Bow, London

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Roman Road Market western-entrance
Bow is located in Greater London
Location within Greater London
Population27,720 (2011 census Bow East and Bow West wards)[1]
OS grid referenceTQ365825
• Charing Cross4.6 mi (7.4 km) W
London borough
Ceremonial countyGreater London
Sovereign stateUnited Kingdom
Post townLONDON
Postcode districtE3
Dialling code020
EU ParliamentLondon
UK Parliament
London Assembly
List of places
51°31′47″N 0°01′44″W / 51.5298°N 0.0288°W / 51.5298; -0.0288Coordinates: 51°31′47″N 0°01′44″W / 51.5298°N 0.0288°W / 51.5298; -0.0288
Bow as shown on John Rocque's map of London, 1747

Bow (/ˈb/) is a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in East London, England. Bow spans north to south from Hackney to Bow Common and west-east from Mile End and Globe Town to Stratford with it town centre being Roman Road Market.[2] The area is locally nicknamed Roman or The Roman in reference to a road of the same name.[3] It is primarily a built-up and mostly residential area and is 4.6 miles (7.4 km) east of Charing Cross.

It is part of the traditional county of Middlesex, but for administrative purposes was part of the County of London following the passing of the Local Government Act 1888, it later became part of Greater London in 1965. The area was formerly part of Stratford but was never in Essex but was in Middlesex instead, "Bow" is an abbreviation of the medieval name Stratford-at-Bow, in which "Bow" refers to the bowed bridge built here in the early 12th century but largely ceased to be a part of Stratford by the early 20th century. Bow is adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Old Ford, Bow Common and Fish Island are localities, but Bromley-by-Bow (historically and officially just "Bromley") immediately to the southeast, is a separate district. These distinctions have their roots in historic parish boundaries.

Bow underwent extensive urban regeneration including the replacement or improvement of council homes, with impetus given by the staging of the 2012 Olympic Games at nearby Stratford.



Stratforde was first recorded as a settlement in 1177, the name derived from its Old English meaning of paved way to a ford.[4] The ford originally lay on a pre-Roman trackway at Old Ford about 600 metres (0.4 mi) to the north, but when the Romans decided on Colchester as the initial capital for their occupation, the road was upgraded to run from the area of London Bridge, as one of the first paved Roman roads in Britain.[5] The 'paved way' is likely to refer to the presence of a stone causeway across the marshes, which formed a part of the crossing.

In 1110 Matilda, wife of Henry I, reputedly took a tumble at the ford on her way to Barking Abbey, and ordered a distinctively bow-shaped, three-arched bridge to be built over the River Lea, The like of which had not been seen before; the area became known variously as Stradford of the Bow, Stratford of the Bow, Stratford the Bow, Stratforde the Bowe, and Stratford-atte-Bow (at the Bow)[6] which over time was shortened to Bow to distinguish it from Stratford Langthorne on the Essex bank of the Lea.[7] Land and Abbey Mill were given to Barking Abbey for maintenance of the bridge, who also maintained a chapel on the bridge dedicated to St Katherine, occupied until the 15th century by a hermit. This endowment was later administered by Stratford Langthorne Abbey.[8] By 1549, this route had become known as The Kings Way.

Bow Bridge depicted in 1851

Responsibility for maintenance of the bridge was always in dispute, no more so than with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when local landowners who had taken over the Abbey lands were found responsible. The bridge was widened in 1741 and tolls were levied to defray the expense, but litigation over maintenance lasted until 1834, when the bridge needed to be rebuilt and landowners agreed to pay half of the cost, with Essex and Middlesex sharing the other. The bridge was again replaced in 1834, by the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Trust, and in 1866 West Ham took responsibility for its upkeep and that of the causeway and smaller bridges that continued the route across the Lea. In 1967 this bridge was replaced by a new modern bridge by the Greater London Council who also installed a two-lane flyover above it (designed by Andrei Tchernavin, son of Gulag escapee Vladimir V. Tchernavin[9]) spanning the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, the traffic interchange, the River Lea and some of the Bow Back Rivers.[8] This has since been expanded to a four-lane road.

