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TEXT ONLY VERSION for quick reference and searching, for the illustrated version - E: Bow Common a Nuisance; William Cotton and the first church 3.2 Mb pdf
Tracing a little of the History of the Parish
191 Overview of section E
E 192-198 Bow Common from Tudor times to 1853 in maps
E 199-211 Bow Common – a Nuisance to the whole East End
E 211-215 Bow Common from 1862-1914
E 216-217 William Cotton
E 218-221 The first St. Paul’s, Bow Common is built
E 222-226 William Cotton is honoured by the Diocese
- 192 -
In the beginning …
The story of St. Paul’s, Bow Common cannot be just the story of a notable modern church building.
Were this purely an architectural monument there would be little need to go further. However, for
those on the ground who use the church to worship in, or to gather for community events, its meaning
extends beyond all that has been explored so far in this account, into the context of their lives and
community and history.
Every Church of England church does not just stand in isolation as a place of worship but is also the
church of a parish – a geographical area in which there is pastoral care, ministry and service,
irrespective of any religious adherence or none. The concerns of a parish should also be the concern of
the minister and people of the parish church. It is interesting that in the annual election of
churchwardens, the electorate are not just those on the particular church’s electoral roll of church
members but all who are on the civil electoral roll of the parish! The Incumbent and churchwardens
have a duty and ministry to the whole parish & not just to the members of a given church. Thus it is at
St. Paul’s, Bow Common. The parish and its people and life, give fullest meaning to the parish church.
The account of the story of the present church building as presented earlier is supplemented in this
section by this wider context. When I came to the parish as a new incumbent in 1995, as mentioned
earlier, there was no archive at all beyond a small but valuable collection of photographs and a little
archival material on the first church to stand here. These had been gathered by lay members in the 18
months between incumbencies and usefully and beautifully organised and displayed in an album.
Between 2008 and the 50th anniversary of the church in 2010, I did research into the first church and
parish and discovered quite a number of strands which were not at all known about, even by Fr. Kirkby
or the early church members. These are all brought together in this section.
But the story of Bow Common goes back well before there was ever a church on this spot! Up to the
middle of the 19th century this was a rural area of fields and grazing land. The bustling metropolis lay
some miles to the west and, apart from scattered cottages, the nearest populations were in the village
of Bow to the north-east and the ancient village of Stepney to the south west. The churches of both
villages continue to be used, at St. Mary’s, Bow, which celebrated its 700th anniversary a few years ago
and at St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney, originally a Saxon foundation re-built and re-founded late
in the 10th century by St. Dunstan, when he was Bishop of London. This church is dear to me as the
place in which I spent the first six years of ordained ministry and first preached and celebrated the
Holy Communion. Both these one-time villages are now completely embedded into the vast city which
The maps which follow show, first, London in the later 16th century and then the site of the church
from the early 18th to mid-19th centuries.
Site of church
just to the east in
- 193 -
John Strype’s map shows the common land as ‘Pesthouse Common’ (circled area) with pasture
lands all around.
The map is of Stepney Parish which for centuries had been the largest parish in Europe but now
was in the process of splitting into smaller parishes as populations increased and moved and
needed to be served by a number of local churches. Most of the area of the map, including what is
now the parish of St. Paul’s, Bow Common, were part of that parish of which the parish church is
St. Dunstan’s (shown at the centre as Stepney Church).
London was quite far out off the left of the map and these various clusters of population were the
Tower Hamlets (the Hamlets of Mile End Old Town, Mile End New Town, Wapping Stepney,
Ratclif, Limehouse, Bethnal Green, Bow etc.), this name being used from the 16th Century. The
Constable of the Tower of London was the Lord Lieutenant of Tower Hamlets and commanded
the ‘Tower Hamlet Militia,’ for which the Hamlets paid taxes and presumably were then under the
general protection of the Militia. The name ‘Tower Hamlets’ continues to be used up to the present
day for the large London Borough which took that name for the borough in reorganisation of 1965,
absorbing the metropolitan boroughs of Poplar, Bow, Bethnal Green, Stepney etc.
- 194 -
Here we can
for the piece of
common land –
named after the
Bromley to the
east, south of
the west bank
of the river Lea.
Not long after
it begins to be
shown as ‘Bow
village can be
seen to the
north east and
St. Anne at
further to the
south – both
alive and in
Stepney is just
off the map to
Elsewhere … ‘Salmon Lane’ is still called Salmon Lane to this day and ‘Rogues Well’ just to the
south west of where the approximate site of the church is indicated in red, is remembered today
in ‘Rhodeswell Road.’
Otherwise, all that lies around the future site of the church is a patchwork of fields and open land.
London proper lies about two miles and more due west.
- 195 -
This map must be dated after late 1770 as that was the year in which the first canal in London was
opened – the Limehouse Cut (or Bromley Cut or Lea Cut) – shown towards the lower edge.
Stepney parish is shown on the western side of this map with St. Dunstan’s Church indicated.
What are now familiar names and features also begin to appear – Mile End Road at the north end,
Whitehorse Lane and Stepney Green further south. Salmon Lane is called ‘Salmons’ Lane here –
interestingly, I remember older local people calling this ‘Salmons’ Lane up to a few years ago and
not ‘Salmon’ as on the street signs – a hangover from long past days?
Along the northern edge of the map is ‘Bencrafts Hos.’ This is intriguing because today in that
place is ‘Bancroft Rd.’ on which sits ‘Mile End Hospital’! Since the first church was built, St. Paul’s,
Bow Common has been situated on a major connection between the major east-west route into the
City to the north and Limehouse, to the south, a kind of gateway to the cut-off wilderness of the
Isle of Dogs (still called ‘The Island’). This road on which the church sits is now Burdett Rd.
However, all of this remains a very rural setting here and is not yet populated.
- 196 -
This interesting record by
Thomas Milne of land use in
1801 shows an almost
completely rural land-scape
of arable land and meadows,
with some extensive
enclosed market gardens.
The presence of Limehouse
Cut Canal now shows a
growing ‘industrial’ use of
land, with the presence now
of West India Docks south of
Key to Thomas Milne's Land Use Map
of London & Environs, 1800.
Arable Land Pale Brown
Meadow Land Light green
Enclosed Market Gardens Light Blue
Paddocks or Little Parks Pink
- 197 -
Both urbanisation and industrialisation begin to emerge. The Regent’s Canal has now appeared
and can be seen running north to south in the lower left part of this map segment. The Rope Walks
and Cable Manufactory are signs of the growing importance of the shipping industry in the nearby
London docks. There is still a street in the parish of Bow Common called Ropery Street and not far
away to the south near Limehouse there is still Cable Street. The road running along the northern
side of Bow Common is now known as ‘Bow Common Lane’ and is one of the parish boundaries.
London, further to the west, is expanding rapidly and housing has begun to spread across the area
on all sides but Bow Common remains as open land. As a later part of this historical review will
soon testify, the increase of factories with growing air pollution had already begun and was
beginning to have a considerable environmental impact. The Soap Manufactury, Potash
Manufactury as well as the common sewer would have made the air anything but sweet!
The snaking ‘Footpath’ running by the site of the future church evolves later into St. Paul’s Rd.,
and then into St. Paul’s Way, with Devons Rd., further east.
- 198 -
Not only are there canals to west and south of Bow Common but the London and Blackwall
Extension Railway now also runs right across the middle of it . With the increasingly busy London
docks nearby and urban housing closing in on what was a totally rural setting, it cannot be long
before the property developers will move in and London will have spread to swallow up this
common land. Just 5 years later the first church of St. Paul’s, Bow Common was to be built.
(Note how Tower Hamlets Cemetery has now appeared – not only the living gather here!)
- 199 -
Bow Common – A Nuisance to the whole East End!
By the middle of the 1850’s the urban sprawl of London had long since swallowed up rural Stepney
and Bow but Bow Common was a bit of a No-Man’s Land. The better-off population was now
living ‘out east’ and in Stepney Green and on Mile End Rd. were some fine houses with ready
access to London. But, very nearby there were cottages still scattered across Bow Common and
eastwards, in which much poorer citizens dwelled.
