Bromley-by-Bow, Tower Hamlets

A historic East End district situated between Bow and Poplar

Hidden London: the Drapers’ Almshouses

‘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 range of four ten­e­ments with a cen­tre chapel, the Drap­ers’ Almshous­es were built in 1706. The grade II list­ed group is shown in the pho­to above.*

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.

Eight gash­old­ers were con­struct­ed in 1872. One was destroyed by a bomb in the Sec­ond World War and the sur­viv­ing sev­en have stood unused for many years. Christo­pher Costel­loe, Direc­tor of the Vic­to­ri­an Soci­ety, says: “The group val­ue of so many Vic­to­ri­an gash­old­ers packed togeth­er is unmatched any­where else in the world, mak­ing the Brom­ley-by-Bow gash­old­ers a true sym­bol for the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion.” The Vic­to­ri­an Soci­ety includ­ed the group on its 2018 Top 10 Endan­gered Build­ings list.

Much of Brom­ley was a slum by the late 19th cen­tu­ry and it became an ear­ly tar­get for civic improve­ment.

Brom­ley pub­lic hall was built on Bow Road in 1880 as the vestry hall for St Leonard’s parish. It now serves as Tow­er Ham­lets’ reg­is­ter office.

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.

Muriel and Doris Lester estab­lished the orig­i­nal Kings­ley Hall in 1915, as part of their work among the poor of Bow. Shown in the small pho­to below,* the present hall was built on Powis Road in 1927–8.

As well as meet­ing the needs of local peo­ple, Kings­ley 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 it was a base for the psy­cho­an­a­lyst RD Laing.

Kings­ley Hall, Powis Road

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

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

The parish church of St Mary with St Leonard was among the build­ings destroyed. Its church­yard is now a wilder­ness gar­den and adven­ture play­ground, entered via the How memo­r­i­al gate­way.

After a peri­od of dere­lic­tion in the 1970s a local cam­paign revived Kings­ley Hall, with the back­ing of Richard Atten­bor­ough, who used it 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.

Fifty-six per cent of homes in the Brom­ley-by-Bow ward were rent­ed from the coun­cil or a hous­ing asso­ci­a­tion at the 2011 cen­sus – sharply down from 72 per cent at the pre­vi­ous cen­sus but still a very high fig­ure. A fur­ther 24 per cent of homes were pri­vate­ly rent­ed.

The largest eth­nic minor­i­ty (45 per cent) 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.

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
* The picture of the Drapers Almshouses at the top of this page is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Reading Tom, at Flickr, made available under the Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence. The picture of Kingsley Hall is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Gordon Joly, at Wikimedia Commons, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Generic licence. Any subsequent reuse is freely permitted under the terms of those licences.