Religious life[edit]

The Parish Church of St Mary and Holy Trinity, Stratford, Bow; known as Bow Church

There was a nearby Benedictine nunnery from the Norman era onwards, known as St Leonard's Priory and immortalized in Chaucer's description of the Nun Prioress in the General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales. However, Bow itself was still an isolated village by the early 14th century, often cut off from its parish church of St Dunstan's, Stepney by flood. In 1311 permission was granted to build St Mary's Church, Bow as a chapel of ease to allow the residents a local place of worship. The land was granted by Edward III, on the King's highway, thus beginning a tradition of island church building. Bow was made an Anglican parish of its own in 1719, with St Mary's as its parish church. The new parish included the Old Ford area, which has also been known as North Bow. The Anglican parish churches of St Barnabas Bethnal Green and St Paul's, Old Ford are in the Bow West and Bow East wards respectively.

The late 19th century and early 20th century also saw three Roman Catholic churches built for the area - Church of Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena (1870), Church of the Holy Name and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (1894) and The Guardian Angels Church (1903).

Goose Fair[edit]

Fairfield Road commemorates the Green Goose fair, held there on the Thursday after Pentecost.[10] A Green Goose was a young or mid-summer goose, and a slang term for a cuckold or a 'low' woman.[11] In 1630, John Taylor, a poet wrote At Bow, the Thursday after Pentecost, There is a fair of green geese ready rost, Where, as a goose is ever dog cheap there, The sauce is over somewhat sharp and deare., taking advantage of the double entendre and continuing with other verses describing the drunken rowdy behaviour of the crowds.[12] By the mid-19th century, the authorities had had enough and the fair was suppressed.[10]

Figure following a Meissen model, about 1754, Bow Porcelain Factory (V&A Museum no. C.144-1931)

Bow porcelain[edit]

During the 17th century Bow and the Essex bank became a centre for the slaughter and butchery of cattle for the City market. Additionally the piggery which used the mash residue produced by the gin mills at Three Mills meant a ready supply of animal bones, and local entrepreneurs Thomas Frye and Edward Heylyn developed a means to mix this with clay and create a form of fine porcelain, said to rival the best from abroad, known as Bow Porcelain. In November 1753, in Aris's Birmingham Gazette, the following advertisement appeared:

This is to give notice to all painters in the blue and white potting way and enamellers on china ware, that by applying at the counting-house at the china-house near Bow, they may meet with employment and proper encouragement according to their merit; likewise painters brought up in the snuff-box way, japanning, fan-painting, &c., may have an opportunity of trial, wherein if they succeed, they shall have due encouragement. N.B. At the same house a person is wanted who can model small figures in clay neatly.

The Bow China Works prospered, employing some 300 artists and hands, until about 1770, when one of its founders died. By 1776 all of its moulds and implements were transferred to a manufacturer in Derby. In 1867, during drainage operations at the match factory of Bell & Black at Bell Road, St. Leonard's Street, the foundations of one of the kilns were discovered*[clarify], with a large quantity of 'wasters' and fragments of broken pottery. The houses close by were then called China Row, but now lie beneath modern housing. Chemical analysis of the firing remains showed them to contain high quantities of bone-ash, pre-dating the claim of Josiah Spode to have invented the bone china process.[13] More recent investigations of documentary and archaeological evidence suggests the concern was to the north of the High Street and across the river.[14]

Victorian period[edit]

In 1888, the match girls' strike occurred at the Bryant and May match factory in Fairfield Road. This was a forerunner of the suffragette movement fight for women's rights and also the trade union movement. The factory was rebuilt in 1911 and the brick entrance includes a depiction of Noah's Ark and the word 'Security' used as a trademark on the matchboxes. Match production ceased in 1979 and the building is now private apartments known as the Bow Quarter.[15]