As London expanded eastwards, what had once been outlying districts such as Whitechapel,
where factories and industry were at a safe distance from London, now began to be surrounded
by housing. Bow, Bromley and the River Lea were far out enough for these unpleasantnesses to be
relocated there. Surely London would never extend out to such a distance! In these new more
distant industrial regions serviced by the Limehouse Cut and Regent’s Canal, as well as the railway
lines for freight, there was now a great deal of chemical industry with factories lining the canal
banks and the air full of noxious fumes and smells, mercifully all at a safe distance from London.
However, by 1850 the ever-expanding city did in fact begin to reach out towards these areas, Bow
Common was becoming a national scandal and the matter even reached the leader columns in The
Times! While the poor lived out in such unacceptable conditions no-one raised much of a fuss.
However, now that the better-off were also having to live so near such a noisesome nuisance,
protests began to be lodged! The writer of this letter of 1847 did not mince his words! Living
conditions sound truly appalling.
‘letter to The Times, December 11, 1847
Sir, - The Times has on various occasions published letters and itself commented on the great necessity which
exists for the Government and police magistrates, as well as the parochial authorities, to insist on the removal
of such nuisances as are prejudicial to the inhabitants of this great metropolis and its environs.
Various manufactories of an obnoxious kind, besides places for the collection of night soil and other offensive
matters, although 30 years since they might have been considered at a sufficient distance from inhabited
houses, are now, from the great extent of buildings, much too near for health and propriety, being situated
as it were in the very midst of our habitations.
In my own neighbourhood, that of the East India-road, a place exists called Bow-common, which is a
nuisance to all the east end of London, but more particularly to the parishes of Stepney, Bow, Bromley,
Poplar, and Limehouse, in which live about 80,000 inhabitants. On this spot are manufactories of the most
noxious and injurious kind, carried on by chymical compounders, as they call themselves; and amongst
whom are some who manufacture ammonia from night soil, a process which deserves special notice. The soil
goes under the operation of boiling, and the liquid which exudes from it is allowed to run into the common
sewer, whence it emits, through the gratings in North-street and High-street, Poplar, as also in Limehousecauseway,
the most horrid stench polluting the atmosphere until it enters the river at Limekiln-dock.
What the authorities, public and local, are about to allow such nuisances to exist, I am at a loss to guess. The
said Bow-common belongs, as I am informed, to the lord of the manor; and as for building or other common
purposes that would increase its value, a good title cannot, it appears, be given. The land under these
circumstances is let for purposes the most offensive. In fact, advertisements have at different periods
appeared, drawing attention to the eligibility of the spot for manufactures of such commodities as would be
deemed nuisances in other neighbourhoods and representing that they might here be carried on with
Owing to the laxity of those who should interfere in these matters, manufacturing chymists, bone collectors
and burners, patent night soil manure manufactures, night and dust men, as well as other obnoxious trades,
are now establishing themselves in Mile-end and Limehouse, alongside the Regent's-canal and River Leacut,
to the serious inconvenience of the inhabitants as to their health and to the detriment of vegetation.
- 200 -
Within the last two or three years a very sensible difference has been apparent in our gardens; the smells are
even greater during the night than in the day, and many inhabitants in the surrounding and immediate
neighbourhood of Bow-common are awakened from their sleep by a suffocating feeling arising from the stench
thence when the wind sets from that quarter, and which sometimes even reaches the densely populated parish
No wonder the people complain of the impurity of the Thames water, or that but a small quantity of fish are
now caught in the river, or that it is quite abandoned by smelts & salmon which abounded in it 40 years ago
– Thames salmon was then considered a great luxury, but is now rarely heard of.
Now that most of the commissioners of sewers for London and its suburban neighbourhoods are renewed by
authority, and a single board for all the divisions has been named by the Government, I do trust the
Legislature will invest the new commissioners with such power as will enable them to compel all landlords
of houses near to common sewers to open communications to them, and also to prevent the filth from gas
works and other obnoxious manufactures (which filth should be carted away) running into the sewers,
thereby causing pestilence to rage in every house communicating with the sewers, owing to the exhalations
arising from them.
The late commissioners of sewers failed in completing the salutary arrangements necessary to be taken, owing
to their want of sufficient authority; the outlay which has been complained of having arisen from the
expensive mode the commissioners had to pursue in levying rates under the authority invested in them to
execute the commission, and their not being allowed when large works had to be carried out to borrow the
money on the rates, and distribute the collection for expenditure over several years, as it is not just that
present occupiers of houses should make improvements for the gratuitous benefit of posterity. This has been
the cause of very many sewers not being made that otherwise would have been.
The object of my making these remarks is not only to get rid of the crying nuisances that now exist, but to
cause them to be removed to a safe distance from London and its immediate neighbourhood, by an act of the
Legislature; and at the same time to call the attention of the House of Commons to the subject generally,
when the Sanitary Bill is brought prominently forward by Lord Morpeth.
AN OLD INHABITANT OF THE TOWER HAMLETS’
Enough is enough! The people rise up against the nuisance!
As time progressed not only did more people begin to live in the area but so did industry continue
to grow and with it the increasing nuisance of pollution. Reading backwards from newspaper
articles which I researched, it seems that by 1859 the people of Bow Common had had enough and
the ‘Metropolitan Alum Works’ whose ‘proprietor’ was one Mr. Alexander Angus Croll, was
taken to trial, as responsible for permitting the chief source of the noxious fumes.
This evoked a lead article in The Times of London on Wednesday 19th October 1859. (The ‘new’
church of St. Paul’s, Bow Common had just been consecrated a year previously on 30th October
1858 and so was in the thick of these controversies). The trial had been going for some months with
the judge deciding to go out to Bow Common to experience the problem first hand of which the
local inhabitants had been complaining.
Following is the article itself and my own transcription as parts of the copy which I found are very
difficult to read.
- 201 -
A Lead article in The Times:
Wednesday 19th October 1859
Fifty years hence, or so, when people are all living
by the rules of sanitary science, breathing pure air,
drinking pure water, and prolonging their days
accordingly, some public man will perhaps
entertain a philosophic audience with a retrospect
of the old 19th century, and a sketch of the
conditions under which Englishmen actually lived
in that historic age.
Possibly a lecturer may turn to a back issue of The
Times in illustration of his subject; and he could
hardly do better, we think, than reproduce the
report of the great nuisance question on Bow-
Common. Certainly the example is a most
extraordinary one, not in one of its features but in
all. The prosecution itself has been remarkable, the
defence even more so, and the whole procedure
instructive in the extreme.
Several months ago the complaints of the
residents in the vicinity of Bow-common against
certain manufactories there established assumed so
serious a character that, after the case had been
partly argued, the magistrate himself repaired in
person to the spot and tested the grievance by
actual observation. The specific charge was
advanced against “The Metropolitan Alum-
Works,” an establishment in which, by the
ingenuity of the proprietor, Mr. A. A, CROLL, the
refuse liquor of gas-works is converted into good
useful alum, and ultimately, perhaps, into fine
baker’s bread. Unluckily, this triumph of chymistry
was attended with unpleasant incidents. The
vapour evolved from the ammoniacal fluid in
course of solidification was inexpressibly
abominable, and, as it was urged, directly
prejudicial to health. Gas liquor does not become
alum without a struggle, and the conflict of
chymical elements was destructive to the natural
atmosphere of the place. However, Mr. CROLL
took the advice of the inspectors, laid out a good bit
of money, and flattered himself that he had
succeeded in abating the evil. If he could have
brought his neighbours to share that opinion, it
would have been all very well, but in this attempt
he failed. The obstinate people of the district
persisted in their discontent, and the chief part of
Mr. YARDLEY’S time towards the close of last
week was occupied in hearing the case over again.
Here it was that the arguments took so curious and
notable a turn.
