Brambeley, Bromley Saint Leonard and latterly Bromley-by-Bow. The area that hugs the eastern edge of the East End south has had a number of names. But then its unique history among the Tower hamlets has forced a lot of changes on the area.
Until the 19th century the area was a mixture of farming and market gardening with industries along the River Lea such as calico bleaching, brewing, grain milling and distilling.
J Norris Brewer, writing in 1816, draws a picture of Bromley very different from the modern area. ‘Bromley (written Brambele, Brambelegh, Brembeley, in ancient records) adjoins the village of Stratford Bow on the south-east. This parish contains between four and five hundred acres of land, the greater portion of which is used for farming purposes. About sixty acres are occupied by nursery-men and market-gardeners.’
All that was to change in the middle years of the 19th century, when dozens of streets were laid out, and modern Bromley was born.
Bromley has a history quite independent of its neighbour Bow, which for many years was part of the parish of Stepney. Bromley came about in the eleventh century, with the founding of a Benedictine nunnery in the desolate marshlands east of the River Lea.
There had long been a religious order in the area. But the turn of the first millennium gave a new impetus to church building. Prior to that, conventional wisdom had it that the world was going to end in the year 1000AD. When it didn’t kings, councillors and churchmen alike – fired with a new confidence and optimism – set to building lasting monuments.
William, Bishop of London, gave permission for a nunnery dedicated to St Leonard. Work began during the reign of William I, with the new nunnery to provide a living for a prioress and nine nuns. Now a little hamlet grew up around the priory walls, based upon farming and providing services and provisions to the nuns. That was to give Bromley a unique status among East End hamlets; unlike all the other parishes and hamlets between the City and the River Lee, Bromley didn’t grow from the huge parish of Stepney – and that was to lead to problems in the years to come.
In the centuries before, this part of Middlesex had been a dangerous place – marshy, remote, and prone to the attentions of marauding Vikings sailing up the River Lea. But Norman rule had brought new peace to southern England, and the future Bromley, nestling by the river, with good farmland and plentiful supplies of fish, was a prime spot.
The nunnery was to shelter ‘women of gentle birth and education’ during the Middle Ages. St Leonard’s was seen as a place of quiet retreat and pleasant seclusion. Many nobles were buried here, including Earls of Hereford and Essex and a daughter of William, Earl of Henault. The nunnery wasn’t rich, and endowments from these families would help keep the order going.
One of the earliest records has the manor, and the lands on which the nunnery stood, owned by Geoffrey, Earl of Essex, who writes of ‘The half hide of land [about 60 acres] in Brambeley that William son of Wido gave them when he was made a canon there’. During the reign of Richard I the manor was held by Ralph Triket or Trichet, the King’s Chamberlain. The manor continued in the Triket family for years. The value and importance of ‘Brambeley’ lay in its position on the river Lea, a source of water power for the flour mills.
By the year 1292 the lordship of the manor had passed to the Prior and Canons of Holy Trinity, Aldgate. The clerics supervised the tilling of this fertile land, the draining of the marsh, the making and repair of river embankments, and the building of water-mills. Farm land was customarily granted or leased to tenant farmers, and a glimpse of mediaeval Bromley can be got from one of the Canons’ records of one of these leases.
‘…By the prior and the convent of Holy Trinity, London, to William le Norcis, of three acres at Brambeley in the field called ‘Edmunds field’ all the wall with the willows south of that field, a pond and ditch, a wall by Richard Tuthaits house extending to the Lea, a wood adjoining the three acres, and the [river] wall which was the way to the old mill; saving the way that was upon the first-named [river] wall to men going to St. Leonard’s church and returning, for ever, and the way for horses carrying grain to the mill of the said canons, and bringing it back when necessary; paying half a mare yearly. Other covenants are specified as to repairs, making and working floodgates for millponds &c.’
It is St Leonard’s that Geoffrey Chaucer refers to in his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The poet would visit Bromley from his home in Aldgate, and he used the nuns for material. He describes one of the pilgrims, Madame Eglantine, writing:
‘French she spake full fair and fetisley
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bow
For French of Paris was to her unknown.’
