Bow bells

Not to be confused with Marylebone or Bow Church.
St Mary-le-Bow
Exterior of St Mary-le-Bow
Country United Kingdom
Denomination Church of England
Architect(s) Sir Christopher Wren
Style Baroque
Parish St Mary Le Bow Cheapside
Diocese Diocese of London
Vicar(s) Rev. George Raymond Bush

St Mary-le-Bow /ˌsəntˈmɛəriˈləˈb/ is a historic church in the City of London[1] on the main east-west thoroughfare, Cheapside. According to tradition a true Cockney must be born within earshot of the sound of Bow Bells (which refers to this church's bells rather than St Mary and Holy Trinity, Bow Road, in Bow, which until the 19th century was an outlying village).[2]


The sound of the bells of St Mary's is credited with having persuaded Dick Whittington to turn back from Highgate and remain in London to become Lord Mayor.[3]

Traditionally, distances by road from London are now measured from Charing Cross but before the late 18th century were, for instance, measured from the London Stone in Cannon Street, or the "Standard" in Cornhill. On the road from London to Lewes the mileage is taken from the church door of St Mary-le-Bow. To emphasize the reference used, mileposts along the way are marked with a cast-iron depiction of a bow and four bells.[4][5]

The church is also immortalised in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons which ends aside from the chopping couplets in many versions with I do not know, says the great bell of Bow.

Details of the bells:

Bell Weight Nominal Note Diameter Cast Founder
1 5-3-21 1565.6 G 27.75" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
2 5-3-10 1389.5 F 29.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
3 6-1-7 1298.5 E 30.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
4 6-2-17 1170.0 D 32.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
5 7-3-27 1046.5 C 34.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
6 8-3-27 978.5 B 35.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
7 10-0-20 869.0 A 38.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
8 12-1-11 778.0 G 41.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
9 17-3-17 694.0 F 46.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
10 21-2-23 649.5 E 49.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
11 29-1-5 585.0 D 54.00" 1956 Mears & Stainbank
12 41-3-21 521.2 C 61.25" 1956 Mears & Stainbank


Archaeological evidence indicates that a church existed on this site in Saxon period England. A medieval version of the church had been destroyed in the late 11th century by one of the earliest recorded (and one of the most violent) tornadoes in Britain, the London Tornado of 1091.[6] During the later Norman period, the church known as “St Mary de Arcubus” was rebuilt and was famed for its two arches (“bows”) of stone. From at least the 13th century, the church was a peculier of the Diocese of Canterbury and the seat of the Court of Arches, to which it gave the name.[7][8] The church with its steeple had been a landmark of London and the “bow bells”, which could be heard as far away as Hackney Marshes, were once used to order a curfew in the City of London. This building burned in the Great Fire of London of 1666.

Considered the second most important church in the City of London after St Paul's Cathedral, St-Mary-le-Bow was one of the first churches to be rebuilt by Christopher Wren and his office for this reason.[9] The current building was built to the designs of Wren 1671—1673; the 223 feet (68 m) steeple was completed 1680. The mason-contractor was Thomas Cartwright,[10] one of the leading London mason-contractors and carvers of his generation.

In 1914, a stone from the crypt of St Mary-le-Bow church was placed in Trinity Church, New York in commemoration of the fact that King William III granted the vestry of Trinity Church the same privileges as St Mary-le-Bow vestry which was the forenunner to lower-tier local government. A recording of the Bow Bells made in 1926 has been used by the BBC World Service as an interval signal for the English-language broadcasts since the early 1940s. It is still used today preceding some English language broadcasts.

Much of the current building was destroyed by a German bomb during the Blitz on 10 May 1941,[11] during which fire the bells crashed to the ground. Restoration under the direction of Laurence King[12] was begun in 1956 (with internal fittings made by Faith-Craft, part of the Society of the Faith) and the bells as listed above, cast in 1956, were eventually installed to resume ringing in 1961. The church was formally reconsecrated in 1964 having achieved designation as a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950.[13]

In the churchyard is a statue of Captain John Smith of Jamestown, founder of Virginia and former parishioner of the church.

Services today

St Mary-le-Bow ministers to the financial industry and livery companies of the City of London.[14] Consequently services feature weekday morning and evening led prayers lasting just a quarter of an hour generally at 08:15 (except Tuesdays) and 17:45.[15] There is a memorial in the church to the first Governor in Australia, Admiral Arthur Phillip who was born in the parish. Through this connection the Rector of St Mary-le-Bow is the Chaplain of the Britain–Australia Society.

It is still home to the Court of Arches today.


The organ is a two-manual and pedal design by Kenneth Tickell and Company, with design and construction initiated in 2004. It occupies the case of the previous Rushworth and Dreaper organ (from the 1960s). The inaugural recital was given by Thomas Trotter in September 2010. The resident organist is Alan Wilson.

Image gallery

See also

Anglicanism portal


Further reading

  • Howard Colvin, Biographical Dictionary of British Architects
  • Michael Byrne and George R. Bush (eds), St Mary-le-Bow: A History (Privately published, 2007).

External links

  • St Mary-le-Bow

Coordinates: 51°30′50″N 0°05′37″W / 51.51389°N 0.09361°W / 51.51389; -0.09361

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