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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.


The Story of Dundee Wharf


Dundee Wharf

Some weeks ago, I told the story of Aberdeen Wharf and the close ties between this small corner of Limehouse and Scotland. Eric Pemberton who regularly provides the site with interesting ephemera has provided some information on Dundee Wharf which gives us more information about these long forgotten ties.

Dundee Wharf is a now a striking residential development with a prominent position on the River Thames. The modern buildings was built-in 1997 but occupy land that has had a variety of uses for centuries. Before it became Dundee Wharf in 1901, it was a shipyard known as Limekiln Dockyard.

Dundee Wharf is on the embankment known as the Dunbars. The Dundee, Aberdeen, Caledonia and Dunbar Wharves were once owned by the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company.

dundee wharfgift

The Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company first began its passenger service between Dundee and London in 1826 and were one of the first to introduce paddle steamers on the route in 1835, the ships were considered the most luxurious and fastest steamers on the East coast route.

Gradually the era of paddle steamers gave way to screw steamers and the company began to expand their fleet with cabin ships which had berths for 65 first class and 60 second class passengers as well as 75 deck passengers. Business was so successful, the company opened its own terminal at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse in 1901. Although as the following newspaper report from 1906 points out, business at the wharf was good but health and safety was a bit of an issue.

An astounding discovery was made on the steamer Perth when she arrived at Dundee from London. A dock labourer named Stewart, was found to have been buried in the hold of the vessel among the cargo. He had been imprisoned for sixty hours, and during that time had neither food nor water nor light. Stewart was engaged in loading the steamer at Limehouse Wharf, when he was buried among the cargo, which consisted mainly of jute, and was taken to Dundee, which, owing to fog, was not reached until sixty hours later, or double the normal time. As the vessel was being unloaded at Dundee the men heard a cry from below: ‘That’s right mates, heave away,’ and soon afterwards Stewart was found half-doubled up among the bales. He was in a very exhausted condition.

During the war years of 1914 – 1918, many of the company’s ships were requisitioned and in 1918 the company found itself with no vessels to maintain its sailings. Eventually they were able to find ships and returned to the Dundee to London sailings and expanded with routes to Lisbon, Seville, Antwerp and Barcelona .

dundee wharf 1928

Limekiln Dock and surrounding warehouses,(Large warehouses on Dundee Wharf in the middle) 1928.

The interwar years were relatively profitable for coastal line ship companies who carried passengers and various cargoes. Some of the products bought down from Scotland included jute products, popular magazines from D.C. Thomson, jams made by Keillers, printed stationary and postcards produced by Valentines .

Dundee, Perth & London boat 1933 (1)

Dundee Perth and London Shipping Company Ship 1933

The outbreak of Second World War saw vessels requisitioned once again and more seriously, Dundee Wharf was badly damaged in a bomb attack during September 1940 and was out of action for a considerable time.

dundee wharf 1953

The SS Angusburn moored at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse, 1953.

After the war, the ships resumed the passenger service to London but were facing increasing competition from both road and rail services. In 1946, the company introduction of the three general purpose vessels “Angusburn”, “Angusbrae” and “Angusmuir”, which travelled around the world with various cargoes and became familiar sights in many ports in different parts of the world.

angus burn 1953

The SS Angusburn moored at Dundee Wharf, Limehouse, 1953.

In 1954, the company acquired a minority interest in a small London-based firm, Lockett Wilson Ltd who used Dundee Wharf to run sailings to Paris. The coastal trade became increasingly difficult to operate profitably during the 1950’s and 1960’s which led to ending of the liner service between Dundee and London which the company had been run since its formation in 1826. The last “London boat” made her final sailing in 1961 and eventually Dundee Wharf was sold in October 1969.

Once again many thanks to Eric Pemberton for bringing another piece of Docklands history to light, it is remarkable to consider that the Dundee, Perth and London Shipping Company  were bringing passengers and cargoes from Scotland to this small part of Limehouse for over 100 years.



Limehouse and The Great Storm of 1703


Whilst recently researching about Limehouse Hole, I came across the fascinating story about  The Great Storm of 1703 and the way that the ships in the Thames were destroyed on the Limehouse riverfront.


One of the great chroniclers of the Great Storm was Daniel Defoe who produced a book based of eyewitness reports which is now considered one of the first pieces of Modern Journalism.


Daniel Defoe 1706

Defoe had spent most of 1703 in trouble, one of his published pamphlets about Dissenters  led to him being placed in a pillory for three days  in July and then imprisoned in Newgate Prison.  He only obtained his release in November after agreeing to act as a spy .  Within a week of his release from prison, Defoe witnessed the Great Storm of 1703,  on the 26th and 27th November. He was particularly interested in the shipping on the Thames and provided the following report.