There was no meeting the charge with an absolute
contradiction. Mr. CROLL’s advocate was fain to
admit that a “certain amount of unpleasant smells”
could no doubt be proved; but what he denied was
- 202 -
that the real noxious and particular odour of which
the neighbours complained could be traced to the
works of his client. Bow-common was full of
nuisances, always had been and, in fact, was “used
to it.” There were substantial (?) works there of all
descriptions, extensive chymical works, and
manure establishments in every variety some of
which worked up stale blood, some fish and others
night soil, as the case might be. Now, who was to
say, in the face of these facts, that the bad smells on
the Common came from the alum-works only? To
be sure this argument was attempted. People did
come forward to certify that they had run the chief
nuisance fairly down, that they had followed their
noses, and gone straight to CROLL’s works
without a check; but it wouldn’t do. Defendant’s
counsel was too many for them and matched all
their complaints with something as bad, or worse,
in another quarter.
Mr. ANSELL, a medical officer of health, declared
that the vapour from the alum-works had tarnished
the brass taps in a publichouse 200 yards off, and
that he tracked the scent fully half a mile,
identifying it all the time. When pushed, however,
by Mr. CHILD, he was forced to confess that there
were other “noxious factories” close by, and that,
in point of fact, they were “too numerous to
mention.” Another professional witness found the
particular taint in the air at 40 yards’ distance from
the establishment, followed it right into the works,
and caught, as it were, the vapour itself ascending
from the liquor-tanks – a “deleterious and fetid gas,
dangerous both to health and comfort! But Mr.
CHILD was down upon him in a second. Not only
were “other works” on the spot excessively
offensive, but deponent was compelled to own, on
cross-examination, that whereas he had noticed
only one barge full of gas liquor unloading
alongside Mr. CROLL’s premises, there were no
fewer than four such craft discharging the same
commodity at the establishment adjoining.
Evidently, Mr. CROLL was only answerable for
one-fifth of the nuisance, if for that.
Then came the general argument – the defence “on
the whole case.” Here was an enterprising and
scientific speculator who had invested a vast
amount of money – 20,000 L at least – in an
ingenious and useful process. Was all this capital to
be shut up because an indefinite and inappreciable
amount of pollution was added to the atmosphere
of Bow-common? It “was not like going to
Grosvenor-square or Belgravia;” that might have
been a nuisance, no doubt;
- 203 -
But at Bow-common it was all natural and
prescriptive. Very likely the manufacture was
disagreeable and the effluvium rather noxious; but
it was too bad to say it produced sore throats, for it
only cause sickness, as was deposed by a medical
witness in mitigation of the charge. Then, as to
neighbours who had been complaining, who were
they? Why, they were house proprietors who had
taken tenants so unconscionable and fastidious as
to object to any corruption of the atmosphere
whatever, who had “let their houses to persons to
whom any odour would be offensive, and the
evidence of these gentlemen ought not to be taken
Of course not! Nothing would please people of that
sort but really pure air, and could any such
extravagant notions justify the “bold interference
with the employment of “capital” now proposed?”
Mr. YARDLEY appeared affected by these
arguments. Something, he remarked, had been
actually done by way of abatement, where the
“whole force of the law” could not make Bowcommon
a pleasant place to live at. Moreover, Mr.
CROLL was a man of great scientific attainments,
who was obtaining “valuable results from a liquor
considered dangerous and useless before.” Finally,
there was a superior court to which the question, in
this important stage, might be carried for further
consideration; and so, upon the whole, the case
against Mr. CROLL was dismissed from the policecourt
This will not be very satisfactory to the people of
Bow-common, nor very encouraging to the
promoters of social science. One nuisance, it is
evident, can be made to protect another, and 50 in
a lump will be perfectly unassailable. Very likely
the alum-works are not much worse than the
manure-works, perhaps not so bad; but the true
question is whether any such establishments ought
to be permitted in the heart of a populous district.
Mr. YARDLEY’s argument, that nothing would
purify Bow-common, is not good for much.
Precisely the same was said of the Thames, and we
know what all that has come to. We do not mean to
impugn the particular decision of the magistrate in
this particular case. Perhaps, as things are actually
tolerated, Mr. CROLL’s works could not have been
condemned without injustice, though the evidence
was not conclusive even on this point; but it is as
plain as possible that the inhabitants of Bowcommon
are suffering under a wrong for which, by
some course or other, there ought to be an effectual
- 204 -
This rather compassionate and ‘non-Establishment’ report highlights what was quite a divided
society – as was suggested in the trial itself, Belgravia was decidedly not Bow Common and the
‘rules’ were administered accordingly!
Not surprisingly, this article stirred up some feeling and on the same day a reader was moved to
write a letter to the Times, on reading the leader comment, and very clearly revealed which side of
the social fence he sat on! There is a readable transcript on the following page.
A Letter to The Times of Wed. 19th October in response to the above:
The air of the place is directly poisoned by noxious vapours arising from certain manufactures, and it is
contrary to all reason that such manufactures should be permitted. The case, however, furnishes a singular
commentary on the address just delivered at Bradford. In one part of the kingdom we have statesmen and
philosophers introducing the truths of sanitary science to applauding hearers; in the metropolis itself we
have lawyers arguing that nuisances destructive to public health are in great measure defensible, and
magistrates ruling that they are not to be summarily put down. If sanitary science is to make any real
progress, those anomalies must be terminated, and proceedings detrimental to the health of the population
must be subjected to immediate control on the simple proof of the fact.
- 205 -
(‘Suum Cuique’ means ‘To each his own.’ Or, ‘may all get what is due to them.’)
Either this is a deeply offensive view of the poor and of the people of the East End, or it is a sharply
and almost dangerously ironic piece about the view of the poor in society and social attitudes,
generally. I really do hope it is the latter! But, for sure such attitudes did hold, whether we like it
or not, even up to our own time.
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES
Sir,- there could hardly be more convincing proof of the utter dearth of matter of public interest at this
season than the fact that Bow-common and its so-called “nuisances” should have been honoured with a
“leader” in The Times.
There are people to be found who will grumble at anything, no matter how natural or how much
accordance in the fitness of things; but I do intreat you, for I know this Bow-common case very well, to
spare your sympathy for some more deserving object.
“Nuisances,” indeed! Why, Sir, must not every gentleman’s establishment in the country have its
“nuisances?” You don’t put the wash-tub in the conservatory, or the manure heap in the carriage drive, or
make the stables open out of the drawing-room by folding doors; but you can’t get rid of these appendages,
as you put them out of the way, in some convenient place, and hide them with a wall or a plantation.
Everybody can understand that it would never do to set up ammoniacal works or a blood-boiling
establishment in Hyde Park. On the contrary, the necessity for supplying the Serpentine with eau de Cologne
at the public expense has already been very nearly established, and will, it is hoped, be universally
recognised next summer. But the East-end of London is in the nature of things, as well by common
consent, the proper receptacle for everything that would be intolerable elsewhere, Whitechapel sugar
bakeries, Petticoat-lane and Bow-common manure works included.
Nor could a better place be found for the collection of these “nuisances” than Bow-common itself. It
says as plainly as a very large open space in the midst of a dense population can speak, “Rubbish of all
sorts may be shot here.” If you are incredulous, get into a North London train at Fenchurch-street and see
for yourself. If there should be some foolish sanitary man or other “philanthropist” in the carriage with
you, he will tell you, no doubt, that it is the very place to secure for a people’s park; that it occupies at the
East-end precisely the position which Hyde Park occupies in the West, the Victoria Park being matched by
the Regent’s Park in exactly the same way. But people with crochets – especially with crochets about social
reforms – will say anything.
The East-end, as I have already said, is the very place for the metropolitan pigsties and manure heap. Have
we not for years been sending all the London sewage down there, via the Thames, although the obstinacy
of the tide, as democratical as it was in the days of King Canute the Dane, has been deliberately taking it
back to Westminster? And are we not now proceeding to “sell” the tide in this matter, by taking all the
sewage down to the east by a private road and by establishing (not so far from Bow-common by the way)
some delightful pumping works to enable the “low level” and “high level” to mingle their limpid streams.
