Historic Locations in Bromley-By-Bow

"History has always been a hybrid form of knowledge, syncretizing past and present, memory and myth, the written record and the spoken word. Its subject matter is promiscuous...... As a form of communication history finds expression not only in chronicle and commentary but also ballad and song, legends and proverbs, riddles and puzzles."

Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory

1. Bromley-by-Bow

Bromley-by-Bow is an ancient parish in the borough of Tower Hamlets. Its name derives from the meadows that were full of brambles, Brembel lega, then Brembelega - Bramble meadow land. Once a rural village with a pond and village green it now bears a scattering of tower blocks. These appear as the poor relatives of the swanky Canary Wharf that sports a flashing pyramid and dominates the sky line to the South. However, inspite of appearances, Bromley-by-Bow hides many surprising secrets.

2. Some Local Folk Tales

Queen Matilda, the wife of Henry 1st in around 1110, was said to have been involved in an unpleasant incident when she was nearly drowned while crossing the old ford on the River Lea. She immediately ordered a bridge be built to save her from any such future re-occurrences as she was a frequent visitor to Barking Abbey. Local people no doubt prospered considerably as a result of this initiative and the bowed bridge gave its name to the locality, Brambles by Bow [Bridge].

One of the most famous stories connected to the area of Bromley-By-Bow is to do with Bow Bells. What makes it all the more interesting is the controversy that surrounds the location of the true Bow Bells, which legend says Dick Whittington heard from Highgate Hill, sometime in the 1370s. Rosemary Taylor, the historian, makes a strong case for the local church of St Mary on Bow Road. The black cat of Whittington was the nickname for coal barges that came from the north and docked near the City of London. Whittington realised he could save a couple of days transport by bringing his black cats up the river Lea, and off load them near St Marys, and transport them the final miles by horse and cart. Thus he started to earn the fortune that eventually would make him Lord Mayor of London.

Chaucer's Prioress hailed from St Leonards Priory, Bromley by Bow, as told in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

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.

Bromley-By-Bow was one of the ancient Tower Hamlets required by law in the 16th century to provide yeomen for the Tower of London. In the early 17th century it became home to King James I who built a palace and Scottish settlement. When he grew tired of the English at Westminster, he would retire to this small peaceful village. James I is widely believed to have been a freemason and this gives some further mystique to the area, as do the tunnels that are said to date to this time connecting the Palace, the Settlement and the Priory.

The river Lea next to Bromley-by-Bow has fair claim to have been at the forefront of the industrial revolution. Because it was too small of a site to go on to develop heavy industry, it has been forgotten as a claimant for our industrial origins. In fact there were more tidal mills collected on the Lea than on any other river anywhere in the world, plus many windmills. Here was produced the first commercially successful industrial bone china, known as Bow China. Also manufactured was gunpowder and silk. The original formulae for these products had been closely guarded by the Chinese over many centuries. Their production on the Lea may be connected to the East India Company, whose dock was a few miles further south at the mouth of the Lea.

3. The Historic Locations

Local historian Rosemary Taylor has designed a "Bromley St Leonards Walk" on which she kindly took members of Kingsley Hall. Her words were recorded and a transcript is now available. Rosemary has also prepared a written document of her research.

Three Mills, Four Mills and the River Lea

Photograph of Three Mills

The River Lea traditionally marks the boundary between Middlesex and Essex . As it winds through marshland to the Thames its course has been variously altered to meet the needs of defence, transport and industry. For King Alfred its varied flooding branches provided protection from the invading Danes, a method reconsidered by the Duke of York, who had a huge sluice gate designed for Four Mills that would create an artificial moat against the invasion of Napoleon. In the same campaign William Congreve was building rockets to be launched across the channel at the French foe. Already by Domesday the tidal flow was being used for the milling of corn that was baked into bread in Stratford for the ever growing population of London. The millstones would later grind gunpowder for the Elizabethans and distillers grain for the Hanoverians.

Bow Bridge

Link to closer up photograph of Bow Bridge -8KB.

Bow Bridge was built around 1110 after Queen Matilda, the wife of Henry I, was on her way to Barking Abbey. Her entourage got caught in the ford waters of the Lea and the Queen was nearly drowned near Stratford ("street of the ford"). The bridge that was built had an arched construction and its appearance gave the name to the area on the City side, Bow. This incident is recorded in the nursery rhyme "Skip to the Lee my Lady".

Bow Bridge is now completely disguised by the roundabout and flyover above it. It is the fourth bridge built there, a very ordinary flat concrete bridge that can be seen from the River Lee Navigation.

