The Lost Hamlet Of Ratcliff
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.