The area was formerly known as Stratford, and "Bow" is an abbreviation of the medieval name Stratford-atte-Bow, in which "Bow" refers to a bridge built in the early 12th century. Bow is adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and a section of the district is part of the park.
Old Ford, and with it Fish Island, are usually taken to be part of Bow, but Bromley-by-Bow (historically and officially just 'Bromley') immediately to the south, is a separate locality. These distinctions have their roots in historic parish boundaries.
Bow underwent extensive urban regeneration including the replacement or improvement of council homes, with impetus given by the staging of the 2012 Olympic Games at nearby Stratford. Today this regeneration is continuing.
Stratforde was first recorded as a settlement in 1177, the name derived from its Old English meaning of paved way to a ford. The ford originally lay on a pre-Roman trackway at Old Ford about 600 metres to the north, but when the Romans decided on Colchester as the initial capital for their occupation, the road was upgraded to run from the area of London Bridge, as one of the first paved Roman roads in Britain. The 'paved way' is likely to refer to the presence of a stone causeway across the marshes, which formed a part of the crossing.
In 1110 Matilda, wife of Henry I, reputedly took a tumble at the ford on her way to Barking Abbey, and ordered a distinctively bow-shaped, three-arched bridge to be built over the River Lea, The like of which had not been seen before; the area became known variously as Stradford of the Bow, Stratford of the Bow, Stratford the Bow, Stratforde the Bowe, and Stratford-atte-Bow' (at the Bow) which over time was shortened to Bow to distinguish it from Stratford Langthorne on the Essex bank of the 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 maintenance of the bridge was always in dispute, no more so than with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when local landowners who had taken over the Abbey lands were found responsible. The bridge was widened in 1741 and tolls were levied to defray the expense, but litigation over maintenance lasted until 1834, when the bridge needed to be rebuilt and landowners agreed to pay half of the cost, with Essex and Middlesex sharing the other. The bridge was again replaced in 1834, by the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Trust, and in 1866 West Ham took responsibility for its upkeep and that of the causeway and smaller bridges that continued the route across the Lea. In 1967 this bridge was replaced by a new modern bridge by the Greater London Council who also installed a two-lane flyover above it spanning the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, the traffic interchange, the River Lea and some of the Bow Back Rivers. This has since been expanded to a four-lane road.
There was a nearby Benedictine nunnery from the Norman era onwards, known as St Leonard's Priory and immortalized in Chaucer's description of the Nun Prioress in the General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales. However, Bow itself was still an isolated village by the early 14th century, often cut off from its parish church of St Dunstan's, Stepney by flood. In 1311 permission was granted to build St Mary's Church, Bow as a chapel of ease to allow the residents a local place of worship. The land was granted by Edward III, on the King's highway, thus beginning a tradition of island church building. Bow was made an Anglican parish of its own in 1719, with St Mary's as its parish church. The new parish included the Old Ford area, which has also been known as North Bow. The Anglican parish churches of St Barnabas Bethnal Green and St Paul's, Old Ford are in the Bow West and Bow East wards respectively.
The late 19th century and early 20th century also saw three Roman Catholic churches built for the area - Church of Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena (1870), Church of the Holy Name and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (1894) and The Guardian Angels Church (1903).
Fairfield Road commemorates the Green Goose fair, held there on the Thursday after Pentecost. A Green Goose was a young or mid-summer goose, and a slang term for a cuckold or a 'low' woman. In 1630, John Taylor, a poet wrote At Bow, the Thursday after Pentecost, There is a fair of green geese ready rost, Where, as a goose is ever dog cheap there, The sauce is over somewhat sharp and deare., taking advantage of the double entendre and continuing with other verses describing the drunken rowdy behaviour of the crowds. By the mid-19th century, the authorities had had enough and the fair was suppressed.
During the 17th century Bow and the Essex bank became a centre for the slaughter and butchery of cattle for the City market. Additionally the piggery which used the mash residue produced by the gin mills at Three Mills meant a ready supply of animal bones, and local entrepreneurs Thomas Frye and Edward Heylyn developed a means to mix this with clay and create a form of fine porcelain, said to rival the best from abroad, known as Bow Porcelain. In November 1753, in Aris's Birmingham Gazette, the following advertisement appeared:
This is to give notice to all painters in the blue and white potting way and enamellers on china ware, that by applying at the counting-house at the china-house near Bow, they may meet with employment and proper encouragement according to their merit; likewise painters brought up in the snuff-box way, japanning, fan-painting, &c., may have an opportunity of trial, wherein if they succeed, they shall have due encouragement. N.B. At the same house a person is wanted who can model small figures in clay neatly.
