Bromley-By Bow and its Pioneers

Charles Robert Ashbee (1863-1942)

An architect dedicated to the revival of artistic handicraft, heavily influenced by John Ruskin and a younger colleague of William Morris. He established the Guild of Handicraft at Toynbee Hall. In 1891 he moved to Essex House, Mile End Road where he trained a group of craftsmen specialising in furniture making, metal work, jewellery, silver smithing, printing and bookbinding. He had had previous success at saving Trinity Alms Houses after petitioning with letters so when he was doing restoration work at St Mary's and discovered that the LCC was demolishing James Palace in St Leonards St he tried to save it. Unfortunately it was too late but he did manage to save part of the interior including the wooden panelling and staircase and fireplace which is now the Bromley Room in the Victoria and Albert Museum. His disappointment and the outcry across London led to the founding of the London Survey Committee which was later taken over by the LCC and the GLC and is now under English Heritage. The first volume of the survey is on Bromley-by-Bow and highlights the features of the Palace.


Mary Barnes

Mary became famous by her book and the following West-End play about her journey into breakdown and madness while part of the therapeutic community, the Philadelphia Association, that lived in Kingsley Hall from 1965 to 1970. Her observations on mental health care and the relationship between psychotherapy and religious practice continue to be pertinent and stimulating, and also a reminder that mental health is as much a taboo subject now as it always has been.


Annie Besant (1847-1933)

Annie Besant is seen as a global heroine in India where she helped lead the independence movement at the beginning of the century. Bernard Shaw regarded her as 'the greatest orator in England, possibly Europe.' In the United Kingdom however she takes a very peripheral role in historical accounts even though she led the campaign for contraception; was brazen about her own rights as a female; moved the resolution for the abolition of school fees; and led the first successful unskilled labourers strike that turned the following year into the biggest successful strike ever seen in this country. Perhaps her also having led the Theosophical movement following after Madame Blavatsky confused the view of academia to her worth and impact. It is as strike leader that she is known in the East End and a blue plaque outside the converted match factory of Bryant and May, Fairfield Rd, commemorates the success she brought for the match girls to improve their wage and working conditions.


Priscilla Coborn (1622-1701)

Pricilla, or Prisca as she was known, was the daughter of the Curate-in-Charge of St Mary's Church, Bow. She married a wealthy brewer, Thomas Coborn, in 1675, but he died a year later and she was left looking after his daughter. On her death Prisca left money to establish a charity school for girls, Coborn School, built in 1701 at the back of the Church. The whole Coborn family are buried inside St Mary's. The school moved to Fairfield Road in 1814, then to Tredegar Square in 1880 until finally in 1892 Coborn School for Girls moved in to the premises of the old Coopers' Company School at 86 Bow Rd. In 1973 the school amalgamated and moved to Upminster.


Sir William Congreve (1772-1828)

English scientist who invented the Congreve rocket in 1804 that was used in the Napoleonic wars. It is known that Congreve had a rocket factory near Bromley-by-Bow on the Lea where the gasholders are now sited. The propellant was made nearby at the Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey.


Rev. George Driffield (1817-1901)

Rector of St. Mary's from 1844-1880. He helped found St Stephen's Church in Tredegar Road which opened in 1857. He became President of the ecclesiastical library for the Church of England clergy known as Sion College.


Thomas Frye (1710-1762)

Born in Dublin, Thomas came to London in 1734 as a distinguished painter. He painted the Prince of Wales in 1738 and then came up with a patent for the manufacture of English porcelain with Edward Heylyn. The products were called 'New Canton'.


Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948)

If Gandhi hadn't come to Bromley-by-Bow the list of people who have been connected to the area would still be remarkable, the fact that Gandhi too is on that list, reinforces the argument that Bromley-by-Bow was never just an ordinary English village but is in fact a unique and unusual place. "But Gandhi stayed in lots of places," people may say on seeing the blue plaque outside Kingsley Hall. This is not true. On returning to India from South Africa in 1915 he never left his homeland again, except once, to visit England in 1931 and on this journey he only made his home at one place, Kingsley Hall, where he stayed for twelve weeks from September 12th to December 12th.


Clara Ellen Grant (1867-1949)

Born and educated in Wiltshire, Clara came to Wapping to begin work as a teacher. She founded The Fern Street Settlement in 1907, just off Devons Road. Clara Grant Primary School, Knapp Road is named after her and she is buried in Tower Hamlets Cemetery.


