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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

You may also like to read about

The Lost Squares of Stepney

The Haggerston Nobody Knows

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
28 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.


  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 🙂

  9. J Gayton permalink
    April 1, 2017

    Thanks for a very interesting site. I’ve been doing family history research for someone and found many mentions of births, marriages and burials in Ratcliffe in the 1700s, so this is very helpful history (and a map great !) of the area.

  10. Brian Walshe permalink
    November 11, 2017


    I have a very nice lantern clock made by Thomas Johnson at Ratcliffe Cross, 1695. Should it be of interest to any one with a connection to Ratcliffe, please let me know. Would great to send it back home,

  11. JUNE TERRINGTON permalink
    September 9, 2018

    Well for me my story starts in Ratcliffe 1801, my 4th great grandad came into the hamlet from Stourton wilts, he came from a family of Hemp growers rope makers and farmers, Edward Card married Susannah Galliers 22 Jul 1801Stepney St Dunstan and All Saints, England, Edward at this time was a rope maker then a victualler for a while evidence was given on the birth of their children The family grew up and around there, their eldest son Edward became a slop-seller to sailors than a tailor would like to visit the area one day as my webbs were from Wapping too. my gran was from Limehouse

    Stepney St Dunstan and All Saints, EnglandWitnesses were William and Jane Galliers. Were these Susannah’s brother and sister? See Burglary story in which Edward’s son, William Card, and his cousin, William Galliers, give evidence.

  12. Nikki Bennett permalink
    September 18, 2018

    I’m researching my family tree and found my 2 x great grandmother and great grandmother were born here (1864 and 1881 respectively) but with no idea of where it was and stumbled across this article in trying to learn more. It’s given me a great sense of what life might have been like for them! I also wish I had known this about 15 years ago when my husband (then my boyfriend) lived in Limehouse and I used to visit him there and had no idea I was walking the streets of my ancestors!

  13. Fran-joy permalink
    November 5, 2018

    Thank you for your very interesting article. I’ve recently found a token on the Thames foreshore recently with ‘Tavern in Ratclife’. Please could I link your article on my instagram post?

  14. the gentle author permalink*
    November 5, 2018


  15. Denise Cassar permalink
    May 14, 2019

    A wonderful article thank you. I am curious to know more of what life was like in the run up to the Great War- the period between the end of the riotous “Sailor Town” era and the obliteration of the area altogether after WWII.

  16. David GREEN permalink
    May 21, 2019

    I greatly enjoyed the article. You say the red gravel cannot now be detected. But if you look at the satellite view on GoogleMaps, you will see that the gravel beach where I think Ratcliffe stairs would have been is indeed red, whereas it is not so on adjacent strands up or down stream.

  17. Jenny Bluefields permalink
    June 4, 2019

    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.”

    I came across this excellent, excellent, excellent blog entry looking for Mr Cherry whose father was a ‘sailler’ in Ratcliffe ‘Balist…’, the rest is indecipherable. While the Cherrys are not my people, Robert’s profile is an orphaned profile on Wikitree and I’m sorting it, BUT, discovering Ratcliffe in that process, perhaps I’ve found a jewel for my own box…

    Mary Welch alias Murphy aged 24 stole silk and silver from her employer, Joseph Bodman, while working at the White Swan at Wapping-Wall in 1800. She was transported to Australia and eventually hooked up with an old Irish Defender and begot the lot from whence I came, so she is my 4xG-Grandmother. (she never stopped stealing and was forever in and out of the courts for evermore – beware sheep!)

    The question is, do any of you clued-in East Enders know if the White Swan, ‘Paddy’s Goose’, is the same as the White Swan described as being at Wapping Wall in 1800? The Old Bailey Trial is here:

    Of course, for my reputation, it would be good if it were.
    And on behalf of many Australians, I apologize for the Macquarie Bank, and all banks while I’m at it…

  18. David Steele permalink
    June 4, 2020

    Metal detecting in Oxfordshire last year I found one of my favourite artefacts, a trade token. Many shopkeepers used these in the middle of the 17th century as there was a shortage of small change at the time. The tokens bore the name of the business, and pubs in particular were amongst the main users. The one I found had the inscription Wheatsheaf and Svgarlofe Ratcliff. I recently got round to investigating the token and was very surprised to find that Ratcliff had been the name of a London hamlet, when I had rather lazily assumed it had some connection with the name Radcliffe in Oxford. Has anyone any information on the pub, now long gone of course. And what a mystery as to how a token from a london pub came to be in the middle of a remote Oxfordshire field, to be found some 350 years later.

