Present-day Bow (pr. boh) is a densely populated area of inner London on the west bank of the River Lea just east of the City. From at least the early Middle Ages it was known as Stratford-at-Bow – ‘Bow’ apparently a reference to the elegance of its arched bridge – to distinguish it from Stratford Langthorne on the opposite bank of the River Lea. These days the two places are simply known as Bow and Stratford respectively.
As a result of Bow’s proximity not only to the River Lea and its ready supply of water power and water transport but also to the London docks the area has traditionally relied on industrial production and trade of goods: flour mills, slaughter houses, tanneries, dye factories, and – in the eighteenth century – fine porcelain. The Bow China Works was one of the earliest centres outside China successfully to produce porcelain-style goods and as a result was sometimes referred to as ‘New Canton’.
By the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth the area was a by-word for insalubriousness although the social reformer Charles Booth (1840-1916) typified the area’s population as covering a range of of living conditions from “Poor” to “Fairly comfortable”.
Bow’s Catholic church of Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena was designed by Gilbert Robert Blount (1819–76) and opened in 1870 to serve a newly created parish. This new parish was established by a community of Dominican nuns who had previously run (1865-7) the St Mary’s School and Orphanage in Walthamstow, not so far away in north-east London. The Dominicans left Bow in the 1920s (moving to Stone in Staffordshire, where they remain), and the Archdiocese of Westminster became directly responsible for running the parish and its schools.
In addition to the church, Blount’s architectural scheme included a convent connected to the church and school buildings. These buidlings remain to this day. Some are used as the presbytery, parish halls and social facilities while others are home to small and medium-sized enterprises.
According to the National Pipe Organ Register, in 1911 the church possessed a pipe organ by the firm of Bishop and Sons. It must be assumed that this organ was destroyed along with the nave by enemy bombing in the Second World War. The nave was rebuilt after the war and the present west-gallery organ is reputed to have come from one of the chapels in Holloway Prison, north London, supplied by the London firm of Hill, Norman and Beard Ltd (HNB). Since there is no builder’s plate on the instrument it is unclear if HNB made the instrument or merely moved it.
The organ is unassuming and gentle in tone, perhaps not best suited for supporting a sung liturgy even in this modest-sized church, but it is in very good playing condition with a light, responsive mechanical action.