In the early days of England’s rise to maritime power, when the foundations of the British Commonwealth were being laid by adventurous men whose courage made their own endeavours seem to themselves nothing but casual events in the life they lived, it was often said of the little vessels when they moored in the Lower Pool that they were “off Ratcliff.”
Indeed they were, for the hamlet, which for several generations was the abode ashore of many fine seamen, once extended along the riverside westwards so far as to be separated from the Precinct of St. Katharine by the Tower only by Wapping Marsh, a watery waste consisting of 180 acres lying between the Hermitage and Foxes Lane. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, after much difficulty, it was effectually drained, and a new Wapping came into existence close behind the wall that embanked the Thames. The reclaimed land was recognised as being in the Hamlet of Wapping, or the Lower Hamlet of Whitechapel, in which parish it was included until 1694, when, by Act of Parliament, it was made a separate parish. The remaining part of old Wapping was, however, kept in the parish of Stepney, and for the sake of distinction called Wapping Stepney until 1729, when it became incorporated in the newly formed parish of St. George-in-the-East.
Long before this time the number of houses and the population of the hamlet of Ratcliff had increased. This was due principally to the building of Shadwell on the ground that lay between Foxes Lane and the part of Ratcliff known as the “town,” which was so described to distinguish a particular locality (the business part) from the hamlet as a whole. The Vestry of Stepney decided in 1694 to make a boundary between the two places (Shadwell was not made a parish until 1669) and the dividing line at the riverside was by “the old baliste wharf,” which is to-day Bell Wharf, Broad Street. Here was Cock Hill, which gently rose from the Thames, and the elevation being continued, Ratcliff Highway passed along it. The subsoil of this upland and the adjacent fields northwards was of gravel which, it is highly probable, belonged to the same deposit as that of the patch of light red gravel mentioned by Mr. A. G. Linney in his Lure and Lore of London River – as being visible to-day below the entrance to Millwall Dock at low water. To some it may be a pleasing thought that in the days of sail many tons of Ratcliff gravel soil were shipped as ballast, and being borne away came to be scattered over the face of the globe.
The town of Ratcliff from time immemorial extended along the strand or foreshore now represented by the length of Broad Street and part of Narrow Street. At its western extremity adjoining Bell Wharf there formerly existed a way down to the river. A painted notice on a board affixed to the wall at the entry declared its use to be a public right. The notice was put up by the old Limehouse Board of Works at the instance of some who were concerned in the past history of the neighbourhood, and believed that the spot marked on old maps as “the Lord’s waste,” or common ground (indicating thereby its direct association with the manor) was identical with Stebenhythe, whence the name of Stepney was derived. The public right was extinguished by statute in 1922, when the space was taken into the Shadwell Park.
On the rising land at the back of Broad Street and parallel to it Brook Street came into existence. This was a paved way from the stream that flowed along the line of what is now Butcher Row. It is far from being a modern street, as it was mentioned in 1453, when Henry VI granted Garlek House, Brook Street, Stepney, to Sir Thomas Vaughan. Four years afterwards, on his surrender of it, the king re-granted it to him jointly with Jasper, Earl of Pembroke. This has been taken as an indication of the status of Ratcliff nearly 500 years ago, but, however much it may suggest that the house was desirable as a place of residence, the troubled times – the beginning of the War of the Roses – were not favourable to a settled life of ease and homely care. It is more likely that the premises, which may be located as being near to the way down to Ratcliff Cross, were used for official purposes in collecting the customs on wine, wool, skins and other merchandise which were unloaded from the little trading vessels on to the adjacent quays. Although a statute of 1480 provided that the King should not take the duties without consent of Parliament, he was at this period not only doing so, but was exacting increased customs by arrangement with the merchants. It is such matters on the fringe of parochial history that give it an added interest, and inquiries into their relation to the subject adds to knowledge, even it be only the mere linking of a local habitation and a name.
Until the reign of Elizabeth, when it was forbidden, the discharge of dutiable goods at Ratcliff went on uninterruptedly, and in times of outbreak of plague it was of great advantage to those engaged in the work, as well as to others who were employed in the various occupations associated with shipping and commerce. When the time had come for the landing of merchandise on the appointed quays higher up the river, the building, repairing and victualling of ships at Ratcliff had made considerable progress, and Ratcliff Cross was already a rallying-place for master mariners and their crews. From the Stairs nearby they went on board their ships wherever they might be in the Thames. In the neighbourhood abounded inns and taverns, and in those of the better sort a good deal of business was transacted with conviviality and profit.
