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Bow Church reveals its dark 700 years of East End rebellious history

PUBLISHED: 14:02 20 May 2019 | UPDATED: 14:11 20 May 2019

Ancient Bow Church looking for volunteers as tour guides. Picture: St Mary's parish

Ancient Bow Church looking for volunteers as tour guides. Picture: St Mary's parish

St Mary's parish

The ancient Bow Church wants volunteers to help bring its 700 years of East End rebellious history to life like the annual ale fayre so rowdy it had to be shut down.

St Mary-at-Bow... parish has existed in east London for 700 years. Picture: Mike BrookeSt Mary-at-Bow... parish has existed in east London for 700 years. Picture: Mike Brooke

Church elders at St Mary's, the medieval church near the A11 Bow Flyover that ended up as a giant traffic island in the middle of Bow Road, hold a volunteers' open day on Saturday to attract enthusiasts to look round the much venerated pile of bricks.

"We are calling for volunteers to train as guides," explained church team member Elizabeth Marshall. "We want to offer tours of our building and 700 years of Bow's history."

A 'Radical Bow' walking tour starts at 12.30pm, followed by a look round the church from 2.15pm.

The medieval church that's ended up as a giant traffic island near the A11 Bow Flyover. Picture: Mike BrookeThe medieval church that's ended up as a giant traffic island near the A11 Bow Flyover. Picture: Mike Brooke

The late vicar Michael Peet told the story of seven parishioners, one for each century, when he completed the history of Bow Church on his deathbed in 2011.

The first was a humble woman baker called Gudiyver Fotling convicted with eight other women in 1310 for selling short-weight loaves—but escaped punishment because women were not recognised as bakers. The Fotling sisters and their friends heralded the lively, slightly dodgy tradition of a later East End, he found.

An annual ale fair held in a field nearby was closed down in the 17th century because of its rowdy reputation, when the site became a lunatic asylum and later a Victorian workhouse before the Bryant & May match factory was built.

Vicar Debbie Frazer and her parish team running 'neighbours' day in 2017. Picture: Mike BrookeVicar Debbie Frazer and her parish team running 'neighbours' day in 2017. Picture: Mike Brooke

It was also the parish church of many of the Bryant & May women workers who went on strike in 1888 that changed factory working conditions in Britain for good.

Another of the seven parishioners telling the story of Bow Church was rebellious George Lansbury, Mayor of Poplar who went to prison in 1921 with 25 councillors rather than pass on the 'poll tax of its day' to the East End's poor.

But the story goes back to Saxon times, five centuries before the parish actually emerged in 1311.

Bow church with its bell tower being restored. Picture: Mike BrookeBow church with its bell tower being restored. Picture: Mike Brooke

Erkenwald, sixth bishop of London, died visiting Barking Abbey in 693 when a tussle erupted between the priests of St Paul's in the City of London and those from Barking Abbey for his remains while being brought back across the Lea River.

A tempest flooded the Lea seen as a sign of God's wroth soon becalmed with the waters receding like the Red Sea at the spot where Bow Church now stands, interpreted as a miracle that the bishop's remains were destined for London.

That is a hard act to follow for volunteers learning the ropes about Bow Church to be the next generation of tour guides in this traditionally rebellious parish.

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