Bow Creek, and the connecting waterways; Prescott Channel, Channelsea River, Abbey Creek, Three Mills River, City Mill River and Waterworks River are all tidal. St Thomas Creek and the Old River Lee are not (being maintained at the same level as the Limehouse Cut). The Navigation along these latter rivers has been maintained since 1424.
The Bow Back Rivers cross an area originally known as Stratford Marsh. An area of Lammas land, between Stratford-Langthorne and Stratford-at-Bow. Little remains from pre-history, but the name suggests that the two settlements lay at either end of a stone causeway across the marsh, with a ford crossing the River Lee at Bow that could be crossed at low tide. This was in use by the Roman era, carrying the principle road to Colchester. The upstream ford at Old Ford is of pre-Roman origin, and afforded an easier crossing. A further causeway existed between Homerton and Leyton; known as Wanstead Slip. These crossings passed across a true marsh, either side of the natural Lee. This wide, fast flowing river was then tidal, as far as Hackney Wick, and navigable, as far as Hertfordshire. The first alteration to the natural river was made by Alfred the Great, who drained the river at Leamouth to strand a force of Danes. This lowered the tide head to Old Ford, and prevented large boats sailing the river until the 15th century.
In 1135, Stratford Langthorne Abbey was founded. The Abbey continued the process of draining Stratford marsh begun in the middle ages, and creating artificial channels to drive water and tide mills. A small river port developed at Stratford, mentioned in the 15th century, to serve the needs of Stratford Abbey and the mills at Stratford, and there is similar evidence in later centuries. The Abbey took on responsibility to maintain the marsh walls around Bow Creek, to keep the tidal waters out. From 1613, extraction of water for the canals linking with the network, and the artificial New River, supplying fresh water to the city from Hertfordshire, has caused water levels to fall in the non-navigable channels, and much of the traditional water milling to cease. This began a process of canalisation of the water course from Hertford to Old Ford, to enable boats to use the river.
The East London Waterworks Company began extraction for drinking water at Old Ford, Lea Bridge and established a waterworks at Stratford in 1743. By 1821, there were specialized wharfs at Stratford for timber, chalk, stone, coal, and wheat, as well as some for general cargoes situated on the Channelsea and the other navigable branches of the Lea as well as on the main stream, with local mills and factories usually having their own wharfs. By 1821, the earliest proper dock named Stratford Dock, later Meggs Dock, had been built. It was about long and wide, lying south of the High Street near Bow Bridge and approached from the Lea by a short channel. The dock may have been constructed by the Middlesex and Essex turnpike trust, which owned and occupied it in 1843 and 1854. By 1920, the whole site had been filled in and was occupied by factories.
The Bow Back Rivers were much modified in the 1930s, as part of a flood control system. The prior arrangement had been to regulate the navigation with the Pond Lane Flood Gates and a tidal lock at Marshgate Lane. The lock and flood gates were made redundant by a new lock in Carpenter's Road – which gave access to Bow Creek and the Waterworks River – providing barge access to Temple Mills. The low headroom of the Northern Outfall Sewer aqueduct prevented access to the southern reaches of the system, and to allow access City Mill Lock was constructed – near Blaker Road. In 2006, this lock was restored by the developers of an adjacent housing development. The system had bi-directional gates, as this was within the tidal reach of the river.
Also in the area and crossing the Back Rivers by a series of bridges is the Northern Outfall Sewer. It and Abbey Mill Pumping Station were, both designed by Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s. Today, the route of the embankment that encloses the sewer from Bow to Beckton is followed by a public footpath, The Greenway.
As part of the preparations for the 2012 Summer Olympics, a canal lock, Three Mills Lock has been constructed on the Prescott Channel, with the effect that north of the lock – and the Three Mills Wall River Weir – the Bow Back Rivers' water level will become constant. This will allow barges of up to to deliver material, and remove spoil from the site, reducing pressure on the local road network. Following the Olympics, it is hoped the waterways will continue to be used by both commercial and leisure craft.
The Olympics construction works have already closed public access to many of the Bow Back Rivers, which are intended to form a major feature of the Olympic site. The Olympic Stadium is being constructed on former industrial land between the Old River Lee (which rejoins the navigation below Old Ford Lock), the City Mill River, and the Old Pudding Mill River. This stadium will form the centrepiece of the Olympics on an island site; with 200 metres to the east the Waterworks River, and on the eastern bank the Aquatics Centre. Pedestrian bridges will cross the waterways to provide the principle access to the stadium, from Stratford International station.