The Priory, the Manor House and the Parish Church of St Mary with St Leonard

Photograph of the entrance to the graveyard of the original Chapel that is all that now remains

The Benedictine nunnery was for a prioress and nine nuns and dedicated to St.Leonard and had been founded by William, Bishop of London, in the time of William the Conqueror. After King Henry VIII's dissolution of the nunnery the church, manor and rectories of Bromley were granted to Sir Ralph Sadler, a Privy-Counsellor. It was returned to the crown after 6 years. Elizabeth in her 15th year of reign granted it to Ric Pickman and in her 28th year to Ambrose Willoughby. James I in his 7th year of reign granted it to Francis Morrice and Francis Philips. The Lord of the Manor in 1635, Sir John Jacob, demolished the converted Priory buildings and built a new manor house. This became known as Bromley School or Bromley Manor House Academy at the beginning of the 19th century just before it too was demolished.

Photograph of the graveyard of the original Chapel, this is the only original location of the old village of Bromley-by-Bow now left.

The priory included the chancel of the Church of St Leonards Convent, in Chaucer the "Scole of Stratford atte bowe". Huguenot refugees in the C17-C18, merchant princes of their time, built their tombs in the churchyard and these are still there. Much of the site passed out of ecclesiastical control by 1819 and was used for Workers' housing. The Chancel was altered and rebuilt in 1843 as the Parish Church of St Mary with St Leonard. It was one of the few Saxon buildings left in London and also retained Saxon artifacts and additional Norman features. The Church is still remembered by people in the area but it got directly hit in the war and entirely destroyed. In 1969 the Northern Approach Road was built over the Church and most of the old grounds. All that is now left is part of the boundary wall, a Memorial Gate to the Rev G A How erected in 1894, and a small part of the graveyard that served unsuccessfully as a children's playground in the 1990s.

St Mary's Church

Photograph of the front of St Mary's Church with the long path in front leading through the narrow graveyard.

In the 13th century inhabitants of Stratford, Bow and Old Ford had to travel all the way to St Dunstans in Stepney to attend Church. In bad weather this could make quite a journey. To bring relieve a license to build a Chapel of Ease was obtained from Edward II and the Bishop of London in 1311 to build a new church "in the King's highway". It was erected in the reign of Edward III. Money still had to be provided for the repair of the mother church and following a dispute in 1497 the people of Bow promised to acknowledge themselves still parishioners of Stepney and their chapel subject to the jurisdiction of the Stepney Church. They also agreed to attend Stepney twice a year for the Feast of St Dunstan and the 3rd holy day in Whitsun. The Southwest aisle and the main tower structure are 15th century and the vestry is 16th century. The Font dates from Henry V's time and the organ from 1551.

The civil war finally intruded on peoples lives in Bow in 1648 when Colonel Whalley and the "Ironsides" tried to take a Royalist Party camped on Stratford Green. The Cavaliers attacked and drove Whalley back to Mile End but were opposed by the people of Bow who were forced to retreat into Bow Church. Surrounded by soldiers the people were induced out and forced to take an oath they would never fight the king's men again.

In 1719 St Mary's became a parish in its own right. A fire in April 1747 damaged the tower and destroyed the clock. After a Bill of parliament, 1825 surrounding buildings were demolished and the burial ground enlarged, the last burial being in 1854. During a storm in January 1829 the tower fell down from disrepair and was not rebuilt until 1898. The tower fell a third time during a heavy bomb blasting in May 1941. The bells did not ring out again until 1952 the rebuild couldn't use the original stone so was made of redbrick surmounted by a small white cupola and four-faced clock.

Photograph of St Mary's Church taken from the location in Bow Rd where Sylvia Pankhurst had her suffragette shop.

The church now has a Loos cross brought back from the battlefield of the Great war with a War Memorial with the names of those from Bromley who were killed.

The Old Palace and The Seven Stars

The Old Palace is connected with King James I who is supposed to have founded a settlement in the parish and built himself a hunting lodge in 1606. The Seven Stars was of the same period and could have been for servants, retainers, domestic offices and outhouses or according to a deed it was a Freemason's lodge. King James was certainly a Freemason of the Scottish rite being initiated into the Lodge of Scoon and Perth in 1601 two years before becoming the first Stuart king of England. The Royal manors were settled by a Scotch Colony who brought with them foreign craftsmenship of plaster ceilings. These were probably the Armada heroes who were also said to have come and settled.

Drawing of the converted Palace by Ernest Godman.

