Bow renders any attempt to compile a complete
history of this sacred edifice a somewhat difficult task. Beyond
the brief references contained in the well-known works of Stow, Strype,
and Lysons, and the short account of the church to be found in Insley's
"Memorials of Bow Church," very little appears to have been published
regarding the early history of "The Chapel of Stratford atte Bowe," as it
was formerly termed. But such information as can be gleaned from those
authorities, & from a study of the building itself and its monuments and
registers, establishes beyond dispute the fact that for at least four centuries
the church, although repeatedly repaired, has remained, generally speaking, unaltered and even unenlarged; and that for a yet longer period the
same site in the king's highway has formed the consecrated spot upon
which the inhabitants of the riverside town of Stratford atte Bow have
been wont to perform the duties of their religion.
In trying to piece together the various records one cannot fail to be impressed with the want of preciseness on the part of both writers and artists. The latter are the greater sinners: in studying the illustrations of
a century since startling discrepancies are revealed. To quote a case in
point—one of the largest of the buttresses of the tower is shown in an illustration dated 1806 (fn. 1) but not in one of 1809 (fn. 1) ; while in 1826 (fn. 1) it reappears bearing such a venerable character that it evidently could not have
been demolished & rebuilt in the interim. However, it is well known that
historical accuracy was not a quality that the engraver felt himself called
upon to exercise. The number of battlements shown in an illustration
would depend, not upon the number existing, but upon what would, in
the artist's opinion, look the best. One very badly drawn view of "Bow
Church in Middlesex, 1754," to be seen at Guildhall, is so inaccurate that
one can only conclude that the artist never saw our ancient structure.
The village at Bow
It seems that from time immemorial a village existed upon the banks of
the Lea, around the site upon which Bow Church now stands, and that
a ford was used by the villagers. Did they wish to be expeditious they
would cross by the straight ford, but the crossing was fraught with some
danger, & the cautious would make a détour and use the old & safer ford. (fn. 2)
It was in the reign of Henry I. that the bridge "arched like unto a bowe"
was erected, and so we get the name Stratford at the bow. The building
of the bridge was due to Queen Matilda, Henry's wife, and she, according to Leland, was herself "well washed" in the waters of the Lea.
The name of Stratford Bow seems in the early days to have been applied
indiscriminately to the villages of Bow, Bromley, Stratford & Old Ford,
which surrounded the straight ford and the bridge in the form of a bow.
In course of time the straight ford and the old ford gave their names to
the localities of Stratford & Old Ford respectively. Later, Stratford seems
to have been written Stratford atte Bowe, for so we find it in Chaucer,
who lived between 1340 and 1400:
"And Frensch she spak ful faire and fetysly
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frensch of Parys was to hire unknowe."
— Canterbury Tales.
Evidently "the father of English Poetry," who himself lived at Aldgate,
was acquainted with the peculiarities of the Bow of his own time. The
school here meant was probably that of the neighbouring convent of St.
Leonard Bromley. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the name
of Old Ford appears to have been written as one word, Oldford. Defoe so
writes it in his "Memoirs of the Plague," and so we find it on one of the
monuments of the church—that erected to Thomas Rust, who died in
1704. We, in the nineteenth century, have reverted to the original mode
of writing it, by separating its syllables again into distinct words, & superadding to each of them the dignity of capital letters. (fn. 3)
The bridge was in existence until some sixty-five years ago, when having become dilapidated, and being too narrow and also looked upon as
scarcely safe, it was removed to make way for the present structure. This
latter erection was, with some ceremony, declared open for traffic in 1835.
Writing just one hundred years ago the Rev. Daniel Lysons describes
Bow as follows: "The Village of Bow, as it is usually called (dropping
its original name of Stratford, and preserving only the distinction), is
situated two miles to the east of London on the Essex road. The parish
lies within the hundred of Ossulston, and is bounded on the east by the
river Lea, which separates it from Low-layton and Westham in Essex;
on the north by Hackney; on the north-west by Bethnal Green; on the
west and south-west by Stepney; and on the south-east by Bromley S.
Leonard. It contains about 465 acres of land, of which 218 are arable,
the remainder pasture, upland pasture, and marsh-land, except 13 acres
occupied by nursery gardens."