Marie Hilton (1821-1896)

Marie was brought up an orphan in Richmond. On reaching maturity she became a governess in Brighton and joined the Society of Friends. She married and moved to Bromley-by-Bow, witnessing the severe cholera outbreak of 1866. A visit to an infant nursery in Brussels inspired Marie to begin the first creche in Stepney Causeway in 1871. Her work was revived by Sylvia Pankhurst at the Mothers Arms, 438 Old Ford Rd and then again at Childrens House by the Lesters.


Horace Edwin Hobbs (1896-1935)

Born in Poplar, Horace became advertising manager and later director of Spratts, Morris Road, manufacturers of dog biscuits. He became an authority on the welfare of dogs and his 'dog weeks' turned into the Tail Waggers Club with eventually 650,000 dogs enrolled from 58 countries. Horace was also the Treasurer of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.


Mary Hughes (1860-1941)

Born in Mayfair, her father Tom wrote Tom Brown's Schooldays and was a leader of the Christian Socialist movement. After an active life dedicated to serving the poorest she moved into the first Kingsley Hall staying in a small room at the top from 1915 to 1917. In 1926 she purchased a public house in Vallance Road that became the Dewdrop Inn, a place of rest and refreshment for the homeless.


Ronald David Laing (1927-1989)

Ronnie Laing's pivotal years were spent at Kingsley Hall where he lived for eighteen hectic and intense months in 1965 and 1966 becoming an icon and even intellectual guru of the liberated culture of the sixties. He was invited to the building by Muriel Lester to set up a therapeutic community called the Philadelphia Association. This experiment into unstructured living, beyond the labels and drastic techniques of the psychiatric institutions, could be seen as a brilliant adventure and healing journey into the depths of the human condition or, on the contrary, as an irresponsible and self-serving act carried out at the cost of the weakest and most vulnerable. R.D. Laing was controversial and a trail-blazer and his legacy is ripe for reappraisal after twenty years of public indifference to his life.


James Charles Lane (1884-1956)

Born and educated in St Leonard's Road, Jimmy became middleweight champion weightlifter and wrestler of Great Britain in 1902 and 1903. He was the licensee of the famous Bombay Grab, Bow Road, from 1942-1956.


George Lansbury (1859-1940)

Close friend and comrade to the Lester sisters, George was often to be seen passing along Bruce Rd between the various establishments Doris and Muriel had set up. He was elected Labour MP in 1910 for Bow and Bromley but he resigned in 1912 so as to stand again as a supporter of women's suffrage. He was not re-elected until 1922. He was on Poplar Borough Council in 1903 and was Mayor in 1922 and 1936. In 1921 he was a leader of the Poplar councillors who went to Brixton Prison because they would not increase rates. He would speak to the crowds through his prison bars and became the chief personality of "Poplarism". He founded the Daily Herald in 1922 that would become the official paper of the Labour Party and he led the Labour Party from 1931 to 1935. In 1937 he set out on a series of journeys to see Adolf Hitler and other heads of state and to argue the cause of reconciliation and peace.


Doris Lester (1886-1965)

It is telling that neither of the Lester sisters is listed in the leaflet Famous Women of the East End, and the biographical details of both are wrong in the "Tower Hamlets Connection: A Biographical Guide". There life's work is not even partially recognised but both dedicated their entire adult years to Bromley-by-Bow and they are central to any local heritage. Her work at Children's House followed in the steps of Margaret McMillan with a large open-air roof-top for the children to play and sleep in the open. Doris lived at Children's House and Kingsley Hall and always had time and a friendly face for any visitors even during the hours of most desperate crisis in the blitz torn East End when Kingsley Hall was a haven of humanity for so many.


Muriel Lester (1883-1968)

Muriel was a leading light of her time, travelling the world eight times, on missions of peace and reconciliation, and gaining a close acquaintance with many statesman, entertainers, peace activists and community leaders of her era. Her many written words reveal her humility, lack of dogma and good humour in her dedication to being a devout Christian dedicated to bringing the story of Jesus to all those who would listen. Her life was her message and in this she was the perfect example of a true colleague and fellow traveller of Gandhi. Like Gandhi she worked until exhausted then having collapsed into respite picked herself up again to continue her mission of peace and reconciliation. "The value of Muriel Lester's conversation lies in the fact that she endeavours every moment of her life to practice what she professes and preaches..." - Gandhi. "Americans hailed her as 'a twentieth century peace apostle'; in Indian eyes she was a 'dazzling jewel'; East End mothers dubbed her simply 'a saint'; and to the Japanese she was no less than the 'Mother of World Peace.'" - Quote from The Life of Muriel Lester by Jill Wallis.


