The church: recent restoration

Pages 43-48

Survey of London Monograph 2, Saint Mary, Stratford Bow. Originally published by Guild & School of Handicraft, London, 1900.

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If not from time immemorial, at any rate within the memory of living man, there have always been Restoration Difficulties. To go no farther back than 1829, the church was known to be greatly in need of repairs, and on the 29th January of that year matters came to a climax by the fall of the upper portion of the tower during a gale in the night. Some thirty-five years earlier the south aisle had been partly rebuilt and partly refaced and various minor works carried out, but no complete restoration had been made. It is a great misfortune that no funds have ever existed for the maintenance of the fabric. A little repair is required and the fact has to be ignored because there are no funds and the defects in question are not big enough to form the basis of a "Restoration Scheme" and are therefore left to become a serious matter.

Mr. Ford's Plans 1829

On January 29, 1829, Mr. William Ford, an architect of local celebrity (especially among the Nonconformists of that day) was instructed to draw up a Report upon the church. His plans, in the writer's possession, are not published herewith because they are merely "proposed plans," and do not affect the Bow Church of to-day. No doubt the plans were good, if regarded in the spirit of that age, and they were certainly drastic and thoroughgoing. Shortly, Mr. Ford recommended that the whole of the church should be demolished except the lower part of the tower (the upper part had fallen) and that a new edifice should be raised. In the new design were large galleries on three sides of the church (similar to those in S. James, Ratcliffe, built about eight years later), there was neither chancel nor choir but a small recessed sanctuary at the east end through which one had to pass to reach the vestry. The church would have been well lighted and airy, but, beyond that, one can only be devoutly thankful that it was decided to put up with the old church a little longer. Gratitude, however, is due to Mr. Ford for the able way in which he repaired the upper portion of the tower and for the record of the work in the drawings he left.

Sir Arthur Blomfield's Design 1882

From time to time repairs were executed, such as new lead roofs to aisles, the removal of the plaster ceiling, &c., but the structural defects were ignored as long as possible. About the year 1882, with a new energetic rector and a well-known builder for churchwarden, another attempt was made to grapple with the difficulty. Sir Arthur Blomfield, A.R.A., was asked to report upon the matter. He advocated the same plan as Mr. Ford had done in 1829, viz., to rebuild the whole of the edifice except the tower & the organ chamber. There was this difference, however, that Mr. Ford's proposed structure would have met with the admiration of few, while Sir Arthur Blomfield's design would have given the parishioners a well-proportioned and beautiful new church with the old tower. Opinions were divided between the desire to retain the ancient edifice, and a desire to have a new building which would give better accommodation and make all further restoration schemes unnecessary for the next generation or two. However it was found impossible to raise the funds, and owing greatly, it is believed, to the death of the churchwarden before mentioned, (fn. 1) the scheme was abandoned.

The Repairs of 1887 & 1891

In 1887 the aisle roofs were renewed and the Prisca Coburne gallery removed, while in 1891 a scheme was adopted for reseating and cleaning the church, and about £300 was raised and expended, but this was in no sense a restoration. Several important items were included under this head, such as the removal of the carved and glazed screens behind the churchwardens' pews, the removal of the monumental stones in the floor and the substitution of wood blocks & tiles, and finally the raising of the level of the sanctuary.

The S.P.B.A. Report

In July, 1895, the rector and churchwardens instructed the architects Messrs. Hills & Son, to prepare a Report dealing with the fabric. Subsequently a committee was formed, Sir Arthur W. Blomfield, A.R.A., consented to act as Consulting Architect, and in February, 1896, plans, specifications, and quantities were prepared and approved by the Bishop of London's Fund, for rebuilding and widening the north aisle & erecting new choir vestry, and several minor matters. This scheme entailed the expenditure of some two thousand pounds and left the larger section of the restoration to be dealt with at a later date. A few months later (June, 1896), The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings drew up a Report generally deprecating the proposals. Funds had not come in so fast as had been hoped, and this criticism apparently killed what little life was left in the movement.