The Chapel of Stratford Bow, 1311; Bishop Baldock's licence
The Chantry Returns state that the Chapel of Stratford Bow was founded
by King Edward III. on a piece of ground which formed part of the
King's highway; but Newcourt (fn. 4) places the date of its erection earlier,
for he says: "In the year 1311 a licence was granted by Bishop Baldock
(dated from Stepney) to the inhabitants of Stratford & Oldford, to build
a chapel for the convenience of attending divine service, they being so
far distant from their parish church, and the roads in winter impassable
by reason of the floods.
By the terms of this licence, the inhabitants were to assign a sufficient
income for the chaplain to attend divine service on all the great holidays
at the mother church and contribute to its repair. Long after this some
differences arose between the inhabitants of Stepney and those of Stratford, (fn. 5) who seem to have been desirous of rendering themselves independent of the mother church. Our villagers were worsted in the struggle in the year 1497, and an agreement was then drawn up, whereby the
inhabitants of Stratford (fn. 5) promised for the future to acknowledge themselves parishioners of Stepney, and their chapel subject to that church.
The inhabitants of Stepney on their part agreed to accept 24s. per annum
in lieu of all charges for repairs of the mother church, & to dispense with
the attendance of the people of Bow except on the feast of their patron,
S. Dunstan, and on the Wednesday in Whitsun-week, when they were
to accompany the rest of the parishioners in procession to S. Paul's Cathedral. In the reign of Henry VIII., when Westminster was made a
bishopric, the parish of Stepney was excused from this procession to S.
Paul's upon condition that the rector and church wardens of Stepney and
the curate and chapel-wardens of Stratford (Bow) should attend on the
said day, and make an offering of 10d. at S. Peter's, Westminster. (fn. 6)
By reference to the Chantry Roll in the Augmentation Office it will be
seen that Hellen Hilliard gave certain property producing 50s. per ann.
and other persons subscribed a total of £13 6s. 8d. "to augment the
priest's wages." When the chantries and guilds were seized by the King,
these lands, sharing the general fate, were sold. The inhabitants attempted
to recover them but without avail. Even all the "olde Latin Boks" were
taken. The Minister's salary in Henry VIII.'s day was £8 per annum, but
in the year 1654 the sum of £92 was voted to Fulk Bellers, minister
of Stratford Bow. (fn. 7)
It is certain, then, that a chapel existed at Bow during the fourteenth &
fifteenth centuries, the site & plan of which were beyond doubt identical
with what is now seen, except that the vestries & organ-chamber, hereafter mentioned, have been added.
Dates of the edifice
Mr. Insley in his Memorials then says that "no part of the present structure, judging from its architecture, is older than the closing years of the
fifteenth century—about 1480 or 1490." Having very carefully studied
the various parts of the fabric and searched the writings of Stow, Strype,
Leland, Lysons, and the Parish Registers, I can come to no conclusion
other than that Mr. Insley is mistaken. Neither do I see the force of
his argument when he says, referring to the dispute of 1497: "Now,
what more likely than that the people of Bow, having just become possessed of a new church, should desire to be independent and to be formed
into a separate parish, free from the control of, and obligation to pay dues
to Stepney, the benefits of union with which parish were henceforth all
on one side?"
The conjecture is groundless, and Lysons, writing about 1797, distinctly
says "the original structure still remains." "It consists of a chancel, nave,
and two aisles, separated from the nave by octagonal pillars and pointed
arches. The tower is of stone, square and plain and not embattled."
Now we know that the church has not been pulled down since that year,
and therefore we may safely conclude that it is the original structure
erected under the Licence of Bishop Baldock in 1311. It has, however,
been altered and restored so often that only the wall of the north aisle can
be properly attributed to that date, & the following pages are an attempt
to trace so far as is possible the various alterations from that day to this.
It seems almost certain that a few years before the compromise of 1497
a complete restoration had been undertaken, for much of the work is of
this date, viz.:
(1) The base and middle storey of the tower, including the tower arch
and west window, also the two traceried windows just exposed by the
(2) The chancel walls and ceiling, but not the gabled roof over.
(3) The roof of the nave (about half of which has just been renewed).
(4) The walls of the nave and the lower portions of the south aisle wall.
For many years the exit from the church was by two doors, one at the
west end of each aisle. The west doors were closed and the space within
the tower (now occupied by lobbies, &c.) formed a convenient baptistry.
