Bow has become associated with the E3 postcode district, which includes the surrounding districts of Bromley-by-Bow, Old Ford, Mile End and the transpontine Three Mills in Newham. The modern Tower Hamlets wards of west and east Bow are associated more with the postcode, than the settlement, and bounded by the Mile End Road, in the south; the River Lee, to the east; Victoria Park to the north; and Grove Road, in the west.
The Hertford Union Canal links the River Lee Navigation and the Regent's Canal, running west from Old Ford Lock, along the south side of Victoria Park and linking at a basin, just to the west of Grove Road and the park, in the north of Mile End.
Between 1986 and 1992, the name Bow was applied to one of seven neighbourhoods, to whom power was devolved from the council. This resulted in replacement of much of the street signage in the area, that remains in place. Bow West and Bow East are two wards formed in 2002 that incorporate Old Ford and the eastern end of Bethnal Green (to Grove Road, parts of which used to comprise Mile End New Town, north of the Mile End Road). Bow, in turn lost its territory, south of the Mile End Road, to neighbouring Bromley-by-Bow. These boundary changes are driven by the need to ensure a comparable number of electors for each ward within the modern borough.
In 1110 Matilda, wife of Henry I, reputedly took a tumble at the ford on her way to Barking Abbey, and ordered a distinctively bow-shaped, three-arched bridge to be built over the River Lee, The like of which had not been seen before; the area became known variously as Stradford of the Bow, Stratford of the Bow, Stratford the Bow, Stratforde the Bowe, and Stratford-atte-Bow' (at the Bow) which over time has been shortened to Bow to distinguish it from Stratford Langthorne on the Essex bank of the Lee. Land and Abbey Mill were given to Barking Abbey for the continued maintenance of the bridge, who also maintained a chapel on the bridge dedicated to St Katherine, and occupied until the fifteenth century by a hermit. This endowment was later administered by Stratford Langthorne Abbey. By 1549, this route had become known as The Kings Way.
Responsibility for maintenance of the bridge was always in dispute, no more so than with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, when local landowners who had taken over the Abbey lands were found responsible. The bridge was widened in 1741 and tolls were levied to defray the epense, but litigation over the maintenance lasted until 1834, when the bridge needed to be rebuilt and landowners agreed to pay half of the cost, with Essex and Middlesex sharing the other. The bridge was again replaced in 1834, by the Middlesex and Essex Turnpike Trust, and in 1866 West Ham took responsibility for its upkeep and that of the causeway and smaller bridges that continued the route across the Lee. In 1967 this bridge was in turn replaced by the Greater London Council with a two-lane flyover spanning the Blackwall Tunnel approach road, the traffic interchange, the River Lee and some of the Bow Back Rivers. This has since been expanded to a four-lane road.
In 1556 at Bow, during the reign of Mary I of England, and under the authority of Edmund Bonner, Bishop of London, many people, were brought by cart, from Newgate, and burned at the stake, in front of Bow Church, in one of the many swings of the English Reformation.
In 1719, the parish became independent and St Mary Stratford Bow consecrated. The parish also included the Old Ford area which has also been known as North Bow.
This was a barbed reference, as it implied the Prioress had learned French, from the Benedictine nuns, in a distinct Anglo-Norman dialect, that by this time had lost prestige, and was being ridiculed as sub-standard French. (see Bromley-by-Bow).
- Ther was also a nonne, a prioresse,
- That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy;
- Hire gretteste ooth was but by seinte loy;
- And she was cleped madame eglentyne.
- Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne,
- Entuned in hir nose ful semely,
- And frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
- After the scole of stratford atte bowe,
- For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe.
This is to give notice to all painters in the blue and white potting way and enamellers on china ware, that by applying at the counting-house at the china-house near Bow, they may meet with employment and proper encouragement according to their merit; likewise painters brought up in the snuff-box way, japanning, fan-painting, &c., may have an opportunity of trial, wherein if they succeed, they shall have due encouragement. N.B. At the same house a person is wanted who can model small figures in clay neatly.
