Architecture and Location
Historically, Bow Church has always stood ‘in the middle of the King’s highway’.
Setting and Location
The churchyard is narrow, elongated and tapers at both ends. Access is possible only via pedestrian crossings at the west end; the east end tails off into wasteground bounded by carriageways that converge shortly before rising up over the Bow flyover. The churchyard is shaded by tall London planes that form a grove leading up to the west door. Although burials ceased in the 19th century, numerous historic tombs survive, some surrounded by railings (none is separately listed, although all are curtilage listed). When in 1825 the churchyard was enlarged to the east cast-iron Georgian Gothick railings with stone piers were erected along the boundary line with gates to the east, north, south and west, although all but the last are now unusable because of the traffic. These are at least in part reproductions of 1984 but are nonetheless separately listed at Grade II. Also in 1825 the buildings that formerly surrounded the church, which included a market hall and school to the east and a group of tenements and inn to the west, were cleared away.
Enough historic streetscape survives in the vicinity for the church still to read as an integral part of an ancient settlement. On the north side, right opposite the church, is 199 Bow Road, a late C17 house, listed at Grade II. The statue of Prime Minister W.E. Gladstone at the western tip of the site by Albert Bruce-Joy, unveiled 1882 and donated by the directors of the nearby Bryant and May match factory (the complex survives as the Bow Quarter on Fairfield Road, although it was converted to housing in the late 1980s) is listed separately at Grade II, as are the cast-iron bollards (separate list entry) and the adjacent underground gentlemen’s WC of 1899 by Poplar Board of Works with fittings by George Jennings (separate list entry). As is noted in the first two of these list descriptions, all of these items form a group together with St Mary’s, and the RC church of Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena to the northwest (Unlisted, Gilbert Blount, 1869-70 with S transept and sacristies of 1882 by Alfred E. Purdie). However the current situation of the building on what is effectively a traffic island in the middle of the A11 is the result of insensitive post-war planning.
The Middle Ages
According to The Buildings of England the 14th-century rubble-stone north aisle wall is the oldest part; most of the rest of the medieval fabric dates from a major rebuilding of the 1480s-90s. Typically for a late Perpendicular church, the plan is fairly simple: there is a west tower on the principal axis, a nave of six bays with narrow aisles to the north and south with an (originally aisleless) chancel of two. This is differentiated by a change in roof height but otherwise there is no structural division and no chancel arch. The date of the arcades is unclear – according to The Buildings of England although they may be pre-15th century, ‘a drawing of c.1820 shows half-arches and bulkier piers at the E end’. The piers are octagonal with moulded capitals while the arches are double-chamfered. There is a coupled rafter, collar beam roof without purlins in the nave. The date is unclear – the list description says the tie beams were ‘left roughly hewn as part of late 19th-century restoration’ but the extent of the damage sustained from bombing means they are likely to contain a lot of post-war fabric. The aisles have flat plaster ceilings, while the nave has a panelled tie-beam roof of very shallow pitch, probably dating from the later 15th century, with carved bosses. The junction between the nave and chancel roofs is marked by a panelled tympanum filling the end truss of the former. The windows are mostly square-headed and mullioned with cusped lights, with the exception of the large traceried windows at the east and west ends.
The Stuart and Georgian Periods
By the late 17th or 18th century (as shown by two watercolours of the interior dated 1849) the building had been refurnished with box pews, a three-decker pulpit with sounding board, west gallery with tiered seating and an organ and other fittings typical of the period. There was an imposing reredos with a split pediment, what look like they may have been stained-glass figures of Moses and Aaron in the E window, and a Georgian Gothick organ case with pinnacled and crocketed pipe towers. The panelling in the chancel is stated in The Buildings of England to be 18th century – if so, then it is one of the few survivals from this period.
The south aisle was refaced in 1794 but the condition of the fabric was parlous for much of the post-Reformation history of the building and several proposals were floated from the early C18 onwards for rebuilding the church. Following a complaint in 1789 that the church obstructed traffic complete demolition was even proposed. The condition of the fabric was still precarious and matters came to a head in 1829 when the upper part of the tower collapsed during a storm on 29 January. William Ford recommended replacing all of the fabric apart from the base of the tower but this was not done and he replaced just the upper stages in Georgian Gothick, with outsize central merlons to accommodate clock faces.
