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The Lost Hamlet Of Ratcliff

February 10, 2015
by Tom Bolton

It is my pleasure to welcome Tom Bolton author of  Vanished City & London’s Lost Rivers writing  about the lost hamlet of Ratcliff. Next week, Tom will be opening the SAVE NORTON FOLGATE cultural festival with a talk about London’s ‘lost’ neighbourhoods – making special reference to the Liberty of Norton Folgate – at the Bishopsgate Institute on Thursday 19th February at 6:30pm. All events in the festival are free – click here to book your ticket

The name ‘Ratcliff’ derives from the Red Cliff, a bank of light-red gravel which once rose from the Thames above Wapping Marsh. The gravel is now impossible to detect, much of it dug out and distributed around the globe as ballast in the ships that left Ratcliff for destinations far and wide. Ratcliff, the place that grew up by the river, is also depleted and forgotten after a century of severe decline. It was once the beating heart of London’s river trade, but suffered with the decline and fall of maritime London. The name ‘Ratcliff’ has faded into almost complete disuse, but for three hundred and fifty years it linked the thriving mercantile capital to imperial ports and global trade routes around the world.

Once known as ‘Sailor Town,’ Ratcliff was a hamlet when shipbuilders, ship-owners, captains, merchants and crew began to arrive during the reign of Elizabeth I, building wharves to anchor vessels at what was the closest practical landing spot to the City of London. The rapid growth of East London during the nineteenth century began with the docks and, as the city expanded, it enveloped Ratcliff which found itself the underbelly of a vast new industrial capital. Ratcliff gained a new reputation, as a place that represented the very worst of London, a thousand morality tales rolled into one neighbourhood just a cab ride from Fleet St.

‘Sailor Town’ had its origins at Ratcliff Cross, a landing place on the Thames at the western end of what is now Narrow St. The Cross itself was removed some time after 1732, but the stone slipway at Ratcliff Cross Stairs still marks the location of the quay. Not far away Ratcliffe Cross St, a now dilapidated lane between Cable St and Commercial Rd, was the site of the Ratcliff Market.

During the nineteenth century, Radcliff built a new reputation as the home of everything Victorian London loved to hate. There was no shortage of writers, particularly during the eighteen-fifties and sixties, who could barely contain their glee at the exotic excitements so conveniently close to home. Thomas de Quincey reflected the feverish fascination that buzzed around ‘Sailor Town.’  In a postscript to ‘On Murder’ he described the “manifold ruffianism shrouded impenetrably under the mixed hats and turbans of men whose past was untraceable to any European eye.” In ‘The Wild Tribes of London’, which gives it all away in the title, Watt Phillips writes, “Ratcliffe-highway by night! The head-quarters of unbridled vice and drunken violence-of all that is dirty, disorderly, and debased. Splash, dash, down comes the rain; but it must fall a deluge indeed to wash away even a portion of the filth to be found in this detestable place.”

The unexpected ‘Taxi Driver’ resonances are typical of the moral verdicts passed on Ratcliff. Anthropologist J. Ewing Ritchie analyses the Highway in ominous style, “I should not like a son of mine to be born and bred in Ratcliffe-Highway.” He adds obscurely that “In beastliness I think it surpasses Cologne with its seven and thirty stenches, or even Bristol or a Welsh town.” He blames hard drinking sailors or ‘crimps’ for the drunkenness, dancing and fighting he claims to have witnessed.

Foreigners took the blame for much of the mayhem – “Either a gin-mad Malay runs a much [sic] with glittering kreese [a Malay dagger], and the innocent and respectable wayfarer is in as much danger as the brawler and the drunkard; or the Lascar, or the Chinese, or the Italian flash their sea knives in the air, or the American ‘bowies’ a man, or gouges him, or jumps on him, or indulges in some other of those innocent amusements in which his countrymen delight.”

At the centre of everything in Ratcliff is the promise of the river and the reality of the mud. In Charles Dickens’ ‘Our Mutual Friend’ the “harbour of everlasting mud” oozes into the streets. Turn of the century accounts describe children who “would stand on Ratcliffe Cross Stairs and gaze out upon the rushing tide and upon the ships that passed up and down. At low tide they ran out upon the mud, with bare feet, and picked up apronfuls of coal to bring home. Needs must that a child who lives within sight of ships should imagine strange things and get a sense of distance and mystery.” Dickens’ Ratcliff is “a place of poverty and desperation, where accumulated scum of humanity seemed to be washed from higher grounds, like so much moral sewage, and to be pausing until its own weight forced it over the bank and sunk it in the river.” It is depicted as isolated and semi-derelict, with boatmen inhabiting disused mills beside the river and making a living fishing dead bodies from the Thames.

But Ratcliff’s notoriety was relatively short-lived. The press coverage had an effect and the police took a firmer grip of the neighbourhood. By 1879, what “until within the last few years was one of the sights of the metropolis, and almost unique in Europe as a scene of coarse riot and debauchery, is now chiefly noteworthy as an example of what may be done by effective police supervision.” On Shadwell High St an Irish pub, the White Swan or ‘Paddy’s Goose’, was “once the uproarious rendezvous of half the tramps and thieves of London, now quiet, sedate, and, to confess the truth, dull—very dull.”

War-time destruction led to major redevelopment, resulting in new-build council estates and roads on a scale unsuited to a residential area. However, although Ratcliff was no longer commercially significant and had become physically fragmented, its reputation lingered past World War II. Ian Nairn, writing in 1966, reflected a familiar image of Ratcliff – “ ‘Cable St, the whore’s retreat’: a shameful blot on the moral landscape of London: an outworn slum area …all that is left of lurid Dockland. Its crime is not that it contains vice but that it is unashamed and exuberant about it.”

