Walter Raleigh’s House in Blackwall in 1873
Anyone who has done any historical research usually comes across items that many people believe to be the truth but there is often very flimsy evidence on which to base that assumption. Walter Raleigh’s House at Blackwall which was demolished in 1881 falls into this category.
The information about the house suggest it was very old but there is nothing to suggest it belonged to Sir Walter, in fact there is more evidence that he had property in Islington.
Walter Raleigh’s house in Islington
There is no doubt that Sir Walter knew the Tower Hamlets area well, Blackwall in those times was well known for ships departing or arriving from long voyages and he sent at least a couple of letters from Blackwall. His close relationship with Queen Elizabeth I would mean he was a regular visitor to Greewich . He would also often visit his half brother Humphrey Gilbert in Limehouse to discuss events of the day. There is evidence he spent some time at Mile End where the Throckmorton’s lived. Bess Throckmorton and Raleigh secretly married and it appears he often visited Mile End in 1595 and especially 1596 when one of his servants died and was buried in St Dunstan’s churchyard. His relationship with Bess would lead him to be sent to the Tower for the first time.
Print from the Illustrated London News 1856
As one of the most famous men of his day, it seems unlikely if Walter Raleigh had a permanent residency in Blackwall it would not be better known, however that’s not to say that he never stayed at the house. It was very common for mariners to stay in taverns and houses in ports waiting for favourable conditions to set sail.
The idea that the link is tenuous is shared by the Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs (1994),
Blackwall was the site of an ancient timber-framed house which became known, some time during the nineteenth century, as ‘Raleigh’s House’. It stood directly opposite the Artichoke Inn. Any association with the sixteenth century courtier and explorer is extremely tenuous, as is the further claim that the same property had been the residence of Sebastian Cabot. Raleigh was indeed at Blackwall on many occasions, while waiting to go aboard ship or when on naval business. Many letters written by him are signed from Blackwall, but this is not proof that he was a permanent resident.
A photograph of the house taken in 1873 shows it to have been a jettied timber-framed building in filled with lath and plaster Wooden carvings of grotesque heads decorated the facade. The floor of the house was, by the late nineteenth century, below street level and the main entrance was blocked. As early as 1856 it was suggested that such a quaint house should be preserved and turned into ‘a little almshouse or school’. This advice was not heeded, and pressures to develop the area eventually led to the demolition of the building, which had been carried out by 1881. Its site was bought by the Metropolitan Board of Works from the London and North West Railway Company in 1888 for the construction of the Blackwall Tunnel.
Until we have more information, it may be sensible to treat the claim of Walter Raleigh’s House in Blackwall with some caution. But it would be nice to find out what the house was used for anyway because it was a large and grand house for its time but information seems very scarce even into the 19th century.