Perhaps less historically glamorous than Spitalfields or Whitechapel at present, Bow is a fascinating area at the far end of the Mile End Road. Both Bow and neighbouring Bromley grew up as settlements close to ancient fords on the River Lea. Bow was probably named after a “bow” shaped bridge built in 1110 by Matilda, wife of Henry 11. She needed to cross the River Lea to survey her own estate lands and to visit Barking Abbey. The Bow crossing superseded the Roman crossing at Old Ford and led to Stratford – literally “the paved way to the ford”. In 1966-7, the Greater London Council (G.L.C.) built the current bridge and flyover leading from the Blackwall Tunnel. It is hard to believe that both Bow and Bromley – the latter was always the lesser settlement – were once rural hamlets of great charm and desirability on the far outskirts of the City.
The land seems to have been quite marshy. In 1311, the people of Bow petitioned for their own chapel of ease rather than take the awkward and muddy journey to St Dunstan in Stepney. In 1719 St Mary’s became a parish church in its own right. Isolated now on a traffic island opposite the Nunnery gallery, it once formed part of a street of historic buildings, all of which have disappeared. We were able to visit the Church and view the parish room designed by C.R. Ashbee, who ran the Guild of Handicrafts from a 17th Century house lower down Mile End Road towards the City. Appalled by the destruction of historic Bow in the late 19thC, Ashbee started the Survey of London in Bow in 1896 with the intention of recording the fine buildings being demolished at that time to make way for the new factories and worker housing.
The Nunnery Gallery run by Bow Arts since 1996 is on the site of one of these historic mansion houses dating from the 17th Century. Sophie Hill, the Director, introduced us to the current exhibition there, called “Raw Materials.” She explained that this was an Heritage Lottery Fund funded project created to look at the vanished industrial heritage of the Lea Valley. It focused on wood with a special emphasis on the furniture trade. The exhibition presented an evocative mix of objects – furniture, tools, printing blocks for wall paper – archive materials, maps and photographs as well as oral testimonies and the work of a commissioned artist, Silke Dettmers who created new pieces especially for the exhibition. There were also carefully crafted pieces from the Building Crafts College in nearby Stratford – a training college sponsored by the Carpenters Company, which owned lands in Stratford nearby on the Olympic site and whose name is remembered in the nearby Carpenters Road.
The River Lea, which runs close by Bow, was edged with large timber yards – for example, Gliksten & Sons Ltd, E. Sherry, James Latham Ltd, and Bambergers. All took in timber supplied from the Surrey Docks and brought up the River Lea by canal. It was used in a variety of ways – for packing cases, building materials and matchsticks. The project looked particularly at the production of furniture in the East End. It traced the history of small scale factories in the Shoreditch area, often run by immigrant Jewish families, to the development of large scale concerns – most particularly Lebus which moved from small premises in Curtain Road to a vast factory site next to the River Lea at Tottenham. Lebus was once a supplier of furniture to all corners of the British Empire, a maker of aeroplanes in two World Wars and a major supplier and developer of Utility Furniture. An enlightened and major employer in the area, it did not survive the 1970s and very little remains on site.
Bryant and May were also a major manufacturer in the Bow area producing matches on site from 1862 to 1979. Two Quakers set up the business using Swedish technology and bringing both timber and chemicals down the River Lea. Poor working conditions and dreadful exploitation led to the Match Girls Strike of 1888. The present vast red brick complex was built as a new factory in 1910-1911 and produced 10 million matches a year. When it closed in 1979, the buildings were eventually re–developed as The Bow Quarter by O.R.M.S. Architects in 1987. Today it houses 733 one and two bed room apartments. We were able to look beyond the gates and visit the courtyard to view inside the complex.
The walk continued past the nearby tram shed built by the London County Council in 1907-8 and now used as a bus station. On the corner of Fairfield Road – so named after the annual Whitsun Fair re-located to Bow from the west End in 1764 but closed in 1862 – stands Poplar Town Hall. One of the important public buildings located on Bow High Street, it is now used as office space and a café. Designed by Clifford Culpin in 1938, it is a reminder of Bow’s proud past and association with the Docks. Mosaics above the entrance show wine, sugar and other Empire produce.
Across the road, stands Bromley Public Hall which was the former vestry hall for nearby Bromley and is now the Tower Hamlets Registry Office. The nearby Police Station at 111 Bow Rd was built in 1903 and added to in 1937-8. The Thames Magistrates Court stands opposite replacing an older Court House and designed by Phillip Arrand in 1990.
The Bow area was once the site of three railways. There are hints in the names of streets and in the name of The Little Driver pub – although not everyone agrees on the latter. The nearby Tredegar Terrace, rebuilt as a training school for nurses in 1911, was once the home of Joseph Westwood. A builder of iron ships and bridges across the Empire, Westwood is buried in a grand tomb in Tower Hamlets Cemetery just down the Mile End Rd. He is a reminder of the importance of Bow in the past, when it was once not just a place to pass through en route to leaving central London.
To visit the Raw Materials website go to rawmaterials.bowarts.org.
Our many thanks to Jill for organizing and hosting a really excellent day.