The Subsidence of the Chancel Roof

In October of the same year, however, a serious subsidence of a portion of the chancel roof occurred. The architects reported that a further collapse would probably take place and recommended that the church be closed and the chancel boarded off. The committee at this time were not quite pulling together. Some thought that the better plan would be to demolish the church and rebuild it upon another site. If, it was argued, the London County Council would purchase the site and effect a widening of the road, the money so obtained would go a long way towards the building of a new church. This church could be made large enough to meet the requirements of the present time, and all anxiety about dilapidations (for long past a serious matter in so poor a parish) would be laid at rest for many years to come.

Proposed Sale of the Church

The Bow Vestry in December, 1896, recommended that the London County Council be approached "with a view to the Council buying the site of the church as a Metropolitan Improvement." This recommendation was introduced and strongly urged by the senior churchwarden, while his colleague and the then rector also supported it, but hoped the Council would maintain the tower. Strong counter proposals were made, however, at the instance of the Committee for the Survey of the Memorials of Greater London, and in accordance with the S.P.A.B. scheme, with the result that the London County Council declined to entertain the proposal.

The Church Closed

After this nothing was done for several months. Services were held at the Vestry Hall for nearly a year, when a temporary iron church was erected in the churchyard. The Bishop of Stepney (fn. 2) then took the matter up with vigour and insisted on the church being closed, as any further fall during service might cause a panic and loss of life. He at once formed a committee of the following gentlemen:

The Bishop of Stepney's Committee

The Right Rev. The Bishop of Stepney Chairman.
The Hon. Lionel Holland, M.P. for Bow Treasurer
W. Wallace Bruce, London County Councillor for Bow and Bromley.
The Rev. Marmaduke Hare, subsequently replaced by The Rev. Manley Power, M.A. Rector.
Waite Chester Sewell, Churchwardens.
John William Elkington,
C. R. Ashbee, M.A., Hon. Sec. to the Committee, Representative of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.
Ambrose Poynter Representative of the National Trust
(fn. 3) William Christie A late Churchwarden
(fn. 4) Bernard Hunter, Representing the Parishioners.
Edward Byas,
Walter A. Hills, Architects.
Osborn C. Hills,

The first meeting was held on the 14th March, 1898, & the only changes on the Committee have been caused by the appointment to the living of the Rev. Manley Power, M.A., in the place of Mr. Hare; & the decease of Mr. Bernard Hunter in April, & Mr. William Christie in July, 1899. The Committee had the difficult task of drawing up a scheme that would satisfy the various societies and critics. All idea of enlarging or altering the church was abandoned; and every effort made to secure a thorough restoration of the existing fabric with as little alteration as possible.

No proper estimate could be formed of the expenditure required on the tower as no scaffolding had been erected, but the architects' estimate for the remainder of the work of restoration amounted to £3,700, and the Committee agreed to assume that another thousand pounds would be required for the tower. Appeals were issued to the City Companies, Church Building Societies, and other bodies. The "Times," the "Daily Graphic," the "Builder," and many other papers lent their columns, & a great effort was made to raise enough to warrant a start being made.

Summary of work done

What has been done may be briefly summarised as follows: The chancel roof has been practically re-formed by inserting new deal timbers between the old oak rafters of 1755. The latter are left intact though they now do no work. The old heavy oak beams have been spliced and strengthened with oak or iron and the metal covered with mortar to preserve it.

The gable has been rebuilt in brickwork as before. The old gable was so roughly built, and in so ruinous a state, that the writer contended it was evidently meant as a merely temporary covering during the war, (fn. 5) and that the most intelligent restoration would be to put back the flat roof & battlemented east end as it existed until the year 1755. The Restoration Committee, however, decided to follow the advice of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and to rebuild the red brick gable and tiled roof as they found them.

