It’s named after tumbling queens and distinctive arches
‘Bow’ is an abbreviation of the medieval name Stratford-atte-Bow (Stratforde is from the Old English meaning paved way to a ford, a stone causeway through the marshes). The ‘Bow’ part is from the distinctive three-arched bridge over the River Lea whose construction was ordered in 1110 by Matilda, wife of Henry I, when she reputedly took a tumble at the ford that led to Barking Abbey.
There’s a case of mistaken bells
It’s often said that to be a true Cockney you have to be born within earshot of Bow Bells, although the bells in question are actually housed in St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside in the City of London, 3 miles west of Bow Church. According to Wired, the acoustic reach of the famous Bow Bells – supposed to define the area of London where cockneys are born – has shrunk dramatically in the last 150 years thanks to the rise of ambient noise. The green area on the map below shows how far the ringing bells would carry in 1851, compared to the blue area in 2012. Can you call yourself a true cockney?
Roman roads bring trade and industry
Two key roads run east to west through Bow, Bow Road and Roman Road, the latter of which crosses two districts – Bow at its eastern end, and Bethnal Green at its western end. Roman Road runs more or less parallel to the Roman road which connected London to Colchester – the oldest known trade route in Britain, famously taken by Boudica on her way to burn the Romans in London. As more roads were built, housing, trade and manufacturing came to the area and soon costermongers were selling goods from their front rooms along Roman Road. A main shopping street evolved and the Roman Road Market grew probably as early as 1843.
In addition to the booming furniture trade, Bow had a few products unique to the area. During the 17th century, local entrepreneurs Frye and Heylyn mixed cattle bones from nearby slaughterhouses with clay to create a form of fine porcelain, said to rival the best from abroad, known as Bow Porcelain.
A figure from the Bow Porcelain Factory, 1754 (V&A Museum)
The East End was pivotal in the struggle for Women’s Suffrage
Bow and particularly Roman Road was a centre of Suffragette activity and socialist politics. Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Silvia formed a breakaway Suffragette movement, The East London Federation of Suffragettes based at 198 Bow Road as she believed it was only direct action by working class women that could win the vote.
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.
The Suffragette newspaper, Women’s Dreadnought was published from 321 Roman Road, printed by Arbers in the Roman Road. They held regular meetings at Bow Baths and ran a stall in the Roman Road market selling the ‘Women’s Dreadnought’ together with the toys they made in their ‘Co-operative Toy Industry’ at 45 Norman Grove and second hand goods and to raise funds and promote the cause.
There is an excellent article that maps out some of the key events in the struggle for Women’s Suffrage that happened in the East End over on local blog Spitalfields Life.
Sylvia Pankhurst initial head quarters for the East London Federation of Suffragettes at 198 Bow Road in 1912 © Museum of London
The blitz brought regeneration
The Roman Road was lined with streets of Victorian housing of mixed size and quality. The area was typical of the east end with a mix of the very poor and well to do living only a street apart. Due to the Luftwaffe a large slice of the Victorian housing disappeared, to be replaced by housing estates, both local and London Council. East London recently saw substantial redevelopment surrounding the 2012 Olympics and a great deal more is on the horizon, with hundreds of thousands of new homes and jobs planned to meet the growing population
Today, Roman Road market is the heart of Bow, and ‘going down the Roman’ has been a tradition for generations. The market was designated a Conservation Area in 1989, and extended in 2008 in recognition of its historic significance and special character as a traditional East End market.
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