Essential Architecture-  London

St. Mary Le Bow


Sir Christopher Wren


Cheapside, east London


1670 to 1683


English Baroque




St Mary-le-Bow is a historic church in the City of London, off Cheapside.

The current building was built to the designs of Christopher Wren, 1671-1673, steeple completed 1680, after the Great Fire of London burnt the previous church on the site down. The mason-contractor was Thomas Cartwright, one of the leading London mason-contractors and carvers of his generation. The last church had been there since before the Normans arrived, and under that name. Its steeple had been a landmark before the Fire, and Wren fittingly provided it with a unique replacement. The Bow bells were once used to signal a curfew in the City of London. Before modern traffic noise, they could be heard as far away as Hackney Marshes.

The church is immortalised in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons. It is said that to be a true cockney, you must have been born within earshot of the bells. The bells are also credited with having persuaded Dick Whittington to turn back from Highgate and remain in London to become Lord Mayor (three times in the story but four times in reality).

Much of the current building was destroyed by a German bomb on 10 May 1941 and the bells crashed to the ground. Restoration under the direction of L. King was begun in 1956, and the bells only rang again in 1961 to produce a new generation of Cockneys.

A medieval version of the church had been destroyed in 1091 by one of the earliest recorded (and one of the most violent) tornadoes in Britain.

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 broadcasts.

Traditionally distances by road from London have been measured from Charing Cross, but on the road from London to Lewes the mileage is taken from the church door of St Mary-le-Bow. To emphasise the difference, mileposts along the way are marked with a cast-iron depiction of a bow and four bells.