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In Search of Old Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe 1795

Anyone who has looked into the history of Docklands will come across the small enclave of Ratcliff or Ratcliffe which is located between Shadwell and Limehouse. It is now a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets which just adds to the confusion because the new Ratcliffe is above Commercial Road whereas the old Ratcliffe was generally below that main thoroughfare.

Ratcliffe 1804

The name of Ratcliffe is probably most known for the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, the road from the Tower of London towards Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs. The Ratcliffe Highway was the scene of a infamous murder of seven people of 1811.

The name Ratcliffe derives from a small sandstone cliff that stood above the surrounding marshes which had a red appearance, it was originally called Redcliffe. Ratcliffe from the fourteenth century was known for shipbuilding and the fitting and provisioning of ships. In the sixteenth century, various voyages of discovery were began from Ratcliffe, including those of Willoughby and Frobisher. The Brethren of Trinity House made Ratcliffe their headquarters in the early 17th century before they moved to the City.

One of the most interesting structures at this time stood at the bottom of Butcher Row, it was a Market Cross of considerable age which was still standing in 1732. The market that stood at this place later moved to Ratcliff Square.

Ruins of Ratcliffe after the fire of 1794

In the 17th and 18th century, Ratcliffe developed an unsavoury reputation with waterfront made up of lodging houses, pubs, brothels and music halls. In 1794, almost half of the hamlet was destroyed in a fire
which began when a barge loaded with saltpetre exploded, the resulting fire destroyed over 400 homes and 20 warehouses and left 1000 people homeless.

Although the slums returned in the early nineteen century, by the late 19th century the area was cleaned up and populated with people associated with the maritime trade.

Looking at the old maps, the area of old Ratcliffe gradually became  absorbed into Limehouse but it is possible to find odd references to the historic old area.

Ratcliffe 1851

The hamlet was divided between the parishes of Limehouse and Stepney until 1866, when it was constituted a separate civil parish (as Ratcliffe). From 1855 it was administered by Limehouse District Board of Works, and in 1900 became part of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney.

Ratcliffe 1908

Generally the old maps show Ratcliffe occupying the land between Love Lane and Butcher Row with the boundary of Commercial Road to the north.

One of the most historic slipways to the river is the Ratcliffe Cross stairs which was a crossing for centuries and the starting off point for a large number of voyages. Part of the Old stone slipway to the River Thames has Grade II listing.

Making your way inland you come across Ratcliffe Lane near the Limehouse DLR station. This was not really on the old maps and does not go anywhere in particular.

More interesting is the Ratcliffe Cross Street which runs from Commercial Road down to Cable Street, once again this is a relatively new road but is in the general area of Ratcliffe Square which was a well known part of old Ratcliffe.

Not on a lot of maps is Ratcliffe Orchard  which is really just a footway, what makes this interesting is that there was for a long period an orchard in the area but it was not called Ratcliffe Orchards on the old maps.

The area that was known as Ratcliffe for centuries was one of the most notorious areas of the old docklands, now it is a rather strange mix of small industrial units and a few residential areas. Little remains other than place names of the place that was known all over the world has the starting place for adventures and the location of lodging houses, pubs, brothels and music halls that crowded the waterfront.


13 Comments

  1. simon diable says:

    If visiting Ratcliff these days you might like to take in the old school house which still stands on White Horse Road near the junction with Commercial Road. Until 1970 it was known as The Hamlet of Ratcliff School and was adorned with 2 statues, a boy and a girl wearing the green school uniform. The original statues can still be seen today outside Stepney Greencoats School, in Norbiton Road Limehouse, just a short walk from Ratcliff.

  2. Reg Beer says:

    Nice little article. I enjoyed reading it. If you ever need nineteenth century images of Ratcliffe Cross Stairs, Brook Street or Broad Street visit http://www.frontispiece.co.uk

  3. richard bird says:

    I was a pupil at hamlet of ratcliffe school until 1957 – wondered if there was anybody out there who was at the school during that period

  4. Colin Peat says:

    Hello Richard, I also attended the school, Head master was Mr Martin and out teacher at last year was Mr Brock who also taught football.
    My older Brother, Ron Peat also attended and went onto Raines whereas I went to Red Coat

    • richard bird says:

      hi colin
      visited the old school just recently – now living in Yorkshire – what years were you at hamlet of ratcliffe – were you at redcoat when my brother david was there?

    • richard bird says:

      hi ronald

      visited the school recently – wanted to have a look around but it was a weekend – dont suppose the interior is the same – mr brock and mr martin were there during my time – christine carson,martha bunting, christine holland, the kelly twins, raymond knowlden are some of the pupils who were there at the time – if I find the school photo I will probably remember some of the other names

      • Ronald Dopson says:

        Hi Richard, I went back to the school about five or six years ago, but I couldn’t get inside because it was the weekend.

        Mr Brock and Mr Martin were still there when I left the school in 1959. I’m sorry to say that I’m useless on names!.

        I was chess captain during my time at school and still have good memories.

        It would be nice to catch up with everyone who was there when we were.

        Regards, Ron

      • Richard Bird says:

        HI RONALD
        I believe we were east london school chess champions in 1957 – I played position 4 or 5 – I then believe we went on to play in the home counties – are you still living in london- do you remember jean whitelock she is older than me but said she remembered me

        richard bird

      • Ronald Dopson says:

        Hi Richard,

        I moved from London when I was about 14, and lived in Aylesbury, got married and moved to Hertfordshire. My wife and her family are Irish and we moved over the west coast of Ireland a couple of years ago. What about you, do you still live in London.
        I’m dreadful on names and cannot remember anyone’s!.

  5. I have (had) Great Great grandparents with copyhold in Manor of Stepney, at 27 Broad Road. That road no longer exists. The Nathaniel HADEN was a mast & Block maker, latterly on Wapping High Street. I have been piecing together the HADEN family around Ratcliffe & Wapping. Nath’l had that property while living in (& dying) at Dulwich, 1885.
    The maps of Ratcliffe are very different from 1868. Wapping is much the same as it used to be.
    Barry P.

    • Hi Barry,

      Thanks for the comment and information.

      You are right Ratcliffe has practically disappeared but was more famous than Wapping at one time.

      Good luck with looking for your family in Ratcliffe and Wapping

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