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Bow Bridge, the Gateway to Essex
And not to be confused with Bow bridge in Central Park, New York!

In 1722 the author, Tilbury brickmaker and part time spy Daniel Defoe began his epic journey around Britain and wrote,

passing Bow Bridge where the county of Essex begins.

Although Daniel Defoe appears to have crossed the River Lea, without difficulty, the passage was an ordeal for nearly 1,500 years. The river shrank and expanded with the tides and seasons. The Lea, until Victorian times, was not the tightly embanked waterway of today. Extensive marshes on either side of the river, along with its separate channels, covered much of Stratford, Leyton and Hackney, north to Walthamstow and Enfield and south to where the Lea joined the River Thames.

The Romans arrived in force in AD 63. They stayed for nearly 400 years and despite Colchester being the de facto capital of the province no bridge on the lower Lea was built. To this day it remains a mystery how Boudica, during her short lived rebellion of AD 61, organised the crossing of the Lea for her vast army (said to number 200,000) that went on to burn and sack London after marching from Colchester.

          Following the departure of the Romans, the Saxons came, followed 300 years later by the Vikings. The River Lea then served as the frontier between Saxon and Viking ruled England.

The Romans did build a causeway across the marshes at Old Ford. It is recorded that later a ferry operated which crossed the river at Stratford. The ferry ran until the 12th century. However, the demand for a more permanent crossing grew.

Queen Matilda (Maud) (1080 – 1118), shown above, was the wife of Henry I. Maud (left) is said to have complained when she got her feet wet crossing the river. She asked her husband to build a bridge on the site of the Stratford Ferry crossing. Yet, this may be just a story. More plausible is that many people using the river in times of flood complained of the ever present danger of drowning and losing all their possessions. The (flood) of complaints prompted the Queen to issue instructions to construct a bridge together with a more solid approach causeway. Queen Matilda was not only the English queen but also the Abbess of Barking Abbey, so building a bridge was in her own interests too as she made regular trips from London to the Abbey.   

As a result of the queen’s intervention five bridges were built, the first across the River Lea proper at Stratford-by-Bow. Other smaller bridges were constructed such as the Channelsea and Pegshole east of the main river. The bridges were then linked by improved raised causeways built of gravel and crushed chalk.

Impression of Barking Abbey before the dissolution

At first Barking Abbey was charged with all responsibility for the bridges. However, in 1135 another abbey, Stratford Langthorne was founded by William de Montfichet whose seat was at Montfichet Castle near Stansted. The new abbey was much closer than Barking to the bridges, so the Abbess of Barking transferred the responsibility to Stratford Langthorne. This started a dispute between the two abbeys over maintenance and repair costs which 200 years later was still not settled when the abbeys were formally dissolved by Henry VIII.

          The building of a bridge at Stratford marked an important step in east west communications from London into Essex. The new Lea Bridge was unique in that it was the first stone arched bridge to be built in England. Earlier bridges had mainly been planks of wood laid across narrow points on the waterway. Apparently, the Bishop of Coggeshall during the reign of Edward II refused to sanction the building of a stone bridge on his land. He said planks of wood were good enough for the bishop, horse riders and pedestrians. When the new Lea Bridge was built even London Bridge was entirely constructed of timber. The new Lea Bridge consisted of seven stone arches sweeping across the river in a gentle bow which is probably the reason it became known as Bow Bridge. The crossing even had a chapel on it dedicated to St. Catherine, under whose protection the bridge was placed.

Bow Bridge around 1800 (only three arches visible)

The bridge had pointed arches and carried a road 18 feet wide. The piers were thick and strengthened by angular buttresses designed to break the force of the current. On the roadway there were V shaped recesses on which pedestrians could step in if they were crossing at the same time as a wagon. The construction was a testament to the skill of Norman stonemasons in so much as the bridge was still standing 700 years later.

          Although Queen Matilda had initially financed the bridge through the sale of lands – keeping the bridge in good repair was another matter. In the 12th and 13th centuries there were no municipal or state authorities to take responsibility for the upkeep of roads and bridges.