But the idyllic life of the priory at Bromley was soon to change. Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell and a hated prioress were to change everything.
The priory of St Leonard’s had been founded as a place of quiet rest, contemplation, and an undisturbed living for daughters of gentlefolk. But as the 16th century drew on, things were not well at Bromley. In 1533, Lady Sterkey, one of the nuns, wrote to Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of Henry VIII, complaining at the prioress that Cromwell had foisted on them.
‘I beg your goodness to us and our house at St. Leonard’s, Stratford, for removing our supposed Prioress. Since our petition to the King we have been worse intreated than ever, for meat and drink and threatening words; and when we ask to have anything remedied, she bids us “Go to Cromwell and let him help us”.
The obnoxious Prioress was Sibilla Kirke. But worse was to come for the nuns. Eight years later, Henry had the monasteries and nunneries of England dissolved, releasing their riches to the Crown, and removing the perceived threat to his authority posed by the established Church. The hated Kirke was given £15 a year for life and permission to reside at the priory house – she stayed another 15 years. The nuns meanwhile were thrown out, receiving one pound apiece.
Until dissolution the lordship of the manor had still been held by Holy Trinity Priory, and at that point, the estate was valued at £108, one shilling and eleven pence per annum. The property was duly disbursed to Sir Ralph Sadler, and passed over the centuries back to the Crown, to a 17th century Prince of Wales, the trustees of the City of London, and eventually back into private hands.
The surviving chapel now became the parish church of Bromley. But this halfway house status, whereby St Mary’s had evolved into a parish church without strictly being one in ecclesiastical law, caused years of argument between the various lords of the manor, the leaseholders of the land and the Bishops of London.
When the ancient chapel finally became too derelict to serve as a place of worship in the 19th century, the authorities came up with an imaginative solution to the debate. The chapel was pulled down in 1842, but two small parts of its ancient walls were allowed to remain. Rather than a new consecration having to take place, the Episcopal authority simply ‘rebuilt’ St Mary’s, and a new parish church arose.
Sadly the new church didn’t last so long as the old chapel. It was
badly damaged by enemy bombs in World War II, and the building of the northern approach road to the Blackwall Tunnel finished the job. Now all that remains is part of the churchyard off Bromley High Street.
By the early 19th century Bromley was supporting a number of charitable institutions. A Sunday School for girls was teaching and clothing almost one hundred children. And just to the south of Bow Road stood two ranges of almshouses. Twelve of these had been built by the Drapers Company, in 1706. Another eight were for poor widows of Bromley and Stratford Bow. Nearby was another almshouse, for aged seamen or their widows.
But things were changing. A second manor in the parish, Bromley Hall, belonged to the Priory of Christ Church, in London. It too was dissolved and in 1799 ended up in the possession of one Joseph Foster. Foster was an eminent calico-printer. This was to lay the foundation for one of Bromley’s main industries in the years to come and was part of the swift change of the area from being largely agricultural to urban and industrial.
Industry needs water, and factories had always thrived along the Lea. Now the striking of the Limehouse Cut accelerated the process. The Cut was opened for traffic in 1770, linking the Thames and the Lea, and cutting out the circuitous navigation round the Isle of Dogs. In time, factories grew up, houses were thrown up to house the workers, and the waterways around Bromley became despoiled and polluted. In 1801 the population of Bromley was 1,684. By 1881 it had risen to 4,846, and by 1931 to 64,111.
When Sir John Jacob razed the old Priory House in the 1660s he had built a new manor house with ‘almost unlimited and unobstructed prospect over the Counties of Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey, with the majestic Thames … a mansion that might vie with many of our most ancient country Halls’. By the mid-1800s Bromley was far from a rural idyll. And now the development of the area began in earnest, with haphazard old road layouts swept away, and linear terraces of yellow-brick raised in their place. Jacob’s manor was demolished, replaced by the school in Priory Street. In 1900 the area would join the rest of the East End, becoming part of Poplar Borough. And Bromley, frequently confused with the larger town in Kent, found itself renamed yet again. Lumped in with its neighbour it became Bromley-by-Bow.