This is no longer the case, at least not in public, and exuberance is not a word associated with Ratcliff. The street patterns remain recognisable from 1811 but planning interventions, as well as bombing, unpicked the physical coherence of the area. Large-scale demolition was required for the building in the eighteen-nineties of the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which surfaces in what had previously been the centre of Ratcliff.

Only a street away from what was once Ratcliff Cross, the gaping mouth of the Limehouse Link tunnel sucks in its tribute of traffic from the Highway, Butcher Row whirls like a vortex around the Royal Peculiar of St. Katharine, the Commercial Rd is peppered with dereliction, and the viaduct carrying the Docklands Light Railway isolates Ratcliff from the world beyond, as the marshes once did.

‘Sailor Town’ has almost entirely disappeared, but evidence remains of what it used to be, from the long, high dock wall that runs the length of Pennington St to the buildings that survived against the odds. The ships have gone and the area has moved on. Seen from Ratcliff, the shimmering towers on the Isle of Dogs look like a mirage, and a different world. This is a neighbourhood shorn of the trade that created it, but clinging on to a name on a map that proves it was once somewhere.

Hamlet of Ratcliff in 1720

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The SAVE NORTON FOLGATE exhibition I have curated for The Spitalfields Trust is at Dennis Severs House, 18 Folgate St, E1 6BX,  from Saturday 14th February.

Saturday 14th February 10 – 1pm
Sunday 15th February 10 – 12pm
Tuesday 17th February 4 – 7pm
Thursday 19th February 4 – 7pm
Saturday 21st February 2 – 5pm
Sunday 22nd February 10 – 12pm
Tuesday 24th February 12 – 2pm
Thursday 26th February 12 – 2pm
Saturday 28th February 2 – 5pm
Sunday 1st March 10 – 12pm.
Admission is free
8 Responses leave one →
  1. February 10, 2015

    Nice to see the photos of Ratcliff again, we spent a lot of time as kids roaming about there, and finding places where we could play. Valerie

  2. February 10, 2015

    Ratcliff (and Shadwell) is the subject of East London History Society’s latest book on the development of London’s eastern suburbs. Londons’ Sailortown 1600-1800 by Derek Morris and Ken Cozens joins Mile End 1740-1780, Wapping 1600-1800 and Whitechapel 1600-1800 in showing how the area was a major influence on London’s commercial development rather than its later portrayal as criminal hell. More information on the books can be found on the ELHS web site. Philip Mernick

  3. February 10, 2015

    The terrible ‘Ratcliff Highway Murders’ of December 1811, and their macabre aftermath, were apparently a trigger for De Quincey’s 1827 ‘On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, published in Blackwood’s Magazine.

  4. Julie King permalink
    February 10, 2015

    What is in the Thames in the last photo? Is that a person, sculpture, bird, or just a piece of wood from a dock?

    Excellent post!

  5. Susan permalink
    February 10, 2015

    Oh how I wish I lived in London! (Or even England.) This would be so interesting to see…

  6. Pauline Taylor permalink
    February 10, 2015

    More fascinating history of the areas beside the river where many of my family of shipbuilders and mariners lived, I find it all so interesting so thank you again GA.

    Pauline.

  7. Roger Carr permalink
    February 11, 2015

    another blot on the landscape . . . . I think it’s an awful Antony Gormeley sculpture.
    The man got a knighthood for this rusty rubbish.

  8. Jane B permalink
    February 15, 2015

    …whereas I know it’s “Another Time”, witty and profound, and in fact a much-loved Gormley :-) A riparian ‘landmark’ that is in fact a high-low watermark, that is much adored by those who live in Ratcliff-Limehouse or who make regular ‘self-propelled’ journeys along this section of the riverside walkway, including those who equally admire the man who persuaded the Port of London Authority to allow him put this piece from his collection in the river, his knighthood being well deserved too! ;-)

    No offence Mr Carr but if you want a ‘blot’ to take issue with, they will come no bigger and no uglier, visually, intellectually, politically and economically, and, than what’s coming to the historic Ratcliff waterfront as of 2016. [just to the west of the muddy foreshore and jetty in picture 3 above]

    In the very place from where Willoughby and Frobisher set sail, where Captain Cook lived, and where Whistler sketched, the most controversial of all Thames Water’s Super Sewer sites, the one that nearly lost them ‘the whole deal’, and the only site to be awarded exceptional working conditions due to its ‘sensitivity’.

    Nearly 100metres of Thames Path — the last remaining undeveloped riverside site and only park between Tower Hill and the Isle of Dogs, in what is still one of the UK’s most deprived areas — is to be lost from public ownership to commercial development, compulsory-purchased for a derisory sum to become a profit-maximising, sewerage facility at ‘the gateway to London’ that will earn Australia’s Macquarie Bank and Chinese and Middle Eastern wealth funds (oh and the BT Pension Fund) ‘millions’, even though this conservation area land laid out as exemplary Edwardian gardens as part of a three-part memorial (Windsor, The Mall and here) to the People’s King, Edward VII, was gifted to the People of East London “For Ever” by a Lord Mayor and King George V with the blessing of Parliament just 93 years ago, paid for by a roll-call of the ‘great and the good’ who had ever reason to believe that the deeds with the restrictive covenants would ensure their legacy was indeed “for ever”. Those deed papers? …still missing, they didn’t even make it on to the Land Registry’s register.

    In this world — indeed in world of ‘Greater Spitalfields’ :-) — there really are some things worth being troubled by. A statue that dips in and out of view with the tide, that doesn’t suit your aesthetic or engage your heart and/or intellect is not necessarily one of them. But if it hurts so much, maybe do some research to understand the concept, the process of creation and the context. It isn’t a ‘shallow’ as that low-tide shot may have led you to believe :-)

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