100 years after the guns fell silent at the end of the First World War, many will stand and remember this morning in front of one of Britain's thousands of war memorials. I've been out tracking down the war memorials in Bow (specifically the E3 postcode, specifically outdoors, specifically WW1-related) from a time when Tower Hamlets was very different to how it is today.
Bow's famous match-making factory was at the height of its success when WW1 broke out, employing over 2000 women and girls. The company's war memorial is a slender affair, a white stone shaft topped by a cross, and unmarked other than by a Bryant and May monogram on one side. Five names were once visible at the base, representing a handful of male employees to be sent to the Western Front, but these have long since eroded. Since the factory closed in 1979 the cross has stood in the centre of the Memorial Garden in Grove Hall Park, and a few years ago was fenced off in an attempt to prevent vandalism.
When it was erected in 1921 this granite obelisk had pride of place at the entrance to Bromley Recreation Ground, at the head of the walkway from the main entrance to the bandstand. It's not been moved, but the Victorian gardens have been altered beyond measure to accommodate the Bromley-by-Bow Centre in one corner, and this millennial building now dominates. These days it's all too easy to miss the significance of a 6m-high cenotaph hidden away behind a brick wall, and the words LEST WE FORGET in the wreath at the top feel somewhat prophetic.
TO THE MEMORY OF THE MEN OF
THE N.E. WARD OF THIS BOROUGH
WHO FELL IN THE GREAT WAR 1914-19.
Although several Bow churches have WW1 memorials inside, these are the only two I could find outside. The stone plaque outside All Hallows is seriously weathered, and almost impossible to read, and includes a long quote from Luke's gospel. St Barnabas has a much better maintained Portland Stone panel with a carving featuring St George and a slain dragon, with the background picked out in blue mosaic. Both are dedicated to the war dead of the parish, 260 from one and 130 from the other, and both make very clear that the Great War was seen at the time as a quest for freedom.
THE GREAT WAR FOR FREEDOM 1914 1918
TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN GRATEFUL MEMORY OF
THE 260 MEN FROM THIS PARISH & CONGREGATION WHO
GAVE THEIR LIVES FOR THEIR COUNTRY AND A RIGHTEOUS CAUSE
AND WHOSE NAMES ARE INSCRIBED WITHIN THIS CHURCH
TO THE MEN
OF THIS PARISH WHO
GAVE THEIR LIVES
1914 – 1919
The E3 postcode has a slight bulge across the River Lea into Newham, which allows me to include this extremely unusual war memorial which burns day and night. Between 1873 and 1976 BromleyGasworks was one of the largest in London, and its unique group of seven gasholders still stands. To the south is a memorial garden, lightly wooded, where the war dead of the Gas Light & Coke Company are remembered. Of the 950 names inscribed, well over half are from WW1, giving some impression of the scale of the workforce at the time. The gasworks chose to remember its dead with an 'eternal flame', an iron-framed octagonal gas lamp set on a stone column, whose cluster of tiny flames can still be seen burning orange should anyone ever think to walk off the main road and look up. The original bronze plaques around the base were stolen in 2007, for scrap, but the replacements thankfully look just as good.
E3's most significant war memorial can be found in Tower Hamlets Cemetery. It used to be in the centre, but five hits on the cemetery during the Blitz led to significant damage, and the replacement memorial is much closer to the main entrance. It's nothing showy. Sixteen bronze plaques across a granite wall list all 280 servicemen and women interred here, considerably more from the First World War than the Second. A local history website aims to tell the story of each and every one of them, listedhere, although the project's not yet complete.
1914 - 1918 1939 – 1945
THOSE HONOURED HERE DIED
IN THE SERVICE OF THEIR COUNTRY
THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE
I was intrigued by the years in which each of the servicemen had died, because something looked odd, so I scanned through each plaque in turn and made a note. I was not expecting this.
More deaths in 1918 than any other year, by far, and 1919 somehow the second most common year, despite the war having officially finished. 100 years on, the magnitude and duration of this conflict are almost too great for us to fully comprehend.
A pdf detailing war memorials across Tower Hamlets can be downloaded here, and you can explore the Imperial War Museum's war memorial register for sites near you here.