The walls have been repaired & the joints filled with tiles or flints bedded in mortar; one buttress has been underpinned with concrete and partly rebuilt; and the other, at the south-east corner, has been taken down and rebuilt. In restoring the hood mould of the south window it was discovered that a doorway had existed there at one time, but no mention of it has been found in any of the writings examined.

The old vestry has been provided with new lead; a new floor has been laid; the brickwork refaced externally; a new window has taken the place of the old door, and the old window is blocked up. The choir vestry is the only addition to the fabric made by the Committee. The architects strongly recommended that the red brick "excrescence," as previous writers have called the old vestry, should be faced with stone and form part of the design of a new stone-built choir vestry. The Society, however, deemed that brickwork was more appropriate taking into consideration the atmospheric conditions in East London that are so destructive to stone, and that moreover it would be less calculated to enter into competition with the old work. As the Society's proposal had the additional merit of being economical, the Committee decided to act upon it.

It had been much hoped that the nave roof would need but little repair. A close examination, however, revealed that the tile laths were completely rotten; and in the end the roof had to be stripped, new oak rafters inserted with sequoia panels and new cleft oak laths. The old tiles were replaced as far as possible, similar secondhand hand-made tiles were obtained from a contractor at Battersea who happened to be demolishing some old houses at the time, and the deficiency was made up with the best new hand-made tiles. Three oak tie beams, each fourteen inches by ten, were inserted to tie the walls and secure them from spreading further.

The south aisle has been practically untouched, though the battlements have been rebuilt with the old facing stones, & a few quoins at the southeast corner have been renewed.

The north aisle required very careful treatment, & that the wall has been preserved and restored, and not rebuilt, is due to the personal care & skill of the master mason. The brick battlements have been repaired & pointed, and some of the capping is new.

A new doorway has been formed in the north aisle giving access from the church to the choir lobby. In cutting away the masonry it was found that an old window had existed.

For the rest, the old decayed plaster ceiling has been cut away and the spaces between the rafters filled with sequoia wood as before stated. The stained and varnished deal seats have been removed and replaced by chairs in the nave, while the choir benches are now of oak of an open pattern in lieu of the old deal benches.

An oak dado has been fixed round the walls & piers. The internal double windows have been added to reduce the noise from the passing traffic.

All the monuments and other work have been cleaned only, and the walls, &c., have been painted and colour-washed.

At one time considerable difficulty appeared to be threatening. The District surveyor, whose duty it is to safeguard the interests of the public, desired that a large quantity of the masonry should be demolished and rebuilt, whereas the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings were extremely anxious that not one stone should be removed unnecessarily. The architects however, were allowed to proceed.

Structure considered beyond repair

The upper or restored portion of the tower, for the most part, merely required repointing, though a dozen or more new stones were built in. On removing the rotten brick panels of the ringers' gallery the remains of tracery of the old windows was discovered. It is much to be regretted that the tracery of the west window of this room has long since been cut away. I think that every writer of this century who has described Bow Church has considered the structure to be beyond repair. More than a century since it was described as "what remains of an ancient building;" some seventy years back we find the expression "tottering with decay;" (fn. 6) and in the present decade Sir Walter Besant, himself a member of the Committee under whose auspices this monograph is issued, has called it a "building that must soon pass into oblivion," & expressed the hope that someone will make an etching of it before it has quite crumbled away. I have tried to show how this was also the view held by eminent professional experts, and when in addition we find how in 1896 the church was closed as dangerous, it will be seen that the term "Restoration Difficulties" was no idle one.

The Committee's predominating wish has been throughout to give the ancient edifice a new and lengthy lease of life without destroying the character and mellow softness of a church "Grown grey beneath the shadowy touch of time."


  • 1. Wm. Bangs.
  • 2. Bishop Ingram.
  • 3. Died April, 1899.
  • 4. Died July, 1899.
  • 5. See page 14.
  • 6. The "Mirror," 1825.