Sylvia Pankhurst 1882-1960

Emmeline Pankhurst began the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) in 1903 with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Sylvia became increasingly disillusioned with the Suffragette movement's inability to engage with the needs of working-class women like the match girls. Sylvia formed a breakaway movement, the East London Federation of Suffragettes, and based at 198 Bow Road, by the church, in a baker's shop. This was emblazoned with "Votes for Women" in large gold letters, and opened in October 1912. The local Member of Parliament, George Lansbury, resigned his seat to stand on a platform of women's enfranchisement. Sylvia supported him and Bow Road became the campaign office, culminating in a huge rally in nearby Victoria Park, but Lansbury was narrowly defeated and support for the project in the East End was withdrawn.

Sylvia refocused her efforts from Bow, and with the outbreak of World War I began a nursery, clinic and cost price canteen for the poor at the bakery. A paper, the Women's Dreadnought, was published to bring her campaign to a wider audience. At the close of war, the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act 1918 gave limited voting rights to property-owning women over the age of 30, and equal rights were finally achieved ten years later.

Pankhurst spent 12 years in Bow fighting for women's rights. She risked constant arrest[16] and spent a lot of time in Holloway Prison, often on hunger strike. She finally achieved her aim, and along the way had alleviated some of the poverty and misery and improved social conditions for all in the East End.

Railway lines around Bow in 1914

In 1843 the engineer William Bridges Adams founded the Fairfield Locomotive Works, where he specialized in light engines, steam railcars (or railmotors) and inspection trolleys, including the Fairfield steam carriage for the Bristol and Exeter Railway and the Enfield for the Eastern Counties Railway. The business failed and the works closed circa 1872, later becoming the factory of Bryant and May.

Bow was the headquarters of the North London Railway, which opened its locomotive and carriage workshops in 1853. There were two stations, Old Ford and Bow. During World War 2 the North London Railway branch from Dalston to Poplar through Bow was so badly damaged that it was abandoned.

Bow station opened in 1850 and was rebuilt in 1870 in a grand style, designed by Edwin Henry Horne and featuring a concert hall that was 100 ft long (30 m) and 40 ft wide (12 m). This became The Bow and Bromley Institute, then in 1887 the East London Technical College and a Salvation Army hall in 1911. From the 1930s it was used as the Embassy Billiard Hall and after the war became the Bow Palais, but was demolished in 1956 after a fire.[17]

Grove Hall Private Lunatic Asylum was established on the plot in 1820. This establishment primarily catered for ex-servicemen and was featured in Charles Dickens' novel Nicholas Nickleby (1839). It was replaced after it was shut and turned into Grove Hall Park was opened in 1909 following its purchase by the local authority in an auction in 1906.[18] In 1878 it was the largest asylum in London with capacity for 443 inmates.[19]

Post-war era[edit]

View eastward towards Essex at platform level in 1961

Ownership of Bow Road railway station passed from British Rail to the London Transport Executive in 1950.[20] The station building was placed as a Grade II listed building in 27 September 1973.[21]

Between 1986 and 1992 the name Bow applied to one of seven neighbourhoods to whom power was devolved from the council. This resulted in replacement of much of the street signage. Bow West[22] and Bow East[23] are two wards formed in 2002 that incorporate Old Ford and the eastern end of Bethnal Green (to Grove Road, parts of which used to comprise Mile End New Town, north of the Mile End Road). Bow lost its territory south of the Mile End Road.[24]

The Metropolitan line between Hammersmith and Barking was withdrawn from Bow Road in 1990 and shown separately as a new line called the Hammersmith & City line.[25][26]

In 1991, St Paul's, Old Ford was closed due to poor maintenance and safety concerns in the years after the war. The Parochial Church Council and local people were determined to see that the church remained open and, in fact, was improved. The "A New Heart for Bow" project was born. More than £3,000,000 was raised from more than a dozen sources and philanthropies. Matthew Lloyd Architects was appointed to refurbish the building and enable it to serve the wider community as well as the church. Work began in March 2003 and ended over a year later, in May 2004.[27]

Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast was broadcast live from a former lockkeeper's cottages, commonly referred to as "The Big Breakfast House", or more simply, "The House", located on Fish Island, in Old Ford[28] from 28 September 1992 until 29 March 2002.[29]

A temporary public sculpture called the House on Grove Road was created Rachel Whiteread and completed in on 25 October 1993 and demolished eleven weeks later on 11 January 1994. The work won her the Turner Prize and K Foundation art award in November 1993.[30]

Bow Arts was set up in 1994 by Marcel Baettig and Marc Schimmel, the owner of the then new premises. It became a thriving artist studio supporting over 100 working artists. In 1995, the Trust became a registered arts and education charity. In 1996, after an Arts Council England grant, they were able to build the Nunnery Gallery on Bow Road.[31]


An annual fête and music festival held on Wennington Green in Mile End Park called the St Barnabas Community Fete began in 2003, with 2007 fete being part of a case study in the 'Community' section of the Living Britain report published by Zurich and The Future Laboratory,[32]

The Percy Dalton Peanut Factory was at Fish Island, occupying Britannia Works and gatehouse along Dace Road, and another building on Smeed Road. Britannia Works has been run as an artists studio building by SPACE since 2000.[33]

In 2003, H. Forman and Son learned of London's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. The company would have to relocate from Stratford following a Compulsory Purchase Order.[34] Then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, officially opened the newly finished smokehouse in Old Ford in 2009.[35] The company's headquarters is the closest building (100m distant) to the stadium outside of the Olympic Park.[36]

A new site for the local Irish Travellers community in 2008 was built within the Bow Triangle Business Park.[37] The old site was needed as part of Crossrail.[38]

The London E postcode area including the E3 postcode was originally formed in 1866,[39] with mail services provided by Royal Mail. Bow is in the Bow district but also partly in the Olympic Park district E20. Since the closure of the East London mail centre in 2012, all inward mail for the E postcode area is now sorted at Romford Mail Centre.[40]

Fish Island has a long history as a home to artists and art spaces,[41] having one of the highest densities of fine artists, designers and artisans in Europe according to a 2009 study which found around 600 artists' studios.[42]

In the same year, Roman Road became part of a three-year Fine Art and Architecture BA degree as part of a joint project between the The Roman Road Resident and Business Association (RRRBA), Cass School Art, Architecture and Design, and Tower Hamlets Council Enterprise Team. Students studied in a purpose-built, temporary community room were they developed ideas to improve and regenerate both the road and the market.[43]

It was announced that Roman Road was finalist for the top three in the London category of the 2015 Great British High Street awards.[44]

A street party was held on Roman Road to mark the Queen Official Birthday on 11 June 2016, all profits from the stalls sales were shared with Bow Foodbank. Tesco donated various items to Woodcraft Folk. East End Church, Interact Hub, Roman Road Neighbourhood Forum and Roman Road Adventure Playground supported the event.[45]

A orchard project was designed to celebrate the public green spaces in the Old Ford Estate in 2017, it was launched in response to feedback from local residents who wished to make better use of green space.[46]

Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov stayed at the City Stay Hotel on Bow Road in March 2 and 3, 2018. This was before they had travelled to Salisbury to carry out the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal.[47][48]

The Palm Tree pub building was Grade II listed in 2015 by Historic England.[49] It was a popular pub within Mile End Park but was closed in 2018 and was put up for sale.[50] It has since reopened.[51]

As part of the Bow town centre scheme, it was announced in 2019 that money had been given to Tower Hamlets Council as part of GLA liveable neighbourhoods programme.[52] Emmanuel Buttigieg and his brother were given permission to leave their horse to gaze, Polo, by Osborne in the same year, who were redeveloping parts of the estate on a small patch of land and stable in the Redbrick Estate. They commuted from Bow to Old Street on the horse and a carriage.[53] Also in 2019, work has began on the Wellington Way health centre where patients will be able to opt for self diagnosis by using with state of the art NHS technology, this is being paid by Tower Hamlets Council, in partnership with the NHS.[54]


Local council facilities are grouped around Roman Road market in Old Ford. The local library, now called an Idea Store, is in Gladstone Place. A community and tenants' hall is nearby. Access to council services is dealt with by the Bow and North Poplar One Stop Shop, in Ewart Place. The local MP has been since 2010, Rushanara Ali of the Labour Party for the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency.


