Bow lies at the heart of London’s East End.
The area was formerly known as Stratford, and "Bow" is an abbreviation of the medieval name Stratford-atte-Bow, in which "Bow" refers to a bridge built in the early 12th century. Bow is adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and a section of the district is part of the park.
Old Ford, and with it Fish Island, are usually taken to be part of Bow, but Bromley-by-Bow (historically and officially just ’Bromley’) immediately to the south, is a separate locality. These distinctions have their roots in historic parish boundaries.
Stratforde was first recorded as a settlement in 1177. The ford originally lay on a pre-Roman trackway at Old Ford about 600 metres to the north, but when the Romans decided on Colchester as the initial capital for their occupation, the road was upgraded to run from the area of London Bridge, as one of the first paved Roman roads in Britain. The ’paved way’ is likely to refer to the presence of a stone causeway across the marshes, which formed a part of the crossing.
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 Lea, 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 was shortened to Bow to distinguish it from Stratford Langthorne on the Essex bank of the Lea. Land and Abbey Mill were given to Barking Abbey for maintenance of the bridge, who also maintained a chapel on the bridge dedicated to St Katherine, occupied until the 15th century by a hermit. This endowment was later administered by Stratford Langthorne Abbey. By 1549, this route had become known as The Kings Way.
Permission was given to build a chapel of ease to allow the residents a local place to worship. The land was granted by Edward III, on the King’s highway, thus beginning a tradition of island church building. In 1556, 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.
During the 17th century Bow and the Essex bank became a centre for the slaughter and butchery of cattle for the City market. This meant a ready supply of cattle bones, and local entrepreneurs Thomas Frye and Edward Heylyn developed a means to mix this with clay and create a form of fine porcelain, said to rival the best from abroad, known as Bow Porcelain.
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 a manufacturer in Derby. In 1867, during drainage operations at the match factory of 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, pre-dating the claim of Josiah Spode to have invented the bone china process.
In 1843 the engineer William Bridges Adams founded the Fairfield Locomotive Works, where he specialized in light engines, steam railcars (or railmotors) and inspection trolleys, including the Fairfield steam carriage for the Bristol and Exeter Railway and the Enfield for the Eastern Counties Railway. The business failed and the works closed circa 1872, later becoming the factory of Bryant and May.
Bow was the headquarters of the North London Railway, which opened its locomotive and carriage workshops in 1853. There were two stations, Old Ford and Bow. During World War 2 the North London Railway branch from Dalston to Poplar through Bow was so badly damaged that it was abandoned.
Bow station opened in 1850 and was rebuilt in 1870 in a grand style, designed by Edwin Henry Horne and featuring a concert hall that was 100 ft long (30 m) and 40 ft wide (12 m). This became The Bow and Bromley Institute, then in 1887 the East London Technical College and a Salvation Army hall in 1911. From the 1930s it was used as the Embassy Billiard Hall and after the war became the Bow Palais, but was demolished in 1956 after a fire.
The safety match industry became established in Bow. In 1888, a match girls’ strike occurred at the Bryant and May match factory in Fairfield Road. This was a forerunner of the suffragette movement fight for women’s rights and also the trade union movement. The factory was rebuilt in 1911 and the brick entrance includes a depiction of Noah’s Ark and the word ’Security’ used as a trademark on the matchboxes. Match production ceased in 1979 and the building is now private apartments known as the Bow Quarter.
Bow underwent extensive urban re-generation including the replacement or improvement of council homes, such redevelopment and rejuvenation coinciding with the staging of the 2012 Olympic Games at nearby Stratford.