E3 is Bow but it is not the location of the “Great Bell of Bow” in the Nursery Rhyme “Oranges and Lemons”. Nor does being born in Bow E3 mean you are a true Cockney. You have to live within the sound of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside in the City to qualify and that is where the Great Bell of Bow is. But some people from Bow like to call themselves true Cockneys, as indeed did my father who grew up in Bow.
We start our walk at the Post Office at 603 Roman Road. This is actually just a little way along from where you finished the E2 walk. Turn left out of the Post Office and walk along Roman Road which here is a part time market. Our first stop is at the junction with Parnell Road.
Stop 1: Iceni Court
Just by this junction across the road on the left is a non descript block of flats called Iceni Court.
No this is not the site of an old cinema but I had to stop to because of the sign here.
Not sure how accurate this is. The Romans certainly came to Britain in AD43 and they did built a road from London to Colchester. But surely the road to Colchester leaves the City at Aldgate and goes through Whitechapel and Mile End. The alignment of the modern day street called Roman Road is further north and would mean leaving the City at Bishopsgate and then turning right.
However looking at the map you can see that if you carry straight on from Roman Road and cross the River Lea you are in Stratford in direct line with the road to Colchester. So maybe it was just an alternative route. But which one came first?
At this end of the northern route we have the district known as Old Ford perhaps indicating that this was the older crossing of the Lea but at the east end of the southern route we have Aldgate, which means Old Gate. It just seems more logical that the road went directly out of a gate. Who knows? So even if they built the road from London to Colchester and beyond as soon as they got here in AD43, it is not clear whether the early road was on the alignment of the street we now call Roman Road.
The other curious thing about this block of flats is that the name that the powers that be have chosen to use.
Iceni was the local tribe in Roman times (at one point headed by warrior queen, Boudica). So they are celebrating the Romans by naming the building after a tribe that revolted against the Romans.
Turn right into Parnell Road and at the end turn left into Tredegar Road and then almost immediately right into Fairfield Road. Our next stop is on the left before the railway, set back behind some railings.
Stop 2: Bow Quarter (Former Bryant and May Match Factory)
This is the former factory of the Bryant and May match company. Once when almost everyone smoked and before the days of electric light, matches were a key item in every household.
This site was acquired by two Quaker businessmen William Bryant and Francis May in 1861 to produce what were known as “safety matches”. These are matches which only work when struck against a specifically prepared surface as opposed to any old rough surface. This makes them safer to handle.
The concept was developed in Sweden in the 1840s by Gustaf Erik Pasch. Pasch patented the use of red phosphorus in the striking surface. Then two brothers by the name of Lundström started making safety matches on a commercial scale and Bryant and May bought the British patent so they could produce safety matches here.
Match production ceased in 1979 and the building is now private apartments known as the Bow Quarter.
In the 19th century, match making was a hazardous business for the workers because of the exposure to dangerous chemicals in particular Phosphorus. In 1888, there was a strike of workers which arose out of the dismissal of a worker and led to the whole factory stopping work. They are always described as “match girls”, so I guess they were all or almost all women employed in this work. Some of the strikers went to see a local social activist Annie Besant and to ask for her assistance.
It was at this point she became involved as she was concerned by their precipitate action and by the number of women who were now out of work with no means of support. She did not start or lead the strike, in fact she never worked at the factory.
Annie Besant sounds quite a character. She became interested in Theosophy, which seeks to understand the mysteries of the universe and the bonds that unite the universe, humanity, and the divine. Theosophy had a particular interest in eastern mysticism and Besant travelled to India and later became involved in the movement for Indian independence.
The factory was rebuilt in 1911 and the brick entrance includes a depiction of Noah’s Ark and the word ‘Security’. This featured in their trademark which was used on the matchboxes.
Go under the railway bridge and our next stop is soon on the left.
Stop 3: Bow Bus garage
This bus garage has the look of a tram depot and indeed it was. Originally this was a tram depot for the North Metropolitan Tramways Company. Their first route had been a horse tram service from Whitechapel to Bow which started in 1870. The building we see today was built in 1908 by which time the trams were electric. It was used to house trolley buses from 1939 and became a bus depot in 1959. Today it houses lots of the Boris buses (which are used on Route 8).
Continue walking along Fairfield Road and just before the end, there is a plaque on the right.
Stop 4: Site of the Fair Field
So this is the origin of the name Fairfield. Obvious really and in fact the Fairfield Halls in Croydon is similarly named after an old fair site. Interesting that “rowdiness and vice” at public events is not such a new thing.
Actually the building on which this plaque is placed is our next stop but to get a better view go to the junction with the main road (Bow Road).