In 1794 a great fire destroyed most of Ratcliff in a few hours. An engraving entitled “The Ruins of Ratcliffe” shows the riverside. Some curiosity may be excited as to the appearance of the streets which were so quickly swept away. It is possible that a few of the houses were old timber-framed structures which had escaped previous lesser conflagrations. From time to time many had so perished of which there is no record. There was another fire in 1765, when between twenty and thirty old wooden houses were burnt and ten damaged, the loss being valued at £19,000, a remarkable sum, if true. In the eighteenth century many of the ancient properties had disappeared and commodious houses took their place, occupied by merchants, captains, and master craftsmen. The ease with which the great fire made its progress was principally due to the presence of a large number of wooden workshops and warehouses containing inflammable goods, and, of course, the difficulty of obtaining water. Of the buildings erected immediately afterwards, very few, if any, now remain to share the company of those which escaped disaster. In Narrow Street, near Ratcliff Cross Stairs, there is a house still standing that came into being in the days of Queen Anne. Altered in appearance by age and ill-treatment, it is less attractive than one or two houses in Stepney Causeway which were built some fifty years later. A good specimen of a house which was built about 1780 remains in Butcher Row. It was once the residence of a wealthy shipowner, and to it were attached extensive gardens. It is now St. James’s Vicarage, and is practically unchanged, and contains many features of interest, principal among them being the fine entrance. On the walls of the dining- and drawing-rooms are painted seascapes and Italian scenery. A little room – a powder closet – is a survival of the days when wigs were worn, and had to be occasionally dusted over.
A change which is occasioned by a catastrophe is amazing to contemporaries, but one which takes place over a series of years passes almost unnoticed, for few eyes see the full effect of the slow transformation. By the construction of Rotherhithe Tunnel (the approach to which passes under Broad Street) and the demolition of courts and alleys to make room for the extension of business premises and for the erection of blocks of dwellings, not only the aspect, but the character of the whole neighbourhood has been altered.
There are some who can remember it as it was in the seventies of the last century: Broad Street with a bowsprite projecting across the road and almost touching the window of the house opposite the dry dock. The sight of the tall ship itself was enough to conjure up visions in a boy’s mind of pirates on the Spanish Main and pieces of eight. The street was redolent of odours strange and varied – hay, ship’s biscuits, coals, tarred twine, horses, brewers’ grains, paint, kippers, coffee, stale beer, and the mustiness of water-logged wood, all in sequence, but each individually blended with jam in the making. While the nose was enjoying the exercise of a generally much-neglected sense, the eyes peeped at the broad river, at the gap of Stone Stairs, or else through the arch at Free Trade Wharf. This arch has now gone, but the carved coat of arms of the East India Company which formerly surmounted it has happily been placed above the new entry, as a reminder of a great enterprise.
In Brook Street the courts and alleys – Harris Court, Hamlet Court, Blue Anchor Alley, etc., together with the houses that were built on the garden ground attached to Mr. Bere’s residence, which so “miraculously” was preserved from the flames, have all been demolished. Some of these were rebuilt soon after the Fire, and many of the occupants were employed in making the high-crowned beaver hats that were worn by gentlemen of fashion and of dignified deportment. The beaver left the hat industry and the silkworm took its place, and the old class of tenants vanished. The Irish came and took possession for many years of the houses which until then had been decently and tidily kept. They were a rough, hard-working, hard drinking (if they had the wherewithal) warm-hearted, hot-headed people, who had an objection to paying rent, and loved to have a shindy among themselves, with a constable or two to fortify the mixture. They did not beg but were delighted to receive, and they could in charming accents invoke a multitude of blessings on this slight provocation.
From this region of turbulence one could, in a few paces, come to the neat abode of silence and peace. At the corner of School house Lane was the Quakers’ meeting-house and burial-ground. The building, which was pulled down this summer, was erected in 1794, and a view of its interior in its latter days is shown below. The land was purchased in 1666, this part of the street being then rural, by Thomas Yoakley on behalf of the Society of Friends who were treated here by the authorities, as else where, with great intolerance. In 1670 Sir John Robinson, the then Governor of the Tower and a violent opponent and persecutor of the Friends, came with soldiers and seized sixty-one forms and two tables. Justice Rycroft attended and fined them and also tendered the oath of allegiance, and on their refusal to be sworn committed them to Newgate. Placid and undismayed amid these disturbances, the Friends, who numbered among them master mariners and others connected with nautical affairs, subsequently met amid the ruins of their meeting-house, were fined, and sent to prison. Among those who are interred in the little burial-ground is John Scott, the Quaker poet who died in 1788. His poetry was known to Dr. Johnson and to Sir Walter Scott, the latter alluding to him (Redgauntlet, Letter vii) as one “who constructed verses well approved of even in the world.” John Scott, whose settled place of residence was at Amwell, every year spent some time occasionally at a house which he had at Ratcliff Cross. Inspired by the view of the river from Ratcliff he composed the subjoined verses – a scene that is very different, even allowing for poetic licence, from that of to-day.
Based on “The Copartnership Herald”, Vol. V, no. 58 (December 1935) by Sydney Maddocks