The Victorian Age
Major changes were carried out during the incumbency of Rector George Driffield (1844-88), when the new parishes of St Paul’s, Old Ford, St Stephen’s Tredegar Rd and St Mark’s were carved out of St Mary’s. An organ chamber faced in Kentish rag was added on the south side of chancel in 1870 (the three-rank extension organ of 1961 by Henry Willis now occupying it replaces an instrument originally of 1887 destroyed by bombing and is not BIOS-listed). In 1882 Sir A.W. Blomfield surveyed the church and recommended a complete rebuild of everything except the tower, but this was not done and his work was limited to repairs and the reordering of the chancel, during which the sanctuary floor was raised and paved with tiles based on medieval prototypes (green-glazed relief patterns and red and white slip, some possibly original according to The Buildings of England). He seems to have reseated the church with pews, although these were all later removed.
The condition of the fabric did not improve and the collapse of part of the chancel roof in 1896 brought matters to a head again. Thanks to C.R. Ashbee (1863-1942), the noted Arts and Crafts architect and designer and social reformer, the building was again saved from destruction. In 1891 Ashbee had moved his Guild and School of Handicraft from Commercial St to 401 Mile End Road and in 1894, shocked by the demolition of a fine early C17 manor house in Bromley by Bow, he set up the Committee for the Survey of the Memorials of Greater London. From the late 1890s the committee collaborated with London County Council (LCC), and eventually grew into the Survey of London, which continues its work to this day. St Mary’s was included in the second volume of the Survey by architect Osborn C. Hills, published in 1902.
A committee including SPAB members was established to supervise the restoration work, which was carried out in 1896-1900 by the same Hills, of local firm Hills and Son. The Committee insisted on the retention and repair of the east gable of the chancel and the high-pitched roof, a later addition superimposed over the cambered medieval roof – a typical SPAB approach, although one which was the subject of some debate at the time. At one point it was proposed to demolish the north wall of the north aisle because of its poor condition and because of the opportunity that this offered to expand capacity, but in the end this was not carried out.
The Committee also designed the pitched-roofed vestry extension on the north side of the chancel, added in 1900 to a smaller, pre-existing, flat-roofed 18th-century structure and built of brick (as opposed to ragstone, which Hills would have preferred) to differentiate it from the medieval fabric. Ashbee’s Guild of Handicraft provided the metalwork, including the hopper heads of 1899. Originally on the south wall, these were moved inside the church following a lead theft in 2009 and are now displayed on the west wall of the south aisle. Ashbee supposedly also designed the silver tops to the churchwardens’ maces and the choir stalls, introduced in 1900. The internal secondary glazing of small- panelled leaded glass and wall panelling date from the same year. The total cost of all the restoration work was £6,500 – the church had to be closed and services held in a temporary tin tabernacle erected at the west end of the churchyard while they were in progress.
There was catastrophic blast damage from a bombing raid on 11 May 1941 which brought down the upper half of the tower and shattered the nave. The scholar–architect H.S. Goodhart-Rendel (1887-1959) prepared designs for rebuilding, carried out between 1949 and 1951. The site was visited by George VI’s wife Queen Elizabeth in March 1951 while the work was being carried out, and the church was rededicated on 30 November 1952. Rather than reinstating Ford’s fabric, Goodhart-Rendel rebuilt the tower in English bond brickwork with stone dressings (there are round-arched belfry windows with blocking to the architrave and a cornice with dentils), surmounting it with a wooden cupola to bear the clock faces, in a convincing pastiche of the numerous Georgian rebuildings of medieval towers but also making it possible to judge immediately the extent of the surviving original fabric. A wind vane salvaged from the rubble and bearing the date 1829 is displayed inside. In addition Goodhart-Rendel contributed the handsome Tuscan porch to the south door, now unusable because of the proximity of the dual carriageway, there being no pavement. He is supposed to have envisaged more extensive alterations but it is said these would not or could not be carried out. Drawings for the restoration are held in the drawings collection of the Royal Institute of British Architects at the Victoria and Albert Museum but do not support this claim, there being no readily apparent discrepancies with the work as carried out, apart from a cartoon for a completely different design for the east window, based on Victorian rather than Georgian motifs.