This probably remained until shortly after the death, in 1701, of Mrs.
Prisca Coborn, Bow's greatest benefactress, her trustees erected a gallery
in the tower, projecting a little more than one bay into the nave to accommodate the children of the school she founded. Also she bequeathed
funds for the construction of a coved ornamental plaster ceiling, with a
large central dome.
It does not appear that the dedication of the church to S. Mary took place
until 1719, when the church ceased to be a chapel-of-ease to Stepney &
became the parish church of S. Mary Stratford Bow. Until this date it
was known as the chapel of Stratford Bow.
Sir Walter Besant states: "It was formerly the church of a nunnery
founded at Stratford-le-Bow by William the Conqueror." This is quite
a mistake, as was pointed out by the "Builder" of June 10, 1899. No
doubt he was confusing Bow with the neighbouring church of Bromley,
which exactly fits his description. The two parish churches are not more
than 300 yards apart.
The Act of Q. Anne 1711; 1719
The change was brought about by an Act of Parliament in the ninth year
of the reign of Queen Anne (1711), followed at intervals by supplementary Acts for the erection of fifty new churches "in and about the cities
of London and Westminster & the suburbs thereof." Limehouse, Spitalfields and S. George's in the East were among the number & were made
independent parishes. By the same Acts the Hamlet of Bow was separated from the parish of Stepney in 1719.
Vestry minutes 1736
In the "Minutes of Vestries and other matters," (fn. 8) is a resolution of considerable interest and importance which reads as follows:
1736. Thursday. 25th March.
The Chancel being very much out of repair and it appearing to the Vestry that
it ought to be kept in repair at the charge of the Parish, Agreed that the said
Chancel be forthwith put into necessary repair.
Six Vestrymen present.
It is probable that the oak panelling of the sanctuary of the chancel was
introduced at this time but no record appears to exist.
The next item of interest is the fire of April 1747, which did considerable
damage. It was customary to keep the valuable deeds and papers in the
tower, and the original Deed of Consecration was much injured. The
clock also was destroyed. The fire seems to have originated from a house
on the south side of the church and the clock, which then hung over the
roadway and projected a considerable distance, afforded a ready means of
communicating the flames to the sacred building.
This projecting clock does not seem to have been restored, for the following minute apparently refers only to the works and dials of the clock
in the tower.
1762. Sunday. 6th August.
Mr. Thwaite of Clerkenwell to thoroughly repair the Church Clock for the sum
of Ten Guineas and to keep the same in repair and wind and regulate the same
every week and clean when necessary for the sum of 50s. per annum.
In the year 1755, in preparation for the war afterwards known as the
Seven Years' War, lead was greatly in demand and many public buildings were stripped of their roofs to provide material for bullets. The
chancel of Bow, so runs the legend, shared this fate; and, it being necessary to procure protection from the weather, the gable was formed in
brickwork and roofed with tiles as now seen. The fact that the roof was
thus altered is certain, but no record has yet been found indicating whether the scarcity of lead affected the question. (fn. 9)
The legend of the unbaptized infants
Another legend of doubtful authenticity refers to the alleged burying of
unbaptised infants in the roof of the chancel. This has been done in other
churches, the parents believing, it is said, that the holy angels hovering
around the sanctuary would be more likely to take the babes to Heaven
than if interred in some less holy place. Though the legend may have
gained some believers there can be no doubt that such a custom was never
practised at Bow, for until 1755 the roof was flat, and no gable existed in
which the body could be placed, and it is highly improbable that such
an act would be done during the last century and a half. Nevertheless the
roof was entered a few years ago & careful search was made: no remains,
save those of one or two sparrows, were discovered.
The Bow Baker
In some of the older illustrations it will be seen that the westernmost
windows of both aisles were at one time doors. It appears from a tale that
has been handed down, that, for about a century, a baker's shop existed
opposite the north aisle door. This baker cooked the Sunday dinner for
several of the shopkeepers living on the south side of the way. An assistant posted inside the church gave a signal when the preacher reached his
"seventhly and lastly," whereupon the baker & his boys instead of walking round outside the churchyard, took the short cut through the church,
making such a clatter with their hot plates and pies that after vainly attempting to stop the practice by other means, the authorities blocked up
the doors and re-opened those at the west end under the tower. (fn. 10)
It is hardly conceivable that the baker's action alone caused the doors to
be blocked, though it is probable the incident related may have had some
bearing upon the alterations at this time.
