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