Interior Fixtures and Fittings
An octagonal stone font with typical Perpendicular cusped panelling survives at the west end of the nave: it was brought back into the church in the late 19th century, having been discarded in 1624 in favour of a classical replacement and installed in the garden of the vicarage (subsequently the workhouse). The glass in the east window which, unusually, contains no religious imagery (the composition is made up of classical aedicules, flaming urns and small bird and animals) was made by Goodhart-Rendel’s partner H. Lewis Curtis. All the other glass in the church is plain.
St Stephen’s War Memorial Chapel occupies the westernmost bay of the north aisle and has curved altar rails and monuments listing the names of the fallen, brought here from St Stephen Tredegar Road (S.J. Nicholl, 1856-8, bombed in World War Two and demolished afterwards) and also from Holy Trinity, Mile End (Grade II, Daniel and James Austin, 1834-9 – now the New Testament Church of God) when the latter parish was finally merged with St Mary’s in 2006. The church’s own Roll of Honour is in the adjacent bay. There are two communion tables: one of c.1630 (now in the WWI memorial chapel) with Tuscan columns as legs and an arcade on smaller Tuscan columns supporting the centre; the other early 18th century. The current gothic revival pulpit was installed in 1887.
The church contains a number of good wall monuments:
- To fishmonger’s wife Grace Amcotte (d.1551) in the south aisle,completely gothic in style;
- To merchant and father of 14 Thomas Jorden (d.1671), on the northwall of chancel, consisting of a tablet placed in an aedicule with a broken pediment, ionic pilasters and a swag below;
- In the nave, filling the clerestory and spandrels beneath, to Alice Coborn (d.1689 at the age of 15) on the south side and, exactly opposite, to her stepmother Prisca Coborn (d.1701) with a long inscription in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Prisca was the daughter of a minister and widow of a local brewer, who was a local benefactress (she donated the no longer extant plaster ceiling to the nave) and is commemorated in the names of local pubs, streets and schools;
- On the south wall of chancel to James (d.1712) and Dorothy (d.1706) Walker with busts of each, a canopy and putti holding open the drapes either side of the inscription;
- In the north aisle to Edward Rust (d.1704), a scarlet dyer and representative of an industry that once flourished along the River Lea.
A modest plaque in the church commemorates George Lansbury (1859-1940), local councillor in the LCC and mayor of the borough, MP for Poplar, Bow and Bromley 1910-12 and 1922-40, founder of The Daily Herald, parliamentarian and leader of the Labour Party 1931-5. He was cremated but his funeral service was held in the church, with which he had a long association. His granddaughter is the actress Dame Angela Lansbury (b.1925). His daughter Daisy married Raymond Postgate (1896–1971), author, journalist and editor, social historian, mystery novelist and gourmet, who founded the Good Food Guide, and their son was Oliver Postgate (1925-2008) the animator and creator of Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine etc.
Philip Ludlow, first governor of the colony of Carolina (1689-95) is buried in the crypt. The Revd Samuel Henshall (rector from 1802 until his death in 1807), scholar and Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, took out the world’s first patent for an improved corkscrew and is commemorated by a plaque unveiled in 2009. The bells of St Mary’s (replaced after the bombing) are not the Bow Bells within the sound of which a true Cockney is traditionally born – that honour belonging to St Mary-le-Bow in the City – but the church is mentioned in the nursery rhyme ‘Oranges and Lemons’ as being that of ‘The great bell of Bow’.
Cherry, Bridget, O’Brien, Charles, Pevsner, Nikolaus, The Buildings of England – London 5: East (London and New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), pp.604-5
Guide to the Church of St Mary, Bow
Peet, Michael, The History of Bow Church
Clarke, Canon Basil F. L., Parish Churches of London (London: Batsford, 1966), pp.163-4
Hills, Osborn C., The Survey of London Monograph 2 (An account of the history and fabric of St Mary, Stratford Bow; the parish church of Stratford Bow from 1719, and before that a chapel of ease in the parish of Stepney), (London, 1900)
List description of St Mary’s: http://list.english- heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1065273