A map showing the civil parish boundaries in 1870.
A map showing the wards of Poplar Metropolitan Borough as they appeared in 1916.

Bow formed a part of the medieval parish of Stepney until becoming an independent parish in 1719. The parish vestry then undertook this responsibility until a rising population created the need for the Poplar Board of Works in 1855. This was superseded by the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1900 until it was absorbed into the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 1965.[55]


It is often said that to be a true Cockney you need to be born within earshot of the sound of Bow Bells and that these are the bells of Bow Church in the heart of Bow. However, the saying actually refers to St Mary-le-Bow, which is approximately three miles west on Cheapside, in the City of London. The other central feature of Bow is the bridge across the River Lea. Today it is a four-lane flyover over the Lea and Blackwall Tunnel approach. The old High Street has few active shops and it now known as Bromley High Street, with large-scale postwar housing to the south. The island church remains as a turning point for buses. The Blackwall Tunnel approach roads´ expansion from the two-lane road at the beginning of the 20th century to a six-lane urban motorway has occupied land at the expense of industry. What remains on the eastern side of the road is a canal-side enclave of small businesses and warehouses, with a large supermarket at the canal bridge to Three Mills and has largely considered to be part of Bromley.

Bow has become associated with the E3 postcode district. E3 includes Bromley-by-Bow and Mile End as well, while the former Bow Common falls partly under E14. The modern Tower Hamlets wards of west and east Bow are associated more with the postcode than the area, but the overall district is bounded by the Limehouse Cut in the south; the River Lea to the east; Victoria Park to the north; Regents Canal to the west.


The Bow Arts Trust operates a Low Cost Accommodation scheme throughout the area. This provides housing for artists who have an interest in community work to have an affordable working space.[56]

Ability Bow is a specialised gym for those with disabilities or long term health conditions and offers one-to-one exercise sessions, it has specialist gym equipment with tailored fitness programmes for each member.[57]

The Bow PDSA Pet Hospital is located on Malmesbury Road.[58]

A delivery office called the Bow Delivery Office is located in north Bow on Tredegar Road.[59]


The Roman Road Trust digital content and marketing strategy has aided in puting Roman Road on the digital map, which has a first page rankings for Roman Road London, Roman Road Market and Festival, this helps it website as powerful marketing tool this help with the profile, and to attract new visitors to Bow to support local businesses.[60] The Trust also conducted a survey in 2016, for shop keepers and market traders on Roman Road to gain what kind of support and training they needed to stay in business.[61]


Poplar Town Hall at the junction of Bow Road and Fairfield Road
1960s architecture in Bow

St Mary's Church stands on the traffic island in Bow Road, called Bow Church but not to be confused with St Mary-le-Bow in the City of London which has the famous Bow bells. Part of the church dates back to 1311. The base of the tower dates back to the late 15th century and the top of the tower was rebuilt after bomb damage in the Second World War.[62]

St. Paul's Church is also a well known landmark and example of mid-20th century ecclesiastic architecture, being constructed in the 1960s to a design by architects Maquire & Murray.

A statue of William Ewart Gladstone stands outside Bow Church. It was donated by Theodore H. Bryant, part-owner of the Bryant and May match factory.[63]

A memorial to George Lansbury (1859–1940) stands on the corner of Bow Road and Harley Grove, near 39 Bow Road, his family home in the constituency until it was destroyed in the Blitz.[64] It describes him as "A great servant of the people". Lansbury was twice Mayor of Poplar and MP for Bromley and Bow. In 1921, he led the Poplar Rates Rebellion. His daughter-in-law, Minnie Lansbury, was one of the 30 Poplar councillors sent to prison, and died six weeks after leaving prison. A memorial clock to her is over a row of shops on Bow Road, near the junction with Alfred Street.[65]