The Bow China Works prospered, employing some 300 artists and hands, until about 1770, when one of its founders died, by 1776 all of its moulds and implements were transferred to another manufacturer at Derby. In 1867, during some drainage operations at the match factory of Messrs. Bell & Black at Bell Road, St. Leonard's Street, the foundations of one of the kilns were discovered, with a large quantity of 'wasters' and fragments of broken pottery. The houses close by were then called China Row, but now lie beneath modern housing. Chemical analysis of the firing remains showed them to contain high quantities of bone-ash; thereby pre-dating the claim of Josiah Spode to have invented the bone china process.
Emmeline Pankhurst had begun the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU), in 1903, with her daughters Christabel and Sylvia. Sylvia Pankhurst became increasingly disillusioned with the Suffragette movement's inability to engage with the needs of working class women, like the match girls. Sylvia formed her own breakaway movement, the East London Federation of Suffragettes and based it at 198 Bow Road, by the church, in a Baker's shop. This was emblazoned with "Votes for Women" in large gold letters, and opened in October 1912. The local Member of Parliament, George Lansbury, resigned his seat in Parliament to stand for election on a platform of women's enfranchisement. Sylvia supported him in this and Bow Road became the campaign office, culminating in a huge rally in nearby Victoria Park, but Lansbury was narrowly defeated in the election and support for the project in the East End was withdrawn.
Sylvia refocused her efforts, from Bow, and with the outbreak of World War I, began a nursery, clinic and cost price canteen for the poor, at the bakery. A paper, the Women's Dreadnought was published to bring her campaign to a wider audience. At the close of war, the Representation of the People (Amendment) Act 1918 gave limited voting rights to property owning women over the age of thirty, and equal rights were finally achieved ten years later.
Pankhurst had spent twelve years in Bow, fighting for women's rights. During this time, she risked constant arrest and spent a lot of this time in Holloway Prison, often on hunger strike. She finally achieved her aim, but along the way had alleviated some of the poverty and misery, and improved social conditions for all in the East End.
A statue of William Ewart Gladstone stands outside Bow Church. The statue was donated by Theodore H Bryant, part-owner of the Bryant and May match factory. A memorial to George Lansbury (1859-1940) stands on the corner of Bow Road and Harley Grove, near 39 Bow Road, his family home in the constituency until it was destroyed in the Blitz. It describes him as "A great servant of the people". Lansbury was twice Mayor of Poplar and also MP for Bromley and Bow. In 1921, he led the Poplar Rates Rebellion. His daughter-in-law, Minnie Lansbury was one of the 30 Poplar Councillors sent to prison and who died six weeks after leaving prison. A memorial clock to her is situated over a row of shops on Bow Road, near the junction with Alfred Street.
The original Poplar Town hall is situated on the south side of Bow Road, near the DLR station. It continues in use for registrations of births and marriages, as Bromley Public Hall. It was rebuilt in the 1920s, and this Town Hall stands at the corner of Bow road and Fairfield Road in a dilapidated condition, now used as commercial offices. The latter Town Hall contains the Poplar Assembly Rooms, now no longer used. The Builders, by sculptor David Evans is a frieze on the face of the building, unveiled by Lansbury on 10 December 1938, these Portland Stone panels commemorate the trades constructing the Town hall, other panels symbolise the borough's relationship with the River Thames and the youth of Poplar.
Chisenhale, Olga and Malmesbury primary schools are located in Bow.
Bow is served well by bus and road, being sited at the junction of the A12 East Cross Route, and A11 Mile End Road. The proximity of tube stations mean that parking restrictions apply throughout the area.
Access to the Lee Navigation is via the tow-path at Three Mills. South leads to the River Thames, but the tow-path can often be blocked. North leads to Duckett's Cut (the Hertford Union Canal), which provides access to Victoria Park and joins the Regent's Canal near Mile End. Proceeding north along the Lee leads to Hackney Marshes. As this latter is within the Olympic Park the tow-path may be closed unpredictably while building works are undertaken.