Margaret McMillan (1860-1931)

Born in New York she moved to the Scottish Highlands as a child and to Bradford as an adult where she became known as the "Labour Prophetess of the North". Margaret had a particular interest in physical education and in 1899 she arranged the first recorded elementary school medical inspection. In 1908 she opened a children's clinic at Devon's Road School with her sister Rachel. The clinic was not cost-effective serving only one school so she took it to Deptford where a pioneering open-air nursery school gained world-wide interest.


Sylvia Pankhurst (1882-1960)

Sylvia was trained at the Royal College of Art and on gaining her scholarship in 1906 she chose to join the struggle for women's rights and used her artistic skills for the campaign banners and posters. In 1912 she came to Bromley-by-Bow to work with George Lansbury who had taken up the cause of women's suffrage. A baker's shop at 198 Bow Rd was purchased to set up the East London branch of the Women's Social and Political Union. Joining in with the common lot Sylvia led the campaign for universal suffrage that would divide her from her classy mother and sister. She also campaigned for the welfare of children and working mothers.


Elizabeth Pepperell (1914-1971)

Elizabeth Pepperell was brought up at 22 Whitethorn Street and attended Devons Road Infants School. Her first work was at Bryant and May's and she attended economics classes at Toynbee Hall and the LSE. In 1949 Elizabeth was elected the youngest ever Fellow of the Institute of Personnel Management and then she joined the Industrial Welfare Society as Assistant Director for which she received the OBE in 1966. Her work in changing the climate of industrial relations and improving the status and prospects of women is unsurpassed.


David Ricardo (1772-1823)

Perhaps second only to Adam Smith in the world of economics Ricardo grew up in Bromley St Leonard the son of a Dutch Jewish stockbroker. His book of 1817 "The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation" laid the foundations for political economics. Ricardo was also a founder of the Geological Society. He became an MP for Portarlington, Ireland in 1819 standing as a Radical.


Benjamin Tillett (1860-1943)

Benjamin Tillett was one of the greatest orators of the Labour movement gaining his education only on becoming an adult and attending the Bow and Bromley Evening Institute on Bow Road. He moved to Bethnal Green and became co-leader of the dock workers. His knowledge of Bromley-by-Bow would have given him personal acquaintance with the match girls and he was the leading organiser of the Dockers strike of 1889 that followed the match girls success of the previous year.


Henry Major Tomlinson (1873-1958)

Henry Tomlinson went to Byron Street School (now Langdon Park) until 1886 when his father died and the family moved to Spey Street. He joined the Morning Leader editorial team in 1904 and then travelled up the Amazon and wrote a book of his journey. A war correspondent for the Daily News Tomlinson became literary editor of The Nation and The Atheneum.


Charles Cowles Voysey (1889-1981)

Charles was the son of the English architect by the same name, Charles Voysey who was the designer of traditional country houses influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement with accentuated gables, chimney stacks, buttresses, long sloping roofs and low ceilings. The father was one of the first to use concrete as concrete rather than disguised as a traditional building material. The style of the father passed to the son who was asked to design Children's House and Kingsley Hall. This came after many hours soulful discussions with Muriel Lester about how to bring the very best to the poor of the East End. Indeed Kingsley Hall was built to bring Heaven to Earth and originally had six small monastic type cells on the top floor where volunteers would stay and dedicate their days to community work. Both buildings use lots of concrete, which is openly on display. While the public areas have high ceilings the living quarters above have quite low ceilings.


Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952)

Trained as a chemist in Russia, Weizmann came to a teaching and research post in Manchester University. In 1916 he was approached by Sir Frederick Nathan, head of the Admiralty powder department to see if help could be given in acetone production, an ingredient of a smokeless explosive. Weizmann set the prototype acetone plant up at the Clock Mill, Bromley-by-Bow. Here he received the interest of the likes of Winston Churchill and was able to communicate his zionist interests to Arthur James Balfour the Foreign Secretary. His eloquent discourse played a large part in determining the Balfour Declaration of 1917, by which the Jews were promised a homeland in Palestine. He was president of the Zionist Organisation during all but five years between 1920 and 1946 and on Israel's birth became the new nation's first president.


William Samuel Woodin (1825-1888)

William Woodin lived at Lower Manor House, Brunswick Road from 1872 to 1888. He performed a one-man show of over 50 characters. His favourite sketches were included "A Cabinet of Curiosities" and Elephant Extraordinary".



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