Locale Bow

  • E3

Bow used to be a small leafy village three miles east of the City of London, one of the original Tower Hamlets. However, if you've driven through East London recently then you probably know Bow better as that concrete wasteland with a church in the middle of the road.

The old Roman Road from London to Colchester crossed the River Lea here, originally at a fast-flowing ford. Then, one day in the 12th century, Queen Matilda went riding from London to Barking Forest for a spot of hunting. The river was in flood and the Queen got a soaking, so she ordered that a new bridge be built instead. The first bridge was shaped like a bow, and this is believed to be how the village that grew up beside it got its name.

Close to the bridge was St Leonard's Priory, a Benedictine nunnery founded in the time of William the Conqueror, and mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in the prologue to his Canterbury Tales:

 "Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse,
 That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy.
 And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly
 After the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe" full text

Bow Church was founded in 1311 and formed the centre of the medieval village. Bow was also home to a number of breweries and riverside flour mills and soon the village became the bakery of London. Fresh loaves were taken by cart into the City each morning, and with this prosperity came further growth. Samuel Pepys was a regular visitor to the green fields and great houses of 17th-century Bow, often riding out from inner London to take the clear air:

 "It being a mighty fine afternoon; and there we went the first time out of town with our coach and horses, and went as far as Bow, the spring beginning a little now to appear, though the way be dirty; and so, with great pleasure, with the fore-part of our coach up, we spent the afternoon." (diary, March 5th 1669) full text

Bow grew rapidly during Victorian times, from a population of two thousand in 1801 to more than forty thousand in 1901, as the village was swallowed whole by the ever-expanding city of London. Many fine terraces and squares were built to the north of the main road, but there was also terrible poverty. The railways came, the riverside became heavily industrialised and the whole area tipped slowly into slum conditions along with the rest of the East End. Charles Dickens saw fit to set part of Nicholas Nickleby here:

 `And I think, my dear brother,' said Nicholas's first friend, `that we were to let them that little cottage at Bow which is empty, at something under the usual rent' full text

The Second World War took a heavy toll on Bow's buildings and their occupants, quickening the rebirth of the area as the remaining slums were cleared in a ground-breaking redevelopment scheme. Much of the old village centre round the church was buried forever beneath ugly ill-thought-out concrete, but elsewhere many of the better Victorian terraces have survived. The gentrification of Bow is well underway, and any estate agent will tell you that the area is definitely on the up again. But alas, it's very hard to stand here now and picture rolling fields, lush pastures and Samuel Pepys riding by.

Last edited 2004-07-19 17:33:01 (version 4; diff). List all versions.