St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside is one of the more well-known of the City churches being home to Bow Bells. The church also has one of the finest Wren steeples which, unlike the church adjacent to the steeple, survived wartime bombing.
My father took the following photo just after the war from Friday Street looking across the ruins of the city towards St Mary-le-Bow
Friday Street is now lost under the One New Change development. Friday Street was on the south side of Cheapside, roughly halfway between Gutter Lane and Wood Street on the northern side, and ran down to Watling Street. The tower and steeple appear relatively unscathed from the outside unlike the church to the lower right which, although external walls remain, has been gutted and is now an empty shell. Within the tower fire did cause much damage and as a result the bells crashed to the ground.
As with many of these photos taken just after the war, it is impossible to take a comparison photo today. The space in between is now full of office blocks with no chance to get any view of the church.
St Mary-le-Bow is now best viewed from Cheapside and the small square adjacent to the church from where the beauty of the spire can be admired.
A Church has stood on the site of St Mary-le-Bow for many centuries. The church to the right rather than the tower is the original site of the church. Apparently when the church was rebuilt after the great fire Wren brought the tower forward onto Cheapside and connected the tower to the church with the vestibule which can be seen in the above photo as the brick wall between tower and church.
As evidence of the age of the church, below is an 11th century crypt constructed when the church was rebuilt by Lanfranc of Canterbury as his London headquarters.
The crypt, although with some changes resulting from reconstruction of the church above following the great fire and wartime bombing is in fine condition and can still be visited with two entrances, either through the vestibule or through a small set of steps at a corner of the church in the square outside.
Part of the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow which also extends to the left of the photo.
Following the great fire, Wren planned the reconstruction of the church. The original tower was not badly damaged and much money was spent on attempted restoration, however re-building was eventually found to be inevitable. This is when the decision was taken to emphasise the importance of the church by rebuilding with a magnificent tower and bringing the tower forward to Cheapside. The former church stood about forty feet southwards of Cheapside and in order to bring the new tower forward to the line of the street the site of a house not yet rebuilt after the fire was purchased.
The accounts for the rebuilding of the tower show the expense that was put into the construction:
To Thomas Cartwright and John Thompson, Masons, for building ye whole Stone wall inside and outside of ye New Tower of Bow from ye pavement to ye top of ye first great cornice with ye winding Staires ye Great Neech Portalls Pillasters windows and carvings according to contract by the great bearing date March 3 1676 – £1600
ffor building from ye top of ye first great Cornice to ye top of ye round Cornice according to Contract signed Septr. 22, 1676 – £2550
from ye Top of ye Cornice over ye Ionick Pillars to the top of ye Cornice under ye Pedestall, ffeb. 27, 1679 – £467, 1, 6
from ye Top of ye Cornice under ye first pedestal to ye under side of ye Spire, June 27, 1679 – £295, 16, 6
about finishing ye Piramids Pinicles and other works of ye Tower, June 8, 1680 – £551, 16, 0
The accounts continue to list in detail the various items and costs for the construction of the Tower which finally amounted to £7,388 8s 7d which must have been a considerable sum in 1680, with a further £8,033, 0s, 5d spent on the church resulting in a combined total of £15,421, 9s, 0d which is by far the most spent on the reconstruction of any of the City churches. For comparison, St. Lawrence Jewry was the next most expensive at £11,870 which really highlights the importance of St Mary-le-Bow.
The tower and steeple are best viewed from Cheapside.
And from the small square adjacent to the church, we can admire the detail of the steeple. The steeple is 224ft in height and is second only in height to St. Brides.
My father also took another photo from roughly the same spot as the first showing the full height of the spire:
Rebuilding after the war was carried out between 1956 and 1964. The light inside the church along with the white walls, blue panels, gold decoration and stained glass is magnificent:
Unlike the tower and steeple, the main church building is very difficult to view from a distance. The main church is surrounded by buildings and the best viewing point is from the small square outside the church. The following photo shows the church with the tower to the left. It was possible to get a bit further back, however the tree then obscured much of the church. Even so, you can see from my father’s original photo that although the core of the church was gutted, the walls remain to this day.
The statue to the left of the photo is Captain John Smith, a former parishioner of the church. It was Captain John Smith who was leader of the Virginia Colony and was the first English explorer to map the Chesapeake Bay area and New England during the British settlement along the east cost of the United States.
As always, I find it fascinating to walk around a building to see what can be discovered on the external walls. Hiding at the top of the walls are these headers to rain water down pipes continuing a long tradition of dating and decorating these architectural features. A visible reminder of the rebuilding of the church after the war.
There is also a plaque removed from the church of All Hallows, Bread Street commemorating that John Milton was baptised in All Hallows.
All Hallows, Bread Street was a victim of the gradual consolidation of parishes over the centuries. It was not just the Great Fire of London and the Blitz that destroyed the City Churches, there was an ongoing process of consolidation. As well as All Hallows, St. Pancras, Soper Lane was also united with St. Mary-le-Bow.
On the corner of the tower you will also find the following carving:
This is nothing to do with the function of the church, they are found carved on buildings, bridges and walls across the United Kingdom.
They are Ordnance Survey Bench Marks carved into structures that are likely to be long-lasting and stable to provide a height reference. The horizontal line is the height reference above the Ordnance Survey datum. This was used in the re-levelling of Greater London between 1931 and 1934 and established a height of 56.269ft above mean sea level at Newlyn in Cornwall (the Ordnance Survey datum for measuring heights above sea level). So if you now walk along Cheapside, past St. Mary-le-Bow, at least you know the height above sea level !
St Mary-le-Bow has always been a prominent landmark in Cheapside, a very busy route between Bank and St. Paul’s. The following view taken from an early postcard shows how the steeple stood well above the surrounding buildings and then as now a clock on the front of the tower kept the busy people of Cheapside well-informed of the time of day.
A fascinating church and I have not even covered the story of the Bow Bells, the nursery rhyme , Dick Whittington etc. as these are all well documented elsewhere.
The sources I used to research this post are:
- The Old Churches Of London by Gerald Cobb published 1942
- London by George H. Cunningham published 1927
- Old & New London by Edward Walford published 1878