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History Overview

The 18th Century: restoration and decline

In 1820 the church was extensively renovated and restored by George Gwilt the Younger (1775-1856). Elizabeth and Wayland Young comment that Gwilt unfortunately substituted Aberdeen granite for Portland stone in the top peristyle of the spire. He also shortened the obelisk but, as if to atone for those sins, he again 'discovered' the Norman foundations of the old church which had been overlooked since Wren’s time. In keeping with the style of the time, the reredos of 1706 with its seven sham candles on top was cut down. In 1867 the galleries - an eighteenth-century addition - and much of the woodwork were removed. The organ was moved to the north-east corner of the church and between 1878 and 1882 the floor was lowered and paved and extensive interior redecoration carried out. In 1891 the stucco, with which the external walls were covered in 1702, was removed and the walls were pointed with cement. Further interior redecoration was undertaken in 1907. And just before the First World War a copy of ‘The Holy Family’ by Murillo was hung at the east end of the church.

By 1847 St Mary’s had lost its status as one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s 'Peculiars' in the City. By 1861 the surging exodus of population from the City to the suburbs was in full flight and all City churches, including St Mary’s, were left increasingly stranded. In that year the parish had only 317 inhabitants - this low number also took into account the inhabitants of the pre-1666 parishes of St Pancras Soper Lane and All Hallows Honey Lane which had been merged into the parish of St Mary-le-Bow after the Fire. Further consolidations were to follow. First All Hallows Bread Street (in whose parish church John Milton had been baptised) was joined to St Mary’s in 1876 when, in an act of spectacular civic vandalism, the Wren church of All Hallows was demolished to make space for some warehouses. (The parish of St John the Evangelist Friday Street had already been amalgamated into All Hallows Bread Street after 1666). Then after the Second World War St Augustine Watling Street and St Mildred Bread Street were amalgamated into St Mary-le-Bow. (St Faith Under St Paul’s had already been amalgamated into St Augustine Watling Street after 1666, as had St Margaret Moyses Friday Street into St Mildred Bread Street).

The parish’s living was worth £459 a year in 1861 and the patronage of the parish was now shared between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Worshipful Company of Grocers. The former made two successive appointments and the latter then made one, before the gift of appointment returned again to the archbishop. This arrangement persists. In 1885 the ground which had marked Bow Churchyard was taken up by a firm of silk merchants, Messrs Copestake, Moore & Co. The wholesale decline of the City parishes during this period was noted by Charles Dickens in his Uncommercial Traveller. In chapter 9, on the 'City of London Churches', he notes that he spent a year of Sunday mornings attending these once vibrant centres of civic and religious life:

I never wanted to know the names of the churches to which I went, and to this hour I am profoundly ignorant in that particular or at least nine-tenths of them ... As I stand at the street corner, I don’t see as many as four people at once going to church, though I see as many as four churches with their steeples clambouring for people.