Stop 5: Former Town Hall
This was built as the Town Hall for Poplar Borough Council, which confusingly they chose to build in Bow. The building dates from 1937/38 and the architect is Clifford Culpin who went on to design the better known Greenwich Town Hall.
There are five relief panels with depictions of the type of workers involved in creating the building: welder, carpenter, architect, labourer and stone mason. Here are three of them.
Turn left and you will see the road divides around a statue. This is of William Ewart Gladstone, 19th century prime minister.
Cross the road near the statue. Once across you will see a little garden and a church at the end. Go in the garden.
Stop 6: Bow Church
Ahead is St Mary’s Church.
This started as a Chapel of Ease for Stepney in 1311, and only became a parish in its own right in 1719. Architectural guru Pevsner says the tower is 15th Century and the north aisle wall is the oldest part dating from the 14th Century. The mishmash of old bits survived because there was no money to rebuilt completely. When rebuilding was required following the collapse of the Chancel in 1896, the approach was to conserve and retain rather than replace wholesale. The building was damaged in the Second World War but repaired.
And if you look back, you get this view.
It is hard to believe we are on a traffic island in the middle of one of London’s main roads.
Now head back out of the garden and turn left. Cross the road and turn right heading back towards the Town Hall. Our next stop is on the left and is bright orange.
Stop 7: Bow Bells pub, 116 Bow Road
This pub perpetuates the myth that Bow is somehow connected with the nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” and with being a cockney.
Exhibit One is the pub sign.
And Exhibit Two is this board on the pub’s frontage with the words of Oranges and Lemons.
This is of course complete nonsense, because the bells referred to are those of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside in the City. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story.
By the way the Bow we are in derives its name from the bridge over the nearby River Lea.
In 1110 Queen Matilda, wife of King Henry I, was crossing the ford over the river Lea hereabouts on her way to Barking Abbey and is said to have taken a tumble. As a result she ordered a bridge to be built.
The bridge had a distinctive bow shape and so the area on the west side of the river became Stratford-atte-Bow (Stratford at the Bow) which over time was shortened to Bow. This distinguished it from the Stratford on the east side of the Lea which was known as Stratford Langthorne after the name of the Abbey there. But of course today, that is just plain old Stratford.
Head back towards the church but turn right at the crossing next to the statue of Gladstone. Follow that road round as it bends to the left. This is Bromley High Street, which may once have been a humming centre but which today is almost completely devoid of any commercial activity. At the end you will see a gateway across the road to your right.
Stop 8: St Leonard’s Churchyard
At the end of Bromley High Street where St Leonard’s Street comes in from the right, you will see an old gateway. This was the entrance to St Leonard’s churchyard.
This gateway dates from 1894 and was built as a memorial to the Rev How, the vicar at St Leonards who had died the year before.
Go though the gateway.
It is a depressing site. It obviously at one time had been sorted out but today it is a complete mess. And it is hardly a tranquil spot as the northern approach to the Blackwall Tunnel is on the far side and you can see the road from a hole in the fence. The traffic noise is very evident.
This in fact was the site of St Leonard’s Priory, a Benedictine nunnery founded in 11th Century. Geoffrey Chaucer has a little reference in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales where he introduces the Prioress.
“Ther was also a nonne, a prioresse,
That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy;
Hire gretteste ooth was but by seinte loy;
And she was cleped madame eglentyne.
Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely,
And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of stratford atte bowe,
For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe.”
Basically the Prioress had learned French from the Benedictine nuns here. As a result she had a distinct Anglo-Norman dialect, which was regarded by sub-standard French, compared to that spoken in Paris.
Like other religious houses, the Abbey was destroyed in the 1530s. The property was mostly acquired by Sir Ralph Sadleir, who lived at Sutton House in Homerton (which is now owned by the National Trust). But the church became the parish church of St Leonards. There is no church here today as it was destroyed by bombing in World War II and by the building of the Blackwall Tunnel approach road. All that remains is this rundown garden and the Victorian archway.
Go back out of the Churchyard and go down St Leonard’s Street which is immediately to your left.
Note the school on your right.
Stop 9: Old Palace School
Pevsner describes the school as “Light curtain walled buildings in the Festival style, fresh and cheerful”. The building dates from 1952, the year after the Festival of Britain.
It is called Old Palace School because it is on the site on a palace was built for James I in 1606. Well actually it was more a hunting lodge than a Palace. Some of the stonework was recycled from the remains of the priory just over the road.
It remained in Royal use in the reigns of Kings Charles II and James II. But by the 18th century the Palace was converted into two houses for merchants, and then it had other uses including becoming a boarding school. The house was demolished at the end of the 19th century by the London School Board so they could build a local school.
