Bromley-by-Bow, Tower Hamlets

A historic East End district situated between Bow and Poplar

The surviving memorial gateway to the parish church of St Mary with St Leonard, which was destroyed during the Blitz

‘Bromley’ is a corruption of Old English words meaning ‘woodland clearing with brambles’, and the extended name avoids confusion with its south London namesake. It was earlier known as Bromley St Leonard, after the Benedictine priory of St Leonard, once the oldest religious house in east London.

After the dissolution of the monasteries the manor was granted to Sir Ralph Sadleir, principal secretary of state to Henry VIII. The British Museum holds his account of the estate’s properties, drawn up in 1540. By this time, Bow had gained ascendancy over Bromley but the latter became a popular place to build rural retreats from the early 17th century. A hunting lodge that stood on what is now St Leonard’s Street was said to have been built by James I. Later known as the Old Palace, the building was split into two residences in 1750.

From the 1820s, Bromley began to fill with noxious industries and workers’ housing, some built by charities, some by profiteering jerry builders. Much of Bromley was a slum by the late 19th century and it became an early target for civic improvement.

Bromley Public Hall (shown below, right) was built on Bow Road in 1880 as the vestry hall for St Leonard’s parish.

The replacement of the Old Palace by a school in 1894 caused an outcry and played a pivotal role in promoting future (often unsuccessful) attempts to preserve east London’s heritage. The interior of the state room was salvaged and can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

From the 1930s the London County Council began a massive slum clearance programme, erasing the old village green and its houses and inns.

Bromley Public Hall, photographed early in the morning from the top deck of a bus
Bromley Public Hall

Ruinous bomb damage in the Second World War brought further clearance after 1945 and municipal and social housing now fills almost the entire area.

Seventy-two per cent of homes here are rented from the council or a housing association, an extraordinarily high figure. The largest ethnic minority is of Bangladeshi descent, followed by white Britons. The Bromley-by-Bow Centre on Bruce Road is a community regeneration organisation that aims to harness the energies and abilities of local people through a variety of integrated projects, linking health with education and enterprise, for example, or environment with training and family support.

Muriel and Doris Lester established the original Kingsley Hall in 1915, as part of their work among the poor of Bow. As well as meeting the needs of local people, the hall also gave space to a variety of groups and movements, including the suffragettes and the Jarrow marchers. A blue plaque records Mahatma Gandhi’s stay here. Later the hall was a base for the psychoanalyst RD Laing. After a period of dereliction in the 1970s a local campaign revived Kingsley Hall, with the backing of Richard Attenborough, who used the hall as a set for his film Gandhi. The building was reopened as a community centre in 1985 and the Gandhi Foundation is also based here.

The political economist David Ricardo, the son of a Dutch Jewish stockbroker, grew up in Bromley St Leonard in the late 18th century.

Postal district: E3
Population: 14,480 (2011 census)
Station: District Line and Hammersmith & City Line (zones 2 and 3)
See also: South Bromley