Of course you will understand that the population in the immediate vicinity of Bow-common consists only
of those who are very properly called “the lower orders;” and while the importance of fresh and pure air
is evident for respectable people, and for the richer classes, who are accustomed to well-ventilated houses,
and to a summer holyday at the seaside or in the country, it must be as plain that the same necessity does
not exist in the case of those who have been accustomed all their lives to small and crowded dwellings, and
whose occupations and means prevent either themselves or their children from ever getting out of London.
Trusting that you will allow these remarks, although just now they may be somewhat unfashionable, a
place in your impartial columns.
I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Oct. 19 SUUM CUIQUE
- 206 -
It has been extraordinary to see in places which were among the poorest and most shunned parts of
London for the best part of a century, in both parishes in which I have been incumbent, turn about in
the past couple of decades to become fashionable and even chic! My previous parish of Hackney Wick
was called ‘The Sink’ at about the time this correspondence was written and was looked down upon
even by the other poor areas of Hackney. With the nearness of the new Olympic Park it is now a chic
place to be! An article in the magazine Time Out in 2014 had an article headed, ‘Hackney Wick: fashion
capital of the world?’!
In the parish of Bow Common there are strong connections in the 2nd half of the 19th century with the
work of the legendary Dr. Thomas Barnado (see later for the ‘Barnardo Connection’ in both parishes
of St. Paul’s, Bow Common and St. Luke’s, Burdett Rd.) Near to the church was an area rather
offensively called the 'Fenian Barracks' on account of the large number of Irish inhabitants. Police never
went into the area except in pairs and the largest number of police injuries in the Metropolitan area
were credited to this area. After the turn of the new millennium we began to see good new housing
appearing in the parish, both social housing and part-owned, part-rented – a major change in the
housing pattern in that area. More will be said later about the Victorian profile of the church.
After the article in the Times, a few days later the local press took up the matter of the ‘Nuisances’ of
Bow Common and this carefully considered and balanced article, cynical of the given reasons for
complaint and looking rather to pressures from rich land speculators, appeared in the East London
Observer and Tower Hamlets Chronicle. *** It is worth reading! ***
Lead Article of Saturday 29th October 1859: East London Observer:
East London Observer
TOWER HAMLETS CHRONICLE
SATURDAY, OCT. 29, 1859
NUISANCES IN BOW COMMON
Bow Common is obtaining much
celebrity. It is fast becoming the great
battle-ground of the sciences. Or probably
the place where a second Jupiter is to
destroy a modern Aesculapius with
another thunderbolt. The scientific of the
land have met there – men on whose
toxicological evidence members of our
fellow creatures have been hanged – have
been, seen and conquered. Justice left her
seat and went there also, but true to her
metaphorical reputation she was blind and
could see nothing. The interested were also
there – they who are literally building
fortunes upon the land of that district, and
who being owners of the soil are shrewdly
cognisant of its value, when the air that
rests upon it is pure and wholesome.
- 207 -
Then, because science is lame and justice blind,
there came upon the scene a posse of mere
lawyers who care for neither science nor justice,
and poor Bow Common is pulled and tossed
about by this contention until nobody knows
what is to be done. Scientific men and justice
none know what to be at – nor is the conclusion
when arrived at a whit more satisfactory than
the contest. Seeing this, the leviathan of the
press steps in, and, if anything, makes matters
still worse. The Times honours Bow Common
with a leader, racy and descriptive as usual, but
as far as conviction of what should be done is
concerned, is as void as an exhausted receiver.
It was one of those see-saw leaders for which
the Times is famous. Pithy, readable, and in
parts exceedingly funny, but from which no
guide for sensible action can be drawn.
There can be no doubt that the question
is a difficult one, and requires considerable care
in dealing with it. As to the whole place being
a nuisance, no person can honestly deny it. The
evidence of Drs. Taylor and Odling was of apiece
with their recent Old Bailey
performances; no reliance can be placed upon
it. Sergeant Thomas, who was retained for the
Poplar Board of Works, thus estimated the
evidence of three eminent M.Ds., two of them
being also professors of chemistry. He Said “He
thought the evidence of Dr. Taylor, Dr. Odling
and Dr. Murdock would have been very
different if they had been retained for the
public interest instead of being retained for the
defendant.” We should have looked upon that
as a serious charge, but unfortunately the
public has had too many illustrations of the
ease with which scientific men can be induced
to give evidence for or against anything, to
attach much importance to it. The case need not
rest upon any such evidence. The difficulties
are of an entirely different nature. They go to
the justice of any interference such as would
necessitate a removal of the manufacturies
altogether. It is to that we must really come,
and as the time is not far distant we may as well
begin to understand the real state of the case.
Bow Common, as every body knows
who knows anything of the East of London,
was, until recently an isolated out-of-the-way
place, in which manufacturies which could not
be tolerated in populated places found space
and convenience for their establishment.
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It has consequently offered facilities for the
establishment of such manufacturies, and upon
it have existed chemical works and other works
of a deleterious nature for a longer period than
can be remembered.
It has been notorious for its filthy odours time
out of mind. So much so that its most important
works have been made to indicate its particular
characteristics. It is a manufactory of bad
smells, and its principal bridge is called “Stink
House Bridge.” Nothing could more clearly
indicate the feeling of the people in respect of
the “common” than the term universally
applied to the bridge. But now Drs. Taylor,
Odling and Murdock are brought down with a
scientific thesis to prove there is no nuisance.
True, say they, there was a slight smell of
sulphurous acid but not sufficient of
sulphuretted hydrogen to be a nuisance. This is
simple nonsense. The whole common is filled
with nuisances. We do not say that Mr. Croll’s
is worse than others. But there are many of
them, and in all likelihood they will all be
removed, not abated – that can never be
permanently effective. They must be entirely
removed, and therein lies the difficulty.
If Mr. Croll were to remove his
manufactory at once to some out-of-the-way
place near to which there were no residences,
nor a population to destroy, there would soon
arise in the immediate neighbourhood a
number of dwellings for the work-people to
live in. Other manufactories would be
established there, and other dwellings raised,
and then most certainly there would be a house
larger than the rest for which some speculative
builder would ask and obtain a licence. With
brass taps and other fine fittings liable to be
discoloured with the foul vapours arising from
the deleterious manufactures, and then would
come the interference of the medical officer of
health to condemn the works as injurious to
To say what would be in the case of a
removal of these stinking manufacturies is only
to give a History of Bow Common, for that is
precisely the way in which it has grown, and is
now deemed to … (missing) …
… is no longer a question of health and
mortality, as represented by the Poplar Board
of Works and their officers of health. It is also
an opinion of interest to certain proprietors in
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Men who have become possessed of land at a
cheap rate because of its contiguity to this field
of nuisance now desire to remove the
nuisances, so as to make fortunes out of their
lands. Mr. Cotton, Mr. Tomlin, and others are
in this position and it is of no consideration to
them that Mr. Croll or any other person has
invested £20,000 in their manufacturies; their
object is to improve their own property. In
doing this they profess to have great regard for
the sanitary state of the district and the health
of its population. That is so much cant on their
part. It is evident they desire to improve the
value of their property, When the health of the
people alone was a question, they were silent,
and would have been so now if their interests
were not concerned in the matter.
As fairly as possible we have stated the
facts on both sides, and from them the
difficulty of doing justice to all parties will be
apparent. Viewed commercially the
manufacturers have the greater right. They
were on the spot first, when it was an out-ofthe-
way abandoned place. Their capital was
invested there, and gave rise to the buildings
and population which until recently were all
that was there. Now Bow Common is
surrounded by a large class of houses and
consequently by a more fastidious population,
and proprietors are anxious to change the
character of the place. If we were to judge the
matter from a commercial point of view only,
we should decide that the builders have no
right to take a population to a nuisance and
then complain that the nuisance is there, and
for their own profit, remove it.
There is, however, a much higher
ground than this to take. We acknowledge no
mere commercial principle when dealing with
the health and lives of the people. Paramount
above such selfish considerations is the real
happiness of health, and we therefore feel that
even if a commercial injustice is forced upon the manufacturers of the district, they must move on.