The Bow China Works prospered, employing some 300 artists and hands, until about 1770, when one of its founders died. By 1776 all of its moulds and implements were transferred to a manufacturer in Derby. In 1867, during drainage operations at the match factory of Bell & Black at Bell Road, St. Leonard's Street, the foundations of one of the kilns were discovered*, with a large quantity of 'wasters' and fragments of broken pottery. The houses close by were then called China Row, but now lie beneath modern housing. Chemical analysis of the firing remains showed them to contain high quantities of bone-ash, pre-dating the claim of Josiah Spode to have invented the bone china process. More recent investigations of documentary and archaeological evidence suggests the concern was to the north of the High Street and across the river.
In 1888, the match girls' strike occurred at the Bryant and May match factory in Fairfield Road. This was a forerunner of the suffragette movement fight for women's rights and also the trade union movement. The factory was rebuilt in 1911 and the brick entrance includes a depiction of Noah's Ark and the word 'Security' used as a trademark on the matchboxes. Match production ceased in 1979 and the building is now private apartments known as the Bow Quarter.
Emmeline Pankhurst began the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Sylvia became increasingly disillusioned with the Suffragette movement's inability to engage with the needs of working-class women like the match girls. Sylvia formed a breakaway movement, the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and based at 198 Bow Road, by the church, in a baker's shop. This was emblazoned with "Votes for Women" in large gold letters, and opened in October 1912. The local Member of Parliament, George Lansbury, resigned his seat to stand on a platform of women's enfranchisement. Sylvia supported him and Bow Road became the campaign office, culminating in a huge rally in nearby Victoria Park, but Lansbury was narrowly defeated and support for the project in the East End was withdrawn.
Sylvia refocused her efforts from Bow, and with the outbreak of World War I began a nursery, clinic and cost price canteen for the poor at the bakery. A paper, the Women's Dreadnought, was published to bring her campaign to a wider audience. At the close of war, the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act 1918 gave limited voting rights to property-owning women over the age of 30, and equal rights were finally achieved ten years later.
Pankhurst spent 12 years in Bow fighting for women's rights. She risked constant arrest and spent a lot of time in Holloway Prison, often on hunger strike. She finally achieved her aim, and along the way had alleviated some of the poverty and misery and improved social conditions for all in the East End.
In 1843 the engineer William Bridges Adams founded the Fairfield Locomotive Works, where he specialized in light engines, steam railcars (or railmotors) and inspection trolleys, including the Fairfield steam carriage for the Bristol and Exeter Railway and the Enfield for the Eastern Counties Railway. The business failed and the works closed circa 1872, later becoming the factory of Bryant and May.
Bow was the headquarters of the North London Railway, which opened its locomotive and carriage workshops in 1853. There were two stations, Old Ford and Bow. During World War 2 the North London Railway branch from Dalston to Poplar through Bow was so badly damaged that it was abandoned.
Bow station opened in 1850 and was rebuilt in 1870 in a grand style, designed by Edwin Henry Horne and featuring a concert hall that was 100 ft long (30 m) and 40 ft wide (12 m). This became The Bow and Bromley Institute, then in 1887 the East London Technical College and a Salvation Army hall in 1911. From the 1930s it was used as the Embassy Billiard Hall and after the war became the Bow Palais, but was demolished in 1956 after a fire.
Bow formed a part of the medieval parish of Stepney until becoming an independent parish in 1719. The parish vestry then undertook this responsibility until a rising population created the need for the Poplar Board of Works in 1855. This was superseded by the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1900 until it was absorbed into the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1965.
Between 1986 and 1992 the name Bow applied to one of seven neighbourhoods to whom power was devolved from the council. This resulted in replacement of much of the street signage. Bow West and Bow East are two wards formed in 2002 that incorporate Old Ford and the eastern end of Bethnal Green (to Grove Road, parts of which used to comprise Mile End New Town, north of the Mile End Road). Bow lost its territory south of the Mile End Road to Bromley-by-Bow. These boundary changes are driven by the need to ensure a comparable number of electors for each ward within the borough.