In 1750 the Palace was divided into two residences, and for about a century was used as a day and boarding school and sometimes as residences. In the 1840s the occupier was Samuel Felix Edward Needham who maintained a school. He was followed by Mr Woodin the painter. In 1874 Messrs Hemingway purchased the Palace property from G.G. Rutty. The London School Board purchased the building and demolished it in 1893-4. The Seven Stars was demolished in 1895. In the process there was an outcry from around London and under the guidance of C.R. Ashbee, architect and founder of the Guild of Handicraft, the ground floor state room was salvaged and re-erected in the Victoria and Albert museum where it can still be visited. The motto over the main fireplace says "Better Is a Dinner of Herbs Where Love Is." Ashbee went on to found the Survey of London, the first volume of which is on Bromley-By-Bow.

"It is useless to cry over spilt milk, but if the destruction of what, in a sense, was the finest building in East London did nothing else, it at least awakened the public conscience and was the immediate cause of the founding of the committee for the survey of the Memorials of Greater London.... We now have on the site of King James' Palace a well built Board School, and by well built I mean of course built in accordance with all the ordinary regulations, sanitary, solid, grey, grim, and commonplace. What we might have had with a little thought, and with no extra expense to the rates, would have been an ideal Board School with a record of every period of English history from the time of Henry VIII as a daily object lesson for the líttle citizens of Bromley, a school-house that contained panelling of James I, carving of William III, the modelled plasterwork of the Scotch craftsmen of the early Jacobean time, rooms all the more gracious for the sumptuous additions of the later Stuarts, records of the time of Queen Anne, fireplaces, overmantels, and panelling of the Georges, Adam's work, and the black and white marble flooring laid down by the time of the expansion of London in the beginning of this century, ...a school-house to be proud of. When we see records of this kind at Eton, at Harrow, at Haileybury, we say how blessed are our English public schools to have such a historic background for our sons to grow up amongst. It perhaps does not occur to us that to the little Board school child, who surely needs it much more than the sons of our aristocracy or our bourgeoisie, such historic associations are infinitely more necessary, more valuable, more refining. 1I know of few records at any of our great public schools, that would come up to what the London School Board here destroyed..."


Bromley High Street

Photograph of Stroudley walk and the corner of Bromley High St - the location of the original village green.

At the present junction with Stroudley Walk was the old village green that was surrounded by inns and shops and still had stocks and a whipping post until the middle of the nineteenth century. In February 1913 Sylvia Pankhurst started her Bow campaign at the village green with a speech and by smashing the window of Selby and Sons the funeral directors with a brick. There was also a drinking fountain, a gas lamp and a horse trough and an "Obelisk" which perhaps referred to the fountain. Looking from the green could be seen a fine row of shops with the Priory visible in the distance. The County Council's clearance programme of the 1930s and the World War II Blitz has destroyed nearly all the history from previous centuries. The old green is a covered walkway called Stroudley Walk. A pub here, the Rose and Crown, does date to 172? and at the far end there is a Memorial Gate in memory of Reverand G A How, erected in 1894 and leading to the remains of the Priory churchyard.

Bromley Hall

Stuck on the other side of the dual carriageway Bromley Hall is much neglected despite being the oldest building left of the original village.

From the fifteenth century this was the manor house of lower Bromley. Willaim S. Woodin, an entertainer and author lived at the Manor House, Brunswick Rd from 1872 till his death in 1889.

Drapers Almshouses, Rainhill Way

Photo of all that remains of the Almshouses, the Chapel in the centre is now an entrance to housing association flats.

The first Almshouses were left to the Drapers Company in the will of Sir John Jollies in 1621 and would have been surrounded by fields.. In 1706 Mr John Edmanson, sail-maker, used Sir Christopher Wren's office to have built a chapel and four additional bays of accommodation which is what remains today. In 1858 a lodge was built on the fourth side forming an entire quadrangle with the 44 almshouses and the chapel. In 1867 an Act of Parliament enabled the site to be bought by the North London Railway Company. The tenants were moved to Tottenham and most of the site was razed eventually leaving the original centrepiece flanked by 4 almshouses.

The railway did not use the site for long and tenants moved back in until the 1950s after which the site became derelict. The GLC took control and with Oxford House Housing Association rebuilt the almshouses in 1982. The roof was saved and most of the front elevation, but the back wall and a side wall had to be rebuilt from the foundations. The Almshouses offer an example of early "public" housing.

Bow Porcelain Factory

Located just the other side of the Bow flyover on the Bow Back River in Essex. The site was only two hundred yards from Bow Bridge and much nearer Bow and Bromley than to Stratford. Patents were taken out for manufacture of "ware" superior to china or porcelain in 1744 by Edward Heylyn, a merchant and glassblower and Thomas Frye a painter and engraver. The factory is mentioned in the 1748 edition of Defoe's "A Tour of Great Britain" although the original site is uncertain and could have been in Bow proper. The third member of the team was Alderman George Arnold, a haberdasher. Arnold died in 1751, Heylyn became bankrupt in 1757 and Frye retired in 1759 although the factory continued until 1776. The factory was called New Canton and architecturally modelled on the Cantonese warehouses of the East India company. At one point there were 300 people working in the factory and it certainly was at the forefront of the retrospectively named industrial revolution. This was the first purpose built porcelain factory in England and it brought a complete change in eating habits of the poor who had previously used wooden dishes and maybe earthenware. As well as "the more ordinary sort of ware" there were also finer works and figurines.