The original Poplar Town Hall is on the south side of Bow Road, near the DLR station. It continues in use for registrations of births and marriages as Bromley Public Hall. It was rebuilt in the 1920s at the corner of Bow Road and Fairfield Road, now in a dilapidated condition and used as commercial offices. It contains the Poplar Assembly Rooms, now no longer used. The Builders, by sculptor David Evans is a frieze on the face of the building, unveiled by Lansbury on 10 December 1938: the Portland Stone panels commemorate the trades constructing the Town Hall and symbolise the borough's relationship with the River Thames and the youth of Poplar.[66]


St Agnes, Chisenhale[67] Olga[68] and Malmesbury[69] primary schools are located in Bow, as is Central Foundation Girls School on Bow Road.[70] Cherry Trees School[71] is a specialist primary school located at Campbell Road in Bow.



Two rapid transit systems serve Bow, London Underground at Bow Road and the Docklands Light Railway at Bow Church on Bow Road which both form out of station interchange (OSI) within 300m walking distance of each other.


London Buses routes 8, 25, 108, 205, 276, 323, 425, 488 and D8, and N205 all operate within the area.

On 25 September 1993, route 309 started running between Bethnal Green and Poplar, on St Pauls Way in southern Bow.[72]


Bow is connected to the National Road Network at the junction called the Bow Interchange between the A12 East Cross Route and A11 Mile End Road.

Bow is part of the council controlled parking zone and is covered by Zone B and includes all mini zones (B1/2/3) within the district boundaries.[73] Additionally Saturday controls are enforced in north Bow.[74]

There is the Cycle Superhighway CS2 running from Stratford to Aldgate on the A11.


Access to the Lee Navigation is via the towpath at Three Mills. South leads to the River Thames, but the towpath can often be blocked. North leads to Duckett's Cut (the Hertford Union Canal), which provides access to Victoria Park and joins the Regent's Canal near Mile End. Proceeding north along the Lea leads to Hackney Marshes.

Notable people[edit]

The following people have lived, or currently live or had an education, in Bow:

See also[edit]


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  5. ^ 'Bethnal Green: Communications', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 11: Stepney, Bethnal Green (1998), pp. 88-90 accessed: 15 November 2006
  6. ^ The Humanities Research Institute - Historical alternative names for Bow, London[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ How Stratford became Bow Archived 20 December 2006 at the Wayback Machine (East London History)
  8. ^ a b 'West Ham: Rivers, bridges, wharfs and docks', A History of the County of Essex: Volume 6 (1973), pp. 57-61 accessed: 14 November 2006.
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  10. ^ a b The Copartnership Herald, Vol. I, no. 7 (September 1931) Archived 12 November 2006 at the Wayback Machine accessed 14 Nov 2006
  11. ^ A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps pp. 416 (Smith, 1860)
  12. ^ Green Goose Fair, in The Newe Metamorphosis BL Add. MS 14826, ff. 234r-40v (University of Bonn) Archived 19 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine accessed 5 Dec 2007
  13. ^ 'Industries: Pottery: Bow porcelain', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 2: General; Ashford, East Bedfont with Hatton, Feltham, Hampton with Hampton Wick, Hanworth, Laleham, Littleton (1911), pp. 146-50 accessed: 18 November 2006
  14. ^ Adams, E. and Redstone, D. Bow Porcelain pp.231 (London 1991)
  15. ^ Exploring East London Archived 28 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine accessed 27 Mar 2007
  16. ^ "One of Sylvia's first actions occurred when she climbed a cart, in nearby Bromley High Street, and commenced to speak. Unfortunately, no one listened, she picked up a rock and threw it through the window of Selby's Undertakers. Her colleagues smashed windows in nearby buildings, and were taken to Bow Police station."
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  63. ^ statue Archived 28 January 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  64. ^ Labour History (book review) Archived 6 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine accessed 29 Mar 2007
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External links[edit]