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Five historical things to look out for in... Bow

Written by
Katie Wignall

Named after the bow-shaped river that used to flow through the area, E3 has an eclectic past full of poverty, protest and radical politics. It's what made it a perfect spot for Sylvia Pankhurst's East London Suffragette Head Quarters and why Bow High Street saw the Poplar Rate Marches. Here are five historical spots you can still see in the area today.

Bow Quarter

Photo by Look Up London

1. Bryant & May Match Factory (Now Bow Quarter, Fairfield Road)

In the 1860s, Quaker businessmen William Bryant and Francis May established a match factory in Bow, revolutionising production with the use of (deadly) white phosphorus. By 1888 the terrible working conditions for the 1,200 women and girls led to the first example of industrial action, *ahem* sparking a wave of strikes throughout the East End. After production stopped in 1973 the whole site was converted into flats.

Bow Business Centre, formally Poplar Town Hall

Photo by Look Up London

 2. Old Town Hall (Now Bow Business Centre, 157 Bow Road)

When it opened in 1938, Poplar was the first English Town Hall built in the modernist style, a choice made to reflect the borough's radical politics. In 1921 Poplar councillors refused to levy what they considered an unfair tax on their constituents, resulting in 30 councillors serving six weeks in prison. Their protest gained huge public support and more protests in neighbouring boroughs. As a result, The Financial Provisions Act – a more equal measurement of taxes for poor areas – was passed in the same year. 'Poplarism' is still used today to describe large-scale municipal relief for the poor. When Poplar was absorbed into Tower Hamlets in 1965 the building lost its purpose and is now the rundown-looking Bow Business Centre. 

Poplar Town Hall Mosaics

Photo by Look Up London

If you're passing by though make sure you look up under the canopy to spot David Evans' 1937 mosaics. They showcase the industrial dockland history of Poplar. 

3 Mills Studio

Photo by Look Up London

3. Three Mills Studio, 3 Mill Lane

Three Mill Island dates back to the Middle Ages, even getting a mention in the Domesday Book. But the current Grade I-listed mills date from 1776. It's London's oldest surviving industrial centre and has provided Londoners with everything from flour to gunpowder and even distilled gin. Nowadays they house TV and film studios and were where the auditions and rehearsals for the London 2012 Olympic ceremonies were held.  

Photo by Look Up London

4. Fairfield Road Plaque

Surely the best of the Bow Heritage Trail plaques, this one on Fairfield Road claims that it stands on the 'site of annual Whitsun Fair, stopped in 1823 due to Rowdyism and vice'. The fair itself – referenced as early as 1630 – was hugely popular during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and happened the day after Whitsun (the Christian festival of Pentecost). It was sometimes called ‘Green Goose Fair’ because of the fine roasted geese on sale, but the name doubled as slang for loose women, possibly another reason that the authorities shut it down. 

Photo by Look Up London

5. Gladstone statue

At the end of Bow Road stands a statue of former Prime Minister William Gladstone, but take a closer look to spot his red hands. Legend has it that the matchgirl strikers smeared their own blood on Gladstone's hands as a protest against his indifference to their plight in 1888. Today it's regularly replenished with rust-coloured paint, the source of which – unless anyone wants to own up to the guerrilla art – is one of London's mysteries.

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