  19. Jeff Rowlinson permalink
    June 11, 2020

    A nice article, puts colour into the historical background to the area.
    I have traced family history – paternal side to Ratclife a great great gradfather – surname Holcomb(e) lived there and the family were sail makers. The Holcombs came to the area from Devon in the early 1800.

  20. Janet Gallo permalink
    January 30, 2021

    My great grandfather was a lighterman on the Thames. My grandfather was born in 1873 on board a Thames barge called The Cat. His birth certificate mentions the barge was off Radcliffe at the time.

  21. September 19, 2021

    Such interesting reading!! My link to Ratcliffe is a family ancestor Evan Daniel b. 1665- d. 1704 His death record states he was a Ratcliffe Mariner, which got me looking for more information!

  22. Philip Heath permalink
    December 5, 2021

    I’ve never seen a photo of the parish church of St. Thomas in Ratcliff which was destroyed in WWII. Is there really none in existence?

  23. Mark permalink
    January 16, 2022

    I tried this before but I was wondering if you seen this video on
    I am trying to identify the scnes as they would be today especially near the end when the car drives on a desolate wharf that is supposed to be Ratcliff?
    More info on the you tube video:
    In the Mind’s Eye (1977) – A Local Legend about an Evil 18th century vicar and his pretty female accomplice who murder and rob unsuspecting Seamen along the docks of East London. The programme investigates the supposed many stories of local workers of sightings of a ghostly 18th century old vicar still seen wandering along the docks in 1977.

    Here’s what the maker of the programme Colin Wilson had to say about the making of it.

    “The Ghost of Ratcliff Wharf
    by Colin Wilson

    Prof Wiseman and Psychic Suggestibity
    Back to… Skeptics in the Media

    Colin Wilson draws a distinction between psychic suggestibility and genuinely paranormal phenomena but becomes worried when sceptics show signs of refusing to look facts in the face

  24. Bronwen Summers permalink
    November 18, 2022

    Kia ora

    I was delighted to come across this site. My interest in it relates to the Coles, their last two children were born when Stephen and Ann Cole were living at Ratcliffe.

    Stephen Cole (1643) ropemaker married Ann Newham a widow 25 May 1662 St Dunstan, Stepney and they had four sons: Thomas Cole 15 March 1662 (11 days old), Steeven Cole 17 January 1665 (7 days old) living at Mile End, Edward Cole 16 February 1667 (living at Mile End), Steeven Cole 19 March 1670 (living in Ratcliff), John Cole 30 April 1674 (living in Ratcliff). All registered at St Dunstan, Stepney, Middlesex.
    Steven Cole died 1710 Tower Hamlets, Middlesex.
    Ann Cole died 1710 Tower Hamlets, Middlesex.

    I would like permission to use the first two paragraphs of the text and the map you have pictured to add to my family tree, this is not on-line but a 500 page document I am putting together about my ancestors.

    Nga mihi nui (very best wishes)
    Otautahi (Christchurch)

  25. Valerie Kamruddin permalink
    June 12, 2023

    Can anyone shed any light on The Ratcliff Settlement founded by Emily Alice Keightley and Ellen Rankin who came from Stambridge in Essex. There is a stained glass window in Stambridge Church dedicated to their memories and good works.

  26. Gary Barnett permalink
    December 3, 2023

    There seems to be some confusion between the hamlet, later parish, of Ratcliff/Ratcliffe and the area surrounding the Ratcliff(e) Highway. The Highway was the road to Ratcliff(e) that ran through St. George in the East and then became Shadwell High Street.

  27. Eric permalink
    February 28, 2024

    The article about Redcliffe Limehouse was very interesting there were two shipwrights Born in Redcliffe they went to the London road Barking they were granted land to build a Bungalow, so they could help in the barking fishing industry I am an 81-year-old man volunteer in the Barking history project

  28. Baldur permalink
    February 28, 2024

    Hi, my father has a vintage draw telescope, made of copper and wood, it has been in the family for at least 100 -150 years. We recently took a very close look at some worn engravements on it. It looks like, but not for sure:

    S Wisborn
    Ratcliff Croft

    Any idea about this S Wisborn, was it a person,ship or a company?

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