There has been a church on the site of St Mary le Bow, on London’s Cheapside, since Saxon times. And this is where Cockneys come from. Or, rather, a Cockney is someone born within earshot of the sound of its bells. The great bell of Bow appears in the old nursery rhyme, “Oranges and Lemons” – just before the bit that goes “here comes a chopper to chop off your head”. And of course it was Bow bells that told Dick Whittington to turn back because he would thrice be Lord Mayor of London: he did - and was; not only that, but he also got rich, married Alice and they lived happily ever after. From the 14th century, St Mary le Bow rang London’s principal curfew bell at 9pm each day. And during the Second World War, the sound of Bow bells broadcast by the BBC was thought to inspire hope to those under enemy occupation.
Now, Cockneys are under threat because the sound of Bow bells is drowned out by 21st century noise pollution; so fewer Cockneys are being born every day. To be on the safe side, you’d probably need to give birth in a taxi outside. But, to be honest, if you did not know this great church was there you would pass it by.
Medieval Cheapside was a bustling market and a major processional route. Maybe St Mary le Bow stood out more then; these days it seems, like many other City churches, rather hemmed in by everything that goes on around it. Hard up against one side is a nondescript office building; on the other, the old churchyard has been turned into a neatly paved public area, where people linger over a beverage. City workers spill out of part of the crypt, where a trendy café occupies the space where parishioners' bones used to lie.
A Norman church in around 1080 replaced whatever was there before, though this was in turn badly damaged by a tornado. A fire in 1196 necessitated substantial rebuilding, incorporating arches – or ‘bows’ – which gave St Mary’s its name – and the place was wrecked again by London’s Great Fire of 1666. Christopher Wren’s reconstructed church was, allegedly, his most ambitious after St Paul’s and supposedly based on the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome. The steeple is 223 feet (68m) high. The building was then largely destroyed by a German bomb on 10 May 1941 and was rebuilt again between 1956 and 1964.
As one more used to the relatively plain decor of most British parish churches, the extravagant interior of St Mary le Bow struck me as almost Roman. Which, given Wren’s alleged inspiration, makes sense. No criticism intended, for it doesn’t matter to me either way - and it is in any event beautiful; magnificent, even. There must have been a pot of cash sloshing about when it was done, though.
St Mary le Bow is the Australian church in London. Inside, there is a bust of Admiral Arthur Philip (1738-1814), who commanded the first shipment of convicts to Australia, went on to become the first governor of New South Wales – and who had been baptised in the parish. The ‘rood’, depicting the Crucifixion and hanging over the alter, was a gift from the Federal Republic of Germany in 1964. There is also a bronze relief of St George and the Dragon, given to the church by the King and people of Norway to honour Norwegian resistance during the Second World War.
And finally, famous cockneys include: Michael Caine (or Maurice Micklewhite, born in Rotherhithe), Charlie Chaplin (Walworth), Len Goodman (Bethnal Green), the Kray brothers (Hoxton), Dizzee Rascal and Harry Redknapp (Bow), Alan Sugar and Marc Bolan (Hackney), Ronnie Lane (Plaistow), Terence Stamp (Stepney) and Barbara Windsor (Shoreditch).
More about St Mary le Bow HERE
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