How Stratford became Bow


IT may surprise latterday residents of Bow that their town was the original Stratford. How the name came and went is a tale of fords, bridges and a queen getting a ducking in the River Lea.

A thousand years ago, the banks of the Lea were remote. Miles from London, the hamlet that grew up there was even far-flung from its home parish of Stepney.

The settlement became known as Stratford, a name derived from the street or paved way to a ford. But it was far from a safe crossing, with the river often being in flood.

One early victim was Queen Matilda, the wife of Henry I. Legend has it that Matilda fell into the Lea, while crossing the dangerous ‘old ford’, and was nearly swept away by flood waters. So in 1110 she ordered the bridge to be built. The design was most untypical of an English bridge, being in a pronounced bow shape. Now, the two parts of Stratford were distinguished as Stratford Langthorne on the eastern, Essex bank. And Stratford-atte-Bow (‘at the Bow’) on the Middlesex side.

In 1538, the king’s antiquary Leland wrote that Matilda ‘caused two bridges to be built in a place one mile distant from the old ford, of which one was situated over the Lea, at the head of the town of Stratford, nowe called Bowe, because the bridge was arched like unto a bowe, a rare piece of work, for before that time the like had never been seen in England’.

But though villagers now had a safe crossing over the Lea, the marshlands around Stratford flooded as much as ever.

So bad was it that in 1311, the Bishop of London gave the inhabitants of Stratford Bow permission ‘to build a chapel for being so far distant from the parish church and the roads in winter being impassable by reason of the floods’. Edward III granted the villagers a parcel of land, on the proviso that they attend Stepney Church on all great holidays, using their ‘chapel of ease’ at other times.

One of these major holidays was Whitsun, followed next day by the infamous Bow Fair (otherwise known as the Green Goose Fair).
A poet named Taylor, wrote of the revels in 1630: “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.’

Taylor then went on rather sniffily about the conduct and behaviour of the crowd at the fair. So raucous was it, that by the mid-1800s the authorities had had enough. Bow Fair was banned, leaving its legacy in the name of Fairfield Road, the old site of the Goose Fair.

Stratford-atte-Bow was much less isolated as a result of its bridges. It boasted a famed school of French and even crops up in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer, speaking of the Lady Prioress, one of the pilgrims, says:”French she spake full fayre and fetisly,
after the scole of Stratford-atte-Bowe, for French of Paris was to hir unknowe.”
The jibe was that the pupils instructed by the nuns of Bow were emerging speaking French with a pronounced cockney accent.

There were other famous visitors. A pretender to the Portuguese throne was housed in Bow in the 1500s. Don Antonio Perez, Prior of Crato, fled to England for refuge, and was tucked away here by Elizabeth I.

The bridge brought other challenges to the crown too. During the Peasants Revolt of 1381, Jack Straw crossed Bow Bridge with his army of Essex rebels. And in 1556, 13 people were burned at the stake in Bow, for differing in religious opinions from the existing government.

The hamlet of Stratford Bow steadily grew, and in 1719, the church of St Mary Stratford Bow was split from the Stepney mother church and consecrated in its own right. But it was still very much apart from London. In the 1830s a visitor wrote: “The village of Bow wears the aspect of a small, though busy, country-town.”

Within a few years the railways and the sprawl of London would see an end to that. Stratford-atte-Bow would become simply Bow, E3.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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