The metropolis is gradually expanding, the suburbs are elbowing the country and shifting it further
outward. Mile-end Old-town is extending eastward; Poplar northward; Bromley westward; and
between them Bow Common is being gradually reduced to the merest centre of a populous circle.
It must become absorbed and its sanitary condition improved. With the full acknowledgement of all
the commercial claims the manufacturers have to perpetuate the nuisance, we contend for the higher
principle, and feel bound to promote and help forward the efforts of the health officers of Poplar.
Their duty is to uproot and finally extinguish that which, notwithstanding all that the Taylors and
Odlings may say to the contrary, is an intolerable nuisance, and there needs no ghost come from the
grave to tell us, that Dr. Ansell is doing good service, and we hope he will persevere, even against
temporary defeat, for in the end he must succeed.
- 210 -
Even the Pharmaceutical Journal (a Weekly Record of Pharmacy & Allied Sciences) had this report:
- 211 -
In the wider story of Bow Common this is very telling story and witnesses to the earliest phase of social transition
which has taken place in this area. From centuries of being an unpopulated rural back-water it then became a
useful place for industry to relocate to, away from London, as the city grew. An interesting little feature of the
climate also suited this state of affairs! In the British Isles the prevailing winds are mostly south-westerly and so
noxious fumes would be blown up to Essex and not back towards the city or the suburbs of London! Only the
poor who had fewer choices would put up with such unpleasant conditions and as the article above shows the
complaints began to be raised once the more vocal and more prosperous found that London was already full &
people needed to live out east.
The underlying story above is that better off people now wanted to live in the East End and, understandably,
neither they nor the poor wanted to be poisoned by noxious fumes. But the property developers were on the case
and could see the potential in buying up land in Bow Common and in the article above Mr. Cotton and Mr.
Tomlin are named. This virgin land was rich for snapping up and building decent housing upon. From 1871
there was a station on Burdett Rd., which connected with Fenchurch Street in the heart of the City of London
and as roads were built and improved, this area was very effectively joined up now with the rest of the
Of particular relevance and interest to this account is one of those property developers mentioned above, Mr.
Cotton! The lead article in the East London Observer is quite damning about their part and their motivation in
the ‘Nuisance’ controversy: ‘their object is to improve their own property. In doing this they profess to have great regard
for the sanitary state of the district and the health of its population. That is so much cant on their part. It is evident they
desire to improve the value of their property, When the health of the people alone was a question, they were silent, and would
have been so now if their interests were not concerned in the matter.’ It was the same William Cotton who bought up
the heart of Bow Common and built some very decent housing along Burdett Rd., and elsewhere but who also,
out of his own pocket, built the first church of St. Paul’s, Bow Common in 1858!
More, soon, about this man and his generous act which gave rise to the stream of faith which has flowed in that
place even to the present day in a remarkable successor to the church he built.
Even in Punch (Issue 37 of 1859) there was mention of this controversy! ‘Mr Croll, the proprietor of Croll's
Metropolitan Alum Works on Bow Common, has avoided proposals to deodorize his noxious gas-producing factory on the
grounds that it is only 'one great nuisance among a variety of greater nuisances'. Advises Croll that to satisfy plaintiffs he
should use the 'very liquor out of which he gets alum attended with foul exhalations' to produce 'exquisite scents' that 'shall
over-power all offensive emanations'. Inhabitants of surrounding areas, it adds, 'will be only ready to die' in such perfumes.’
The modern pattern of streets is
established (though the 2nd World War
and later redevelopment would see
further changes, as well as complete
reconfiguration of what one would
actually find on all these streets).
For the first time the church (built just
4 years previously) appears on a map
(in the red circle). It stands at the
corner of Victoria Rd. (now Burdett
Rd.) and St. Paul’s Road (now St.
By 1875 it can be seen Victoria Rd. has
now become Burdett Rd. This renaming
was in honour of a hugely
generous philanthropist who helped
so many in the East End, Angela
Burdett-Coutts, who was perhaps the
wealthiest heiress in England but gave away literally millions, to help others. Queen Victoria made her a
Baroness in 1871 and perhaps it was this act that triggered this local recognition, of renaming Victoria Rd.
in her honour before 1875 as seen on the next map. A Coutts Rd. was also named quite near to St. Luke’s
church, at a later time.
© MOTCO 2002 www.motco.com
- 212 -
For some reason
as churches are
not shown on
this map! But
the position is
Victoria Rd., has
now been renamed
now very much
reduced, can be
seen east of Bow
It is today still
open land but is
reserve on the City of London and Tower Hamlets Cemetery closed in 1966 and opened in 1841
In October 1865 the new Mission
District of St. Luke’s, Burdett Rd.
was instituted, separated out from
the larger mother parish of Holy
Trinity Stepney supported by the
Bishop of London’s Fund. The
Mission priest, The Revd. William
Wallace worked hard and produced
results in what was a very deprived
area. There was no church and the
first service was held in the School
building next door, of St. Paul’s,
Bow Common. The enterprise began
to prove itself and by 1869 a
permanent church had been
consecrated. There is more about
This map of 1877 shows the parish
boundaries and populations of all
the parishes of East London. The parish of St. Paul’s, Bow Common has a population of 9150 and
looking at nearby much smaller parishes and their populations it can be seen how desnely
populated some of them were, with serious overcrowding.
- 213 -
Parish boundaries are usually smooth and tidy things and follow certain natural boundaries such
as railway lines, canals, motorways, parkland etc. In the case of Bow Common nearthe end of the
C19 these were the Limehouse Cut, Regent’s Canal and Bow Common Lane (not quite as simple
as that, but more or less!). I wondered, therefore, about the deliberately ragged boundary between
St. Luke’s parish and that of St. Paul’s. St. Luke’s parish came into being some 10 years after St.
Paul’s and so the latter church’s boundaries must have been adjusted to accommodate this, as well
as St. Luke’s other neighbouring parishes.
At first site it hints rather alarmingly at avoidance and socially engineered parish boundaries!
There are no records that I have access to which reveal how those boundaries were arrived at but
one has to guess that since St. Luke’s started as a Mission District to serve those very poor people
(who were part of another parish after all) they then chose to embrace those streets and people into
the new parish of St. Luke when it was was formed. One would like to think so, at least!
Even so this map is revealing as to how very varied living conditions were in the East End, even
one street away. At the end of the 1800’s it could be estimated then that the parish of St. Paul’s,
Bow Common was, by and large, populated by comfortably-off people. As mentioned again a little
later, the fortunes of the parish dipped considerably by the time of post-War recovery and the
parish remained the 4th most deprived in the Diocese of London on the Index of Mass Deprivation
(IMD), up to shortly before the time of my retirement. In 2012 it was 294th most deprived out 12,707
parishes nationwide (ie in the 2% most deprived parishes across a range of indices of deprivation).
And by 2014 it had risen out of the 10 most deprived parishes in the Diocese of London.
In 1889, just 12 years later, Charles Booth
carried out his survey of poverty in London. It
was a remarkable work with every street
walked and recorded for its living conditions.
He used a colour code which can also be seen
below his map to the left.
A few years ago just for interest I projected
Booth’s poverty map onto a map of the parish
at about that time and, as can be seen, it is very
revealing. The parish itself seems to be mostly
coloured as ‘Fairly comfortable, good
ordinary earnings,’ with the peripheries of the
parish being ‘Mixed, some comfortable others
Just to the east in All Hallows Parish (where
the so-called Fenian Barracks were located’
there is street after street labelled, ‘Lowest
Class, Vicious, semi-criminal.’ These are
apalling labels and speak of social attitudes of
the time, however here was deep poverty, just
a street away from our parish.
And then, when one examines the curiously
contrived ragged boundary at the northwestern
end of the parish it is clear that it very
precisely avoids the poorer streets in that area.
- 214 -
The expansion of London began long before this period. During Medieval times plagues and
famines effectively kept population growth under control. However by the time of the Tudors,
London’s population began to grow - to around 200,000. In 1714 the population of London was
around 630,000 but the years of Industrial Revolution came and in 1800 already stood around one
million. By 1840, London’s population had swollen to nearly 2 million, making it the largest city in
the world. During the C19 London expanded further and the population grew to around 6.5
million by 1900. With the opening of the London Underground in 1863 one of the biggest problems
for an expanding population – that of mobility – enabled people (who could afford it) to leave the
crowded city and move to new suburban developments, but still with access to the metropolis.