It would seem that after the minute of 1762 the vestry no longer undertook the repair and maintenance of the church.
The repairing of 1794
In 1794 the church was cleaned and re-decorated, and the south aisle restored and refaced externally with Portland stone as now seen. It is probable also that the pulpit and seats were altered.
The Act of 1825
In 1824 the crowded condition of the church and churchyard was becoming a scandal. Every fresh interment caused the removal and desecration of some deceased predecessor, &, perhaps the most potent reason
of all, the living foresaw that they could not be interred in Bow churchyard unless the latter were enlarged. The outcome of the agitation was
an appeal to Parliament for a special Act to empower the purchase of the
old market-place (long since disused) at the east end; and the purchase
of the taverns and houses at the west end. The Bill was passed & became
law on the 20th May 1825, and shortly afterwards the demolition began
of "all the premises which lie at the east and west ends of the present
churchyard of the said parish church of S. Mary Stratford Bow, and between the Turnpike Roads which surround the same." (fn. 11) At the same
time the low wall enclosing the churchyard was demolished & replaced
by the present cast-iron railing on the granite base. Four feet, it is said,
of the topmost earth and bones were removed to the Stratford marshes,
and thus fresh provision was made for the rapidly increasing number of
Fall of portion of the tower in 1829
In 1829 the fall of the upper part of the tower necessitated another partial restoration, which is described in Chapter IV.
The restorations of 1836 and 1844
For many years the church windows had been fitted with red curtains,
but these were removed in 1836, and in 1844 the ceiling put up at the
expense of Mrs. Prisca Coborn (fn. 12) was removed & the old rafters exposed.
About 1850 the small addition to the brick vestry was made, which addition is now used as the choir entrance lobby. To this alteration is due,
no doubt, the blocking up of the window discovered in making the new
doorway by the pulpit as described in Chapter II.
Referring to the drawing of the interior dated 1820 it will be seen that
two of the piers were, at that date, of much greater bulk, and that the arcading ended with a half arch at the eastern end. These piers were cut
down and the arcading completed as now seen.
The west end of the south aisle was at one time filled with a gallery for
the sole use of the inmates of the workhouse. (fn. 13) It was small and very low
and was removed in 1855.
For years past stones of varying size had from time to time fallen from
the face of the tower, especially during the prevalence of a westerly wind,
& many people were afraid to enter the church. The pathway (the gates
of which may still be seen) across the churchyard at that time, ran close
by the west doors, but in 1883, the fall of stones & débris increasing, and
one large stone falling within a few inches of a passing pedestrian, the
pathway was shifted several feet to the west, and such loose stones as
could be easily reached without a scaffold were wedged up with Roman
The alteration of the east window is described under the head of stained
glass in Chapter III. and also in Chapter IV. In fact only one alteration
remains to be recorded in this chapter dealing with the History of Bow
Church, viz., that in 1870 an organ chamber was built upon the south
side of the chancel. The west window and the tower arch had from 1702
until this date been completely blocked out from view by the organ, the
gallery & the ringers' floor. The removal of the organ, followed in 1891
by the raising of the ringers' floor and the demolition of the gallery, has
resulted in an unobstructed view of the finest architectural feature in the
What would the worshippers of only some fifty years ago say if they stood
to-day in the church as it now appears? Probably they would regret that
their family pews were gone and that the "paupers and common people"
now sit side by side with their more wealthy neighbours instead of being
relegated to galleries. The loss of the heavy coved ornamental plaster
ceiling and the exposure of the mediæval rafters would possibly excite
their condemnation, and question would be raised why the choir should
not face the east like other people. Doors have become windows, and in
one case a window (first blocked up) has become a door. Galleries, organ,
seats, pulpit, curtains and even the nave arcading and floor have been removed, altered, or re-arranged, and the ceiling gone, within this short
period. Probably the church would not now be recognised.
Externally, however, the case is very different, for though the iron railing takes the place of the old low wall, and the organ chamber and choir
vestry have been built, the tower, the nave, aisles and chancel remain the