St Catherine's Convent, 181 Bow Rd, and Grove Park

Founded in 1866 with the Church of Our Lady with St Catherine's built as a chapel that would become the main Catholic church in the area. The nuns left during the War and the nunnery is now used by artists and includes a downstairs exhibition space. The park has a war memorial and is on part of the site of Grove Park Hall that was owned by the Byas family and run as a lunatic asylum in the nineteenth century.

Gladstone's Statue, Bow Rd

Photo of Gladstone's statue - you can just make out the red paint on the pedestal.

Erected by Theordore Bryant in 1882, this monument to Gladstone is one of the few statues erected while the person was still alive. The statue was splashed with red paint in 1988 as a tribute to the Match girls. It was recently cleaned but has again had red paint thrown its way. This red paint apparently due to a story told by Annie Besant that the match girls "paid for this with our blood." However local historian Rosemary Taylor has ascertained that the original bloodletting took place before the statue was ever erected. Opposite the present Bow Rd DLR there was a very large drinking fountain that had been erected in 1872 commemorating the abolition of the proposed match tax. Bryant and May had threatened to pass the tax on to their workers so the government stood down. When the tax was defeated Bryant and May got all of their workers to pay a shilling towards the fountain and the women cut their wrists in protest.

Suffragette shop, 198 Bow Rd

Sylvia Pankhurst and her American colleague, Zelie Emerson, took over a baker's shop on 198 Bow Rd, opposite Bow Church, and in October 1912 set up the first East London branch of the Women's Social and Political Union. The sign on the front read in gold leaf: "Votes for Women". George Lansbury's son Willie Lansbury arranged for wood from the Lansbury wood factory to be used to build a wooden platform outside the shop and from which Sylvia would address the passing crowds. "I regarded the rousing of the East End as of utmost importance.... The creation of a woman's movement in that great abyss of poverty would be a call and a rallying cry to the rise of similar movements in all parts of the country." (Sylvia Pankhurst quoted from "In Letters of Gold")

The shop is long gone but the site on which it was built is now developed as a garden by Wilfred Housing Cooperative.

Childrens House

Photo of Children's House.

This is the first Childrens House in the United Kingdom and was built for Muriel and Doris Lester, designed by Charles Cowles Voysey and opened in 1923 by H.G.Wells. Originally there were rooms for the volunteers to live in. The still existing flat roof balcony was specifically designed for the children to play safely and get sunshine on them. The Lester sisters also had UV lights installed to counter the rickets prevalent in their time. Now the surrounding houses have all been knocked down and there is plenty of sunshine at ground level too. The building is presently run by the Council and is still well used. Inside the charming open plan ground floor children's room there is a long mural by Eve Garnett showing the children walking out of the East End and into the countryside.

Kingsley Hall, Powis Rd, E3

Photo of Kingsley Hall.

One of the main centres of focus for any local history trail, Kingsley Hall is a grade two listed building also designed by Charles Cowles Voysey, in 1928. Voysey senior had been famous in the Arts and Crafts movement and Kingsley Hall picks up many modernist themes. It was built under the instruction of the two Lester sisters Muriel and Doris and named after their brother Kingsley who had died a young man in 1915. Kingsley was very supportive of his sisters' community work and he left them his inheritance, to further their aims, and which went towards creating the first Kingsley Hall, a converted wooden chapel that was destroyed during the Second World War. The money for this second Kingsley Hall came from Muriel's father, Henry, a shipping magnate. The building's two most famous inhabitants have been Mahatma Gandhi and RD Laing.

Poplar Town Hall - Bow House

Photograph of Bow House.

This was one of the first modernist town halls, opened by George Lansbury, December 3rd, 1938. Inside the building there is an illustration mural of five symbolic builders by David Evans. This is repeated as a relief on the outside. Also to be seen from outside is a mural of the local area under the overhang of the porch. Unfortunately the large theatre inside was replaced by housing at the turn of the century.

Other sites of interest

The Bow Bells, Bow Rd; Bromley Public Hall, Bow Rd; Tudor House and Bromley recreation ground; Rose and Crown; C.Selby & Sons, Bow Rd; Costcutters, Bow Rd; Kings Arms, Bow Rd; and Tudor Lodge, St Leonards St.