Local council facilities are grouped around Roman Road market in Old Ford. The local library, now called an Idea Store, is in Gladstone Place. A community and tenants' hall is nearby. Access to council services is dealt with by the Bow and North Poplar One Stop Shop, in Ewart Place.
It is often said that to be a true Cockney you need to be born within earshot of the sound of Bow Bells and that these are the bells of Bow Church in the heart of Bow. However, the saying actually refers to St Mary-le-Bow, which is approximately three miles west on Cheapside, in the City of London. The other central feature of Bow is the bridge across the River Lea. Today it is a four-lane flyover over the Lea and Blackwall Tunnel approach. The old High Street has few active shops and it now known as Bromley High Street, with large-scale postwar housing to the south. The island church remains as a turning point for buses. The Blackwall Tunnel approach roads´ expansion from the two-lane road at the beginning of the 20th century to a six-lane urban motorway has occupied land at the expense of industry. What remains on the eastern side of the road is a canal-side enclave of small businesses and warehouses, with a large supermarket at the canal bridge to Three Mills and has largely considered to be part of Bromley-by-Bow.
Bow has become associated with the E3 postcode district, but a small part is in E15 and the southern half of Cadogan Terrace and all of Victoria Park which is in E9. Most of the E15 section has been changed to E20 because this part covers the Olympic Park. E3 includes Bromley-by-Bow, Old Ford, Mile End and the transpontine Three Mills in Newham. The modern Tower Hamlets wards of west and east Bow are associated more with the postcode than the settlement, and bounded by the Mile End Road in the south; the River Lea to the east; Victoria Park to the north; and Grove Road in the west.
The Hertford Union Canal links the River Lee Navigation and the Regent's Canal, running west from Old Ford Lock, along the south side of Victoria Park and linking at a basin, just to the west of Grove Road and the park, in the north of Mile End.
St Mary's Church stands on the traffic island in Bow Road, called Bow Church but not to be confused with St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London which has the famous Bow bells. Part of the church dates back to 1311. The base of the tower dates back to the late 15th century and the top of the tower was rebuilt after bomb damage in the Second World War.
A memorial to George Lansbury (1859–1940) stands on the corner of Bow Road and Harley Grove, near 39 Bow Road, his family home in the constituency until it was destroyed in the Blitz. It describes him as "A great servant of the people". Lansbury was twice Mayor of Poplar and MP for Bromley and Bow. In 1921, he led the Poplar Rates Rebellion. His daughter-in-law, Minnie Lansbury, was one of the 30 Poplar councillors sent to prison, and died six weeks after leaving prison. A memorial clock to her is over a row of shops on Bow Road, near the junction with Alfred Street.
The original Poplar Town Hall is on the south side of Bow Road, near the DLR station. It continues in use for registrations of births and marriages as Bromley Public Hall. It was rebuilt in the 1920s at the corner of Bow Road and Fairfield Road, now in a dilapidated condition and used as commercial offices. It contains the Poplar Assembly Rooms, now no longer used. The Builders, by sculptor David Evans is a frieze on the face of the building, unveiled by Lansbury on 10 December 1938: the Portland Stone panels commemorate the trades constructing the Town Hall and symbolise the borough's relationship with the River Thames and the youth of Poplar.
St Agnes, Chisenhale, Malmesbury Olga and Malmesbury primary schools are located in Bow, as is Central Foundation Girls School on Bow Road. Cherry Trees School is a specialist primary school located at Campbell Road in Bow.
Bow is connected to the National Road Network at the junction of the A12 East Cross Route and A11 Mile End Road. The proximity of tube stations mean that parking restrictions apply throughout the area.
Access to the Lee Navigation is via the towpath at Three Mills. South leads to the River Thames, but the towpath can often be blocked. North leads to Duckett's Cut (the Hertford Union Canal), which provides access to Victoria Park and joins the Regent's Canal near Mile End. Proceeding north along the Lea leads to Hackney Marshes. As this is within the Olympic Park the towpath may be closed unpredictably while building works are undertaken.
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