Historical notes

Pages 9-16

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

This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.



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)

Bow bridge

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.

Stratford Bow

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)

Chantrey Roll

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 present restoration.

(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.

The dedication

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 burials.

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 cement.

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 church.

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 same.


  • 1. See illustrations Nos. 3, 5, & 4, opposite.
  • 2. Leland.
  • 3. Insley.
  • 4. Vol. I., p. 742.
  • 5. Stratford was synonymous with Bow and Old Ford.
  • 6. Newcourt, Vol. I., p. 742.
  • 7. Lysons, p. 497.
  • 8. From a copy in the possession of Mr. H. L. Wheatley, parish clerk.
  • 9. See Ch. IV. p. 46.
  • 10. The parish clerk affirms that it was the baker's customers who were the offenders.
  • 11. From a copy kindly lent by Mr Wheatley.
  • 12. See p. 12.
  • 13. This fine old house is shown in the illustration No. 3 opposite p. 8.