The Village Church, 1719–1900
In 1719 Bow Chapel finally became independent after being a daughter church of St Dunstan’s Stepney for 400 years. On 6 April the Bishop of London consecrated the parish church of ‘St Mary, Stratford Bow’ and Robert Warren was inducted as the first Rector. During the 18th century, the church was done up, a new organ provided and five bells presented to the church by John Cook, ‘collar maker to the King’.
In 1802 Samuel Henshall became the Rector of what was still a village church. He was an eminent scholar, Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and the author of many learned books, but his main claim to fame was his taking out of the first patent in the world for an improved corkscrew! He died in 1807 and is buried in the church chancel. In 2009 the International Correspondence of Corkscrew Addicts visited the church and unveiled a plaque to his memory. They bought some fine wine them! Henshall was followed by the splendidly named rectors, Frodsham Hodson and Hamlet Harrison.
In 1825 the area around the church was cleared of its buildings and the churchyard created. But on 29 January 1829, disaster struck when the upper part of the church tower was severely damaged in a great storm. Though it was rebuilt — with ‘medieval’ battlements — the architect proposed that the old church was now getting so frail that it really ought to be demolished and replaced with something modern. In 1882 the historian Walter Besant wrote about ‘the beautiful old church of Bow, crumbling slowly away in the East End fog, with its narrow strip of crowded churchyard. One hopes that before it has quite crumbled away some one will go and make a picture of it!’
“BOW CHURCH DOOMED”
This was the local paper headline on 14 November 1896. Then a crisis came when the chancel roof collapsed, prompting a major restoration by the architect Osborn C Hills. Surely the old place was finished now! But the fledgling conservation movement intervened, including C.R. Ashbee (who lived locally) and the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), and ensured that the church was instead restored in a three-year project, undertaken by Osborn. C. Hills. Wall panelling, double glazing, and the outer vestry were provided and Ashbee himself designed new choir stalls. money was raised and a four- year programme of restoration was put in hand with an ‘Iron Church’ erected in front of the west door for temporary use. In June 1900 the repaired and refurbished church was reopened. Double glazing and wall panelling had been fitted and a second vestry had been built. It had all cost £6,500. In 1902 St Mary’s was the subject of the second monograph of the Survey of London.
In 1903 a London religious census showed that 548 people had worshipped at St Mary’s on census day. So it was that Bow Church entered the 20th century!