(As an aside, an expanding population and the need for more churches also meant the need for
more Bishops! There was an Elizabethan experiment with new suffragan bishops under the
Suffragan Bishops’ Act of 1534. Bedford was created under this but fell into abeyance after 1560.
In 1879 Bishop William Walsham How was appointed to minister in East London. And then Area
Bishoprics with more appropriate titles were established, beginning with a Bishop of Stepney in
1895. In 1979 the Area system was established and Stepney became an Area Bishopric.)
All of this had a direct effect on the fortunes of Bow Common. On one hand fine houses were built
by developers such as William Cotton in the new parish of St. Paul’s, Bow Common while, as can
be seen from Booth’s maps, just a few streets away conditions could be grim. I have the impression
that some of these sharp social disparities evened out by the end of the First World War. There is
no description or evidence that I have found, of what the social landscape was like after that and,
to be honest, it is very hard to tell how things were in Bow Common.
As to what became of Mr. Croll’s Alum
Works, I have not been able to find out
when, presumably, he relocated or
perhaps closed down at some later stage.
In 2010 during Lent in the year of the 50th
Anniversary of the consecration of the
present-day St. Paul’s, Bow Common, I
led a small group around the parish
armed with an OS map of 1914. A huge
amount of development had already
begun inside the parish and as we
prepared for all of that I wanted us to
trace what had been there before and
have a slightly more ‘joined-up’ sense of
our history, ministry and mission.
In this map of 1914 the first striking
feature is the density of housing. The
church is indicated by the red cross
shape. But even with so much
population, in the midst of it all was
industry. The large gas works shown
within the circle first appears in the map
of 1862 (see above) as ‘The Great Central
Gas Works’ and 10 minutes’ walk off the
left side of the map would have brought
you to the other equally large Stepney gas works.
- 215 -
Within the square red box above, from left to right are to be found:
Copenhagen Oil Mills, Disinfectant Factory, Victoria Lead works (where a branch of LIDL
supermarket stands today!), numerous wharves which include a Biscuit Works, Cabinet Works,
Saltpetre Works, a Gold and Silver Refinery, Radium Works and chemical works (the latter being
the site of some very fine and luxurious residences of several storeys, today).
Some of these are very much chemical manufactories and one wonders whether the smells and
nuisance were still a trouble to what by then was a much increased population. Did people just
put up with it? Did the richer folk simply head further out away from the fumes? Had there been
any outcome of the public outcry way back in 1859 which, in some way, tempered the worst effects
of the pollution or persuaded those industries to relocate?
And then came World War II with huge destruction of old housing and the established old
population pretty much broken up with many dispersed. The strong ‘village-like’ identity of areas
like Bow Common came to an end and new residents arrived with little connection to the area or
reason to feel they ‘belonged.’ It was a struggle for Fr. Kirkby in those post-War years to draw
people to the church. Not only had the old habits of church-going ended, such as they were, but
there were no allegiances to any ‘social centres’ such as churches could be.
Social housing for rent and the Welfare State made decent living more affordable & certainly even
up to the mid 1990’s when I came to the parish the vast majority of housing was rented from the
London Borough of Tower Hamlets and then from a variety of social landlords and Housing
Associations who took over the Borough’s housing stock. The London Plan was never carried out
after the War and the ‘quick-fix’ of putting up enormous tower-blocks fortunately did not prevail
- there are only 2 in the parish, of about 20-odd storeys. Owner occupiers were rare in the parish
apart from the few who had bought their flats under the Right to Buy Policy of 1980.
Even so, as already mentioned, for the duration of my ministry in Bow Common the parish scored
as the 4th most deprived parish in the Diocese of London on the IMD. And then, from about 2008
or so, even with a financial collapse of banks and other institutions, cranes were seen in almost any
direction on the skyline! A new chapter has begun in the life and fortunes of those living in Bow
Common. Just as in 1858 it would have been impossible to imagine what was to come, so, humbly,
we have to admit to the impossibility of speculation as to the future both of the church and of the
people of Bow Common. Whatever it is, what
we can be sure of, however, is that the church
and people of St. Paul’s will be there to serve
and to witness.
The point of including this history of the parish
alongside the full architectural story of the
present St. Paul’s, Bow Common is to underline
that the building is not just an amazing and
radical expression of some remarkable minds. I
would say it is above all and first of all, a parish
church, there for the worship of God by the
Christian community which gathers in that
place. It is equally there to welcome, witness,
serve & embrace all who make up the population
of the ever changing face of that small
patch of land whose history I have been trying
to trace in this account & which, since 1858, has
been the Parish of St. Paul’s, Bow Common.
- 216 -
The First St. Paul’s, Bow Common
In an earlier section, in the editorial article of 29th October 1859 from the East London Observer we
saw some criticism of land speculators who, as London’s population spread ever eastwards, were
buying up open land such as Bow Common to build housing and to make a fortune. The strong
suggestion was they are opportunistic speculators and didn’t have much care for the people
already there or their needs. One such named was a Mr. Cotton.
This judgement may have been rather harsh in his case as William Cotton had a lifetime record of
generosity and philanthropy. And, of most relevance to this account, he built the first St. Paul’s,
Bow Common out of his own funds for the people of the district who were already there and for
those who would later live in the houses he would build.
William Cotton 1786 - 1866
From www.thepeerage.com/e58.htm (compiler Darryl Lundy) We learn that: ‘William Cotton,
1786-1866, merchant and philanthropist, was the third son of Joseph Cotton. He was born at Leyton on 12
Sept. 1786, and was educated at the Chigwell grammar school. Despite an inclination (which recurred more
than once during his life) to take holy orders, he entered the counting-house of his father's friend, Charles H.
Turner, at the early age of fifteen; and henceforth all his education was self-acquired in the intervals of
In 1807 he was admitted a partner in the firm of Huddart & Co. at Limehouse, (and so, had a connection
with this area of the East End from age 21) which had been founded a few years earlier by Sir R. Wigram,
Captain J. Woolmore, and C. H. Turner, in order to carry out on a large scale Captain Joseph Huddart's
ingenious inventions for the manufacture of cordage. Of this business he was soon entrusted with the general
In 1821 he was first elected a director of the Bank of
England, an office that he continued to hold until a few
months before his death, having been for many years
father of the bank. From 1843 to 1845 he was governor,
the usual term of two years being extended to three
years, in consideration of his services in connection with
the renewal of the charter, which was then being
managed by Sir Robert Peel.
But though Cotton prospered in business, his chief title
to fame is derived from his lifelong devotion to the
cause of philanthropy, especially in connection
with the Church of England in the east of London.
Though never a very rich man, the total of his charitable
donations would amount to a large sum, for from the
first he set apart a tithe of his income for this
purpose. But the time, the personal care, and the
organising faculty that he bestowed were of far more
value than the mere money, and won for him from
Bishop Blomfield the honourable title of his lay
His earliest philanthropic efforts, as was natural, were
on behalf of the men employed by his firm at Limehouse.
Here he was the first to break down the vicious practice
of paying wages on Saturday evening by orders on a public-house. This practice, it is curious to find, was
supported by the difficulty of getting small change during the French war.’
- 217 -
‘He took the greatest interest in St.
Anne's schools, Limehouse; he was
chairman of the committee in 1814 that
placed the administration of the London
Hospital on its present successful basis;
and he was active in building the church
of St. Peter's, Stepney, the first example
of parochial subdivision by private effort
in the east of London. Henceforth the
building of churches became little
short of a passion with him. A letter of
his to John Bowdler, dated 1813, may be
regarded as the earliest suggestion of the
Incorporated Church Building Society,
which dates its actual commencement
from a meeting held at the London
Tavern in 1818, where his father,
Captain Joseph Cotton, was in the chair.
