Bow Common

Bow Common, Tower Hamlets

A historically poor quarter, situated south-east of Mile End


The overgrown Tower Hamlets cemetery
Tower Hamlets cemetery dates from 1841 and is now a 33-acre park and nature reserve

This area was indus­tri­alised in the mid-19th century as factories moved towards the River Lea from districts such as Whitechapel, and the Great Central Gas Company’s works were built to supply the City of London.

In 1883 Andrew Mearns observed: “Out of 2,290 persons living in consec­utive houses at Bow Common, only 88 adults and 47 children ever attend [a place of worship] ” – a situation he blamed on the condi­tions in which they lived. “Block of streets between Gale Street and Furze Street are the worst in the district, worse than almost any district in London. Three policemen wounded there last week …” wrote Charles Booth a few years later in notes for his classic study of London poverty. The streets were offens­ively nicknamed the ‘Fenian Barracks’ on account of their Irish inhab­itants.

There has been much slum clearance since, and replacement of buildings damaged in the Blitz. From the 1980s onwards, much of the council’s housing stock was trans­ferred to housing associ­ations that invested heavily in renewal programmes. Most recently, run-down blocks on the Leopold estate have been demol­ished and replaced by a mix of homes for rent or sale.

St Paul’s church, originally built in 1858, was bombed and cleared away and a new church consec­rated in 1960. Designed by two radical archi­tects in their twenties, with a Marxist vicar for a client, this Modernist building made innov­ative use of space and is now grade II* listed. The church of the Holy Name and Our Lady of the Sacred Heart opened in 1894 and was also damaged during the war. It was restored and reopened in 1957 and has since become London’s Vietnamese Catholic church.

The Fern Street Settlement is a community charity, founded in 1907 by Clara Grant, headmistress of Devons primary school. She introduced a ceremony that became known as ‘Farthing Bundles’, whereby any child who could pass under a small wooden arch without bending their knees would receive a parcel of toys for a farthing.

Postal district: E3
Further reading: R Beer and CA Pickard, Eighty Years on Bow Common, Fern Street Settlement, 1987
and Anson William Henry Cartwright, Sermons on Subjects: Being Certain Discourses Delivered in the Church of St. Paul, Bow Common (1866), Kessinger Publishing, 2010