          Sometime around 1200 during the reign of King John, a certain Hugh Pratt, a squatter, took up residence on the causeway and built himself a rough shelter. He subsisted on donations given by travellers and in return undertook repairs on both the bridge and the causeway. After Hugh Pratt died his son William took over. Initially the Abbey viewed Pratt’s activities with suspicion but then realised it was in their interest to have a pious bridge keeper on site. Consequently the Abbot at Stratford Langthorne authorised the building of more a permanent house for their gatekeeper and gave him a small annual donation towards upkeep and repairs. However, this proved only a short term solution. The condition of the bridge depended on the cost of repairs, the integrity of the gate keeper and in turn the supervision of the abbot.

          Over time the bridge deteriorated. Increasing numbers of heavy wagons passing over caused deep ruts on the road surface.  An official enquiry was held and the King’s Justice, Robert Passelewe, authorised a toll. The gatekeeper at the time was called Godfrey. He enthusiastically took on the roll of toll-collector. To enforce toll collection he built an iron barrier across the bridge. All would be charged although seeking to avoid trouble, at his discretion he allowed the  ‘rich and powerful’ to cross for free.

          Matters came to a head when the gatekeeper demanded a toll from the abbot of Waltham and his companion Robert Basset. The demand enraged the abbot who presumably expected to cross for free so he promptly ordered the toll barrier to be torn down. Godfrey was unable to repair the damage and the incident came to the notice of the abbot of Langthorne. It was soon apparent that Godfrey was not spending all the toll money on repairs. The abbot deemed that Godrey was doing too well and the abbey’s grant and support was stopped. Godfreys fate is unknown.

          One hundred years later Edward I’s  wife Eleanor took it upon herself to give the bridge a complete overhaul. As the years passed by, abbot succeeded abbot at Stratford Langthorne with a succession of itinerant gatekeepers kept employed. All the while routine maintenance was neglected. Fifty years later another abbot, somewhat more conscientious than his predecessors, took charge of the bridge. He abolished the toll and sacked the bridge keeper.

          The incessant disputes were part of the early history of Bow Bridge and the haphazard  way in which a vital link between east and west was looked after. In the mid- 1500s the Abbeys were supressed by Henry VIII and for a time no one had responsibly for roads or bridges.

The first highways act introduced in 1555 made the parishes responsible for their bridges and or roads. Thus, from the sixteenth century looking after Bow Bridge was shared between Stratford, then part of Essex and Middlesex (London). Although there were still arguments between the parishes, in general the issue of running repairs seemed to have been solved, but now the sheer volume of traffic crossing had to be addressed. The bridge was widened by building over the buttresses on the southern side. However each parish had its own ideas on road widening. A five foot wide section was added on the Middlesex half, whilst a seven feet section was added on the Essex side. Additionally a wooden platform was built on the piers on the north for pedestrians. As far as it is known the pedestrian walkway was the same width, seven feet, all the way across the river.

          In 1827, during reign of George IV, a survey was undertaken of Bow Bridge. It concluded that an entirely new structure was needed. Queen Matilda’s bridge was hardly recognisable. Over the centuries there had been numerous alterations and repairs. Of the original seven arches only three were visible. The others had been bricked up and used as cellars for the houses that were built right up to the riverbanks. Orders were given to demolish the 700 year old bridge.

Demolition of Queen Matilda’s Bridge in 1935

In 1835 a new single span granite bridge was constructed at Bow by John Rennie the younger. John Rennie also had credits for building the ‘New’ London and Waterloo Bridges.

This ‘new Bow Bridge’ survived less than 100 years. It was replaced by an iron bridge in 1905. Another new Bow Bridge opened in 1967 and shortly afterwards the Greater London Council added a flyover.

The Tudor historian John Leland described Bow Bridge as,

a rare piece of work of the time the like had never been seen in England.

          Bow Bridge is still the principal gateway into Essex from London, although since 1965 the county border has moved further east.


London and Middlesex, Vol. IV, pp. 282-287, by J. Norris Brewer (1816).
Tower Hamlet’s Local History Library and Archives.
E A Rudge Essex Countryside 1964
British History online
Image Queen Matilda © Westminster Abbey