Somewhat later he was Bishop Blomfield's most enthusiastic helper in the organisation of the Metropolis
Churches Fund, which afterwards developed into the London Diocesan Church Building Society. His own
special work in connection with this society was the erection of no less than ten churches in Bethnal
Green, the last of which (St. Thomas's) he built and endowed out of his own purse as a memorial
of a son he had lost.
Yet another church—that of St. Paul's, Stepney, on Bow Common—he built himself, to carry out
his principle that ground landlords should thus perform their duty to those who live in their
houses. To this church Bishop Blomfield gave on his deathbed the gold communion plate that had
been made for Queen Adelaide; and the first incumbent was
William Cotton's youngest son. (This was the Revd. Arthur
Benjamin Cotton, Vicar from 1858-1878).
But his charitable energies were by no means limited to the
building of churches. When quite a young man (1811) he was one
of the founders of the National Society, formed for establishing
schools in which the principles of the Church of England should
be taught. He was on the original council of King's College, and
a governor of Christ's Hospital from 1821. For fifty years he was
a member, and for a large portion of that time the treasurer, of the
Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. He was also an
active supporter of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel,
the Colonial Bishoprics Fund, the Additional Curates Society, &c.
From 1819 until his death he lived at Walwood House,
Leytonstone. (Due south of the church across St. Paul’s Way
in line with the rear of the church hall is currently
‘Wallwood Street’!) He died on 1 Dec. 1866, and lies buried in
the churchyard of St. John the Baptist, Leytonstone, a church which he had himself been largely instrumental
in building. A painted window to his memory was placed, by public subscription, in St. Paul's Cathedral.’
All of this seems genuinely to indicate a man who certainly did care for others and whose avowed
Christian beliefs underpinned his lifelong philanthropy. Bishop Charles Blomfield was not only a
great supporter of William Cotton but strove hard for the poor of his Diocese. Alas, he died before
the new church was built. This generous spirit is witnessed to below.
Bishop Charles James Blomfield,
Bishop of London 1828 - 1857
William Cotton, presumed on his death-bed. Wearing a
biretta maybe because he was an honorary lay Archdeacon
and also a High Churchman
- 218 -
The first church of St. Paul’s, Bow Common is built
And so, having bought up most of the land of Bow Common which was to form the extent of the new
parish, the church by Rhode Hawkins was built and consecrated on 30th October 1858 by Bishop
Archibald Campbell Tait, successor as Bishop of London (1856-1868) to Bishop Blomfield and
translated later to become Archbishop of Canterbury (1868-1882).
When one looks at this earliest view of the church taken in 1860, it had already been standing for two
years. But it is still surrounded by open land – in fact largely rhubarb fields with perilous gravel pits.
The fine housing which he built later can be seen in later views but clearly came a few years after the
church was opened. This implies that he had recognised that there were already inhabitants of Bow
Common and that their spiritual needs were to be addressed immediately, as well as the needs of those
who were yet to come in the housing he would build. The generous nature and spiritual outlook of the
man seem once again to be demonstrated.
This is the earliest picture (in fact, a photograph) of 1860 of the church standing in open land. The
building materials and piles of bricks could be for the making or paving of Victoria Road (later Burdett
Rd.) or for putting up the first buildings on the opposite side of the road. The railway arches which are
still there can be seen in the background.
What is almost certainly the Vicarage/Clergy House can be seen where the modern vicarage now
stands, behind the church to the north-east. Housing has already been built along what was then St.
Paul’s Rd. (now St. Paul’s Way) – even with street-lamps! – and further beyond (in Bow Common
Lane?) as can be seen at the rear of the image. It appears that the church had a main entrance situated
in the base of the bell tower (the South Door) and another entrance on the north side of the front face
of the church on the main road, through a porch (the West Door).
- 219 -
When William Cotton built his very decent housing alongside the church and all around, these
views give a glimpse of what no-one would have imagined in such a forlorn out-of-the-way place
just a few decades earlier. They are probably all taken in the early 1900’s.
- 220 -
Somewhere I have seen that the large building seen above, opposite the church on St. Paul’s Rd. was the
clergy house for assistant clergy (there was a
staff of 5 clergy in 1892) and others helping
in the parish, a sizeable building if that was
the case. Whatever it was, it seems much
larger than the adjoining terraces.
This view of 1941 shows the vicarage at the
left edge of the view, as well as the church
damaged by the land mine which fell nearby.
This marked the end of the first church of St.
Paul’s Bow Common and the end of a
chapter in the church’s history.
- 221 -
But the story has only just begun!
Just a few days after the new church
was consecrated, this formal Licence
was issued by the Ecclesiastical
Commissioners on 11th November
Below is the Bishop of London,
Archibald Campbell Tait, who
consecrated the new church.
The First Vicar of St. Paul’s, Bow Common
Was the Revd. Arthur Benjamin Cotton,
Son of William Cotton who endowed the building of the church
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Less than a week after the consecration of the church there was a meeting of the London Diocesan
Church Building Society, which had an important role in supporting the building and maintenance
of churches in poorer areas of the Diocese.
The Address below, presented in full, was given by the Bishop of London in honour of William
Cotton and, in particular, to congratulate him on the Consecration of the new church of St. Paul’s,
Stepney. It confirms the generous kind of man that he was and it is very telling about him.
“ THE COMMITTEE of the LONDON DIOCESAN CHURCH BUILDING SOCIETY gladly avail
themselves of the opportunity afforded them by the completion and consecration of St. Paul's Church,
Stepney, to congratulate you upon the realisation of one more among your many efforts to promote
the glory of God and the extension of his holy Church.
You have now the inestimable blessing of being able to look back upon a long life spent, not for
yourself, nor for the attainment of worldly wealth, but in exertions for the benefit of your fellow-
Christian’s, and in the laying up of those treasures which shall endure for ever. At a very early age
you showed your interest in the welfare of the poor by taking part in the foundation of the National
Society, a step which has been fraught with incalculable advantages to the cause of sound and
Scriptural Education among the humbler classes. The crying want of additional Churches to supply
the means of grace for the rapidly increasing population of the country next engaged your attention,
and we find you a few years later (in conjunction with your venerable father) employed in the
formation of the Incorporated Society for the Building of Churches and Chapels in England and Wales.
It is only necessary to refer to what has been effected by that Society, to learn what a deep debt of
gratitude the Church owes to the first promoters of so valuable an institution.
When the attention of BISHOP BLOMFIELD was first called to the spiritual destitution existing
in many of the vast parishes of London, it was to you he turned as his chief assistor and adviser, and
to your unwearied exertions, your personal investigation into the minutest details, your active
canvassing for support, and your judicious counsel, the great success which attended that remarkable
movement is very much to be attributed. In Bethnal Green your name has become a household word,
and the Church of St. Thomas stands forth there a proof of your munificence, as the changed state of
the parish, by God’s blessing, does of your activity and zeal.
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When again, some years later, the population of London was rapidly outgrowing the existing
means of grace, and some permanent machinery was needed to keep the subject constantly before the
attention of the public, our late venerated Bishop called you once more to his aid, and you have ever
given to the Diocesan Church Building Society the same earnest and unremitting cure that you
bestowed on its forerunner, the Metropolis Churches Fund. Indeed, to extend as widely as possible
among others the blessing of the devout and Scriptural services of our Church, which you have learnt
to value so highly for yourself, has ever been with you a labour of love, and your latest gift to the east
of London, the endowment of the district of St. Paul, and the building of a Church and Parsonage
there, prove that with increasing years the convictions of your youth have only deepened.
It is true, indeed, that in thus building a church on land of your own, where you are collecting
a population for the improvement of your property, you proclaim that you are only fulfilling a plain
duty, since landlords are bound to provide that the means of religious instruction are supplied for
their tenants. The Committee trust that the weight of your name will give this most important principle
wide circulation, and that many may be led by your example to reflect whether it is right in the sight
of God and man to derive large revenues from houses without taking steps to supply with the
ordinances of the Church the inhabitants which those houses contain.
