St Mary-le-Bow in London

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St Mary-le-Bow is an historic church in the City of London, off Cheapside. According to tradition, a true Cockney must be born within earshot of the sound of the church's bells.


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

Traditionally, distances by road from London have been measured from the London Stone in Cannon Street, or the "Standard" in Cornhill, but, on the road from London to Lewes, the mileage is taken from the church door of St Mary-le-Bow. To emphasize the difference, mileposts along the way are marked with a cast-iron depiction of a bow and four bells.

The church is also immortalised in the nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.

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. During the Norman period, a church known as “St Mary de Arcubus” was built 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. 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 signal a curfew in the City of London. This building burned in the Great Fire of London of 1666.

The current building was built to the designs of Christopher Wren, 1671–1673, with the 223-foot steeple completed 1680. It was considered the second most important church in the City of London after St Paul's Cathedral, and was one of the first churches to be rebuilt by Wren and his office for this reason. The mason-contractor was Thomas Cartwright, 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. 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.

Much of the current building was destroyed by a German bomb during the London Blitz on May 10, 1941, during which fire the bells crashed to the ground. Restoration under the direction of Laurence King was begun in 1956 (with internal fittings made by Faith-Craft, part of the Society of the Faith) and the bells rang again only in 1961 to produce a new generation of Cockneys. The church was formally reconsecrated in 1964 and was designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950.

In the churchyard is a statue of Captain John Smith, founder of Virginia and former parishioner of this church. St Mary-le-Bow ministers to the financial industry and livery companies of the City of London. There is a memorial in the church to the first Governor in Australia, Admiral Arthur Phillip, who was born nearby. Through this connection the Rector of St Mary-le-Bow is the Chaplain of the Britain-Australia Society.


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.

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See also

  • List of churches and cathedrals of London
  • List of Christopher Wren churches in London

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).

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