But we are stopping here not because of the school itself but because of the little plaque on the main building facing the road. This commemorates firefighters who were killed here in April 1941. This is said to be the largest single loss of fire personnel life in English history.
Now just here on the left is Franklin Street.
I only mention this because this is the street my father lived in as a child and young adult. However the street he knew was completely destroyed in the blitz, maybe it was the same raid as hit the school. So today there are houses that look like they were built in the 1950s or early 1960s.
Continue walking along St Leonard’s Street and ahead on the right is our next stop.
Stop 10: Bromley by Bow Centre
The Bromley by Bow Centre is a community organisation which encompasses an array of integrated social enterprises based around art, health, education and practical skills. And one of the entrances is though this old archway.
This gateway is 18th century (possibly late 1740s) and was originally at a riverside entrance to Northumberland House in the Strand near modern day Charing Cross Station.
So how did it get to Bow? The answer is that when Northumberland House was being demolished in 1874, the arch was bought by a man called Rutty who owned a house here in Bow called Tudor House. He wanted it to embellish his garden. That garden was bought by Poplar Borough Council in 1900 to form a public open space.
The park was first called Bromley Recreation Ground and was also known as Grace Street Park. It was later Bob’s Park renamed by local people after the park keeper, Robert Grenfell.
The archway was moved to its present location with money from Tescos who had built a large supermarket nearby.
The entrance to the park from St Leonard’s Street is just past the archway.
Go into the park and as you enter you will see an obelisk on your right.
This is actually a First World War memorial but it has been positioned so that the writing faces away from the pathway – almost as if the authorities wanted to hide what its original purpose was.
As you go into the park you will see a building looming over it on the far side. I think it must have been around here that my father and his twin brother got into trouble for playing cricket on the wall and disturbing the Indian gentleman who was staying in the building. More of which anon.
Now head through the park and out the other side turning right (This is Powis Road). Our next stop is the large building on the right.
Stop 10: Kingsley Hall
This is Kingsley Hall, named after Kingsley Lester who died aged 26 in 1914, leaving money for work in this area for “educational, social and recreational” purposes. His sisters Doris and Muriel bought and converted a disused chapel. It outgrew its original building and a new Hall was designed by well known architect Charles Voysey.
There was a stone-laying ceremony which took place on 14 July 1927. The Kingsley Hall website lists 18 stones representing different aspects of life and they seem to have had an appropriate person laying each stone. So Voysey laid the brick of “Architecture”, sculptor Gilbert Bayes laid “Art”, writer, John Galsworthy “Literature” and actor Sybil Thorndike “Drama”, but oddly local Labour politician George Lansbury laid the brick “Sunday Evening Service”.
Well as you can see there is a blue plaque on the front of the Hall which indicates a certain indian man called Mahatma Ghandi (1869 – 1948) stayed here in 1931.
He had been invited to England but refused to stay in a hotel so was put up here in the East End for some 12 weeks from September to December 1931. So it was him who my father and uncle (aged 8) must have been disturbing.
More about this building is on the Hall’s website: http://www.kingsley-hall.co.uk/kingsleyhall.htm It has quite a history.
Now head along Bruce Road and turn left into Devons Road. Follow this, as it does a right hand turn and carry along the road which is still Devons Road. Go past the DLR station for our final stop which is on the left.
Stop 12: The Widow’s Son pub
Pubs in this area are becoming a rare sight, what with the change in demographics, drinking habits and property values. But this unpromising looking pub just by Devons Road DLR station has a rather unqiue story.
The story goes that there was an old widow whose only son left to go to sea. He wrote to her saying that he would be returning home at Easter and to have a nice hot cross bun waiting for him. He never returned, but his mother continued to put by a fresh hot cross bun every Good Friday for the rest of her life. After her death a hoard of hot cross buns was discovered.
A pub was built on the site of her cottage in 1848 and so began a tradition of a sailor placing a new bun in net over the bar each Good Friday.
You can’t help thinking “Widow’s Son” ought to be “Hot Cross Bun” in cockney rhyming slang – but it is not, so far as I can tell.
This pub was sold by Punch Taverns in 2012 to a developer who has been seeking planning permission to convert the building to flats, so far unsuccessfully. The pub is still trading but one wonders how much longer this quirky little slice of London will survive.
So that brings us to the end of our E3 walk though Bow and Bromley. Whilst this area suffered badly during the Blitz, it still retain some older buildings with reminders of a world before industrialisation and also of a quite radical past.
You are close by Devons Road DLR station for onward travel.