Much more might be said as to the love which your personal friends feel for your generous und
warm-hearted character, as to the respect which your sterling uprightness excites in all that are brought
into intercourse with you, as to the benefits which have resulted from the example of your wide-spread
That it is sufficient to allude to these points, us they will be understood and appreciated wherever the
name of WILLIAM COTTON is known. '
The Committee congratulates you upon having completed this additional work to your Master’s
glory; they express their earnest hopes that the success of St. Paul’s Church under the ministry of your
son may richly fulfil all your expectations, and they pray that many years may yet be granted to you
for many additional labours of love to God and man.
On behalf of the Committee,
A. G. LONDON."
His very personal and even quite radical reply follows, revealing both about Bishop Blomfield and
Mr. COTTON ‘s REPLY.
“My LORD, I am very sensible of the kind feeling which dictated the address your Lordship has
read to me, and I thank you and the gentlemen present for the favourable opinion they have
formed of my humble services in promoting the great project which has associated us together -
the glory of God, and the spiritual welfare of our fellow creatures.
I am strongly impressed with the opinion that I have come very short of what I might have
been and might have done, considering the great advantages it has pleased God to afford me.
From early life, I was taught, by the precepts and example of a good father, that I was not
sent into the world to labour only for myself and for temporal advantages, but for much higher
objects, and I was happily associated with those who were acting on the same principles. Time
was, my Lord, after I had commenced my life of business, when I was very desirous of offering
myself as a candidate for Holy Orders, to become associated with those, who, with a true
missionary spirit, devote themselves to our great Master’s service, even in this country, without
any adequate remuneration.
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I was, however, convinced that it was my duty to continue in the station of life in which it had
pleased God to place me and there to labour in His service whenever he gave me the opportunity.
The formation of the National Society associated me with the Rev. HENRY NORRIS, JOHN
BOWDLER, JOSHUA WATSON, WILLIAM DAVIS, Lord KENYON, and many other active men,
and the establishment of the present Incorporated Society for promoting the Building and
enlarging of Churches and Chapels, in which Mr. JOHN BOWDLER took the lead, brought
me into daily communication with those likely to guide a young man in the right way.
I considered it a high privilege, and cause for much thankfulness, that I was permitted to
assist, with my humble services your Lordship’s predecessor in the great objects he had so much
at heart, and I always remember with gratitude, the unwearied kindness and friendship I
experienced from him. The effort for the benefit of Bethnal Green was but a continuance of his
unceasing labour for the other parts of this great Metropolis, and it was commenced under the
hope that by giving to the poorest and most neglected parish in the Metropolis, then containing
70,000 souls, an additional number of clergymen, Churches and Schools, more in proportion to the
population, it would not only benefit them, but would exemplify the great advantage of the
subdivision of a large parish, and would be the best encouragement for future exertions.
Although much remains to be done by the missionary clergymen in Bethnal Green
considerable progress is made every year, and those only who know the state of that parish before
the commencement of the work can form a correct opinion of what has been already effected. '
Those most intimately acquainted with Bishop Blomfield can scarcely estimate the zeal, the
time, and the money he devoted to this great object. By his letters he obtained donations to an
amount which for many years had not been heard of, and his powerful eloquence effected a happy
change in the habit of scanty giving which had previously disgraced our churches, and he had the
pleasure of recording upon the back of one of his sermons, which he called his golden one, that it
had raised £ 1,200.
Our late Bishop was blessed in his labours by being able to build, or assist in building,
seventy-eight Churches in the Metropolis; but it is grievous to know that London, in consequence
of the unprecedented increase of the population, is now in a worse state, both as to the number of
churches and clergyman, than when he commenced his work.
I was strongly impressed by a sermon, preached for the Bethnal Green Fund, by the Rev.
HENRY MELVILL, who took for his subject (19th Luke, the 41st verse), Our Lord weeping over
Jerusalem. Surely when our blessed Lord now beholds this our Metropolis, we might expect a
similar condemnation. The vast expenditure for our commerce, our enormous and costly public
buildings, the palaces built by our nobility, country gentlemen, and merchants, as compared with
their former residences, and the miserably small sums expended in erecting and endowing
churches and in providing clergyman might make the Saviour weep
But in addition to the spiritual destitution arising from the increase of the population, the
severance of classes has tended greatly to augment the wants of the poor.
Formerly some of the Nobility, many of the great and opulent merchants, lived amongst the
poor, and became acquainted with their wants from their own observation. Now all those whom
God has blessed with large means have removed to a distant part of the Metropolis, live in palaces,
and know little of the state of their poorer brethren labouring for their daily bread. In consequence,
I believe, it is quite true, for my own experience confirms the fact, that not a larger number than
2,000 individuals in this vast Metropolis can be applied to for Church or School Extension, with
any hope of success. Surely this would not continue to be the case if the subject were strongly put
before them. I consider what Bishop BLOMFIELD did as but the commencement of this work.
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He was cheered by several donors, each contributing a sum sufficient for building a Church
in a district inhabited by what are called the labouring classes, and I trust that many will be led to
follow their example.
Your Lordship has alluded with commendation to my having built St. Thomas’s, the tenth
new Church in Bethnal Green. The spot where that Church was built was notorious as the resort
of bad characters; and within a few yards of the site was the house where the Italian boy was
murdered for sale to the anatomists; this spot is now hallowed by the building of a Church and
schools, and there a Christian lady is expending a large sum of money for the improvement of the
domestic and social condition of the poor. This tenth Church was not the gift of me alone, but was
also from my wife and children; for about the time when funds were required, it pleased God to
take to himself a dear and excellent son, and at their request, what he would have received for his
outfit, was expended in a Church, as the best monument to a heavenly minded youth.
I should never have publicly mentioned this had it not been extracted from me by the
Committee of the House of Lords; for I am sure that he
‘Who builds a church to God and not to fame, Will never stain the marble with his name.’
In my seventy-third year, what might have been dangerous in my younger days - namely,
the applause of my follow-men has now no attraction to me; and l have therefore not refused to
receive the address your Lordship has so kindly presented to me. At first I declined to do so, until
I was assured by your Honorary Secretary that it might do good to others; and it may be
satisfactory to those whom God has endowed with a large proportion of this World's wealth to
know that, with my limited means, I have found, (as I believe the excellent lady to whom I have
alluded has found with her larger property) that the greatest real pleasure from wealth, is to be
secured, not by accumulation, but by spending it to advance the glory of God, and the good of our
fellow creatures. ‘
With reference to the building and endowing of the Church at Stepney, I have for so many
years pressed on those who were letting their land for building, and thus bringing together a large
population, that it was their duty to make some provision for the spiritual wants of their tenants,
that I should have been very to blame if I had not acted on the principle I endeavoured throughout
my life to enforce.
Before l commenced the work a dangerous illness, from which there was little prospect of
my recovery, appeared to deprive me of all hope of seeing it accomplished. But. I have cause for
much thankfulness that I have been restored to health, so as to be present at the consecration of the
Church, and I shall greatly rejoice if others who have land to let for building are induced to follow
I am thankful that my youngest son has become the first incumbent of St. Paul‘s, Stepney. I
thank you for your good wishes for him, and it is my constant prayer that it will please God to
strengthen and support him in the performance of his important duties.”
As can be seen in the views a few pages back from the early years of the 20th century, the church
had become a large and imposing presence on Burdett Rd., surrounded by very decent housing
enjoying comfortable conditions. For sure, poverty lay very nearby and there were chemical, gas
and other works also present nearby but these give the impression of a settled community with an
active church. Fifty years previously there was open land and noxious fumes in the air and fifty
years hence the ruins of that church would stand amidst widespread destruction.
Who could have told any of that was in store ? Finally …
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There is mention of Horace Kingston elsewhere in this account in the later history section. When I came
to the church in 1995 he was the only church member who had known the old church before it was
destroyed in the War. He had retired from being the caretaker for the church school, St. Paul with St.
Luke, in Leopold St., and lived in the Caretaker’s Cottage as my close neighbour and friend, also in
Leopold Street. He made this sketch of the church plan below, from memory.
All © DUNCAN ROSS 2015
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