Nor can the damage suffered in the river of Thames be forgot. It was a strange sight to see all the ships in the river blown away, the pool was so clear, that as I remember, not above 4 ships were left between the upper part of Wapping, and Ratcliffe Cross, for the tide being up at the time when the storm blew with the greatest violence, no anchors or landfast, no cables or moorings would hold them, the chains which lay cross the river for the mooring of ships, all gave way.

The ships breaking loose thus, it must be a strange sight to see the hurry and confusion of it, and as some ships had nobody at all on board, and a great many had none but a man or boy left on board just to look after the vessel, there was nothing to be done, but to let every vessel drive whither and how she would.

Those who know the reaches of the river, and how they lie, know well enough, that the wind being at south-west westerly, the vessels would naturally drive into the bite or bay from Ratcliff Cross to Limehouse Hole, for that the river winding about again from thence towards the new dock at Deptford, runs almost due south-west, so that the wind blew down one reach, and up another, and the ships must of necessity drive into the bottom of the angle between both.

This was the case, and as the place is not large, and the number of ships very great, the force of the wind had driven them so into one another, and laid them so upon one another as it were in heaps, that I think a man may safely defy all the world to do the like.

The author of this collection had the curiosity the next day to view the place, and to observe the posture they lay in, which nevertheless it is impossible to describe; there lay, by the best account he could take, few less than 700 sail of ships some very great ones between Shadwell and Limehouse inclusive, the posture is not to be imagined, but by them that saw it, some vessels lay heeling off with the bow of another ship over her waste, and the stem of another upon her forecastle, the bowsprits of some drove into the cabin windows of others; some lay with their stems tossed up so high, that the tide flowed into their fore-castles before they could come to rights; some lay so leaning upon others, that the undermost vessels would sink before the other could float; the numbers of masts, bowsprits and yards split and broke, the staving the heads, and stems, and carved work, the tearing and destruction of rigging, and the squeezing of boats to pieces between the ships, is not to be reckoned; but there was hardly a vessel to be seen that had not suffered some damage or other in one or all of these articles.

There were several vessels sunk in this hurry, but as they were generally light ships, the damage was chiefly to the vessels; but there were two ships sunk with great quantity of goods on board, the Russel galley was sunk at Limehouse, being a great part laden with bale goods for the Streights, and the Sarah galley lading for Leghorn, sunk at an anchor at Blackwall; and though she was afterwards weighed and brought on shore, yet her back was broke, or so otherwise disabled, as she was never fit for the sea; there were several men drowned in these last two vessels, but we could never come to have the particular number.

Even taking account of perhaps some exaggeration, the sight of hundreds of ships wrecked along the Limehouse riverfront would have been an extraordinary sight and there were also reports  of  chaos at Blackwall.

The Great Storm of 1703 was considered one of the most severe natural disasters ever recorded in England. It arrived from the southwest on 26 November (7 December in today’s calendar). In London, 2,000 chimney stacks collapsed. It was said every church steeple in the city was damaged, fatal casualties numbered 23 dead and over 200 severely injured, mostly by falling masonry.

The damage across the nation was considerable with human losses estimated at 8000 to 10000, an estimated 300,000 trees fell down or uprooted. Four hundred windmills and eight to nine hundred houses were destroyed, and over a hundred churches severely damaged.

Defoe’s The Storm is an extraordinary record of the event with contributions from all over England. The book was very popular at the time, but both the Storm and the book have largely been forgotten. It is ironic that Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year is more famous and considered an eye witness account, it wasn’t ! Defoe was only four at the time.

The Story of the Limehouse Pier

limehouse pier

Many of the posts on the blog are the outcome of research suggested by contributors, Eric Pemberton often sends one of his interesting postcards which engages my curiosity and makes me determined to find out more about the subject. Eric sent a postcard recently which was a reminder that certain parts of the river have an intriguing history all of their own.

Historically, The riverside district from the South West India Dock (Impounding) entrance lock up to Dunbar Wharf was known as Limehouse Hole. The name was in use by the seventeenth century, this was one of the first parts of the parish of Poplar to be developed, but almost nothing survives of its earliest 17th century development, In the 18th to 20th century, Limehouse Hole was developed with a number of shipping-related enterprises. There were shipbuilders, barge-builders, boat-builders, ropemakers, sailmakers, mastmakers, blockmakers and ship-chandlers.


1908 Map

Due to its location on the river, Limehouse Hole was a popular place for watermen to ply their trade, which they did successfully from the seventeenth century. In the ninetieth century, watermen were losing business to steamboats and tried to encourage trade by erecting a floating pier at Limehouse Hole Stairs. It was erected in 1843 but did not have the required effect and was gone by 1860. However it was the first pier in Limehouse Hole, but not the last because when a passenger steamboat service to the locality was proposed, a new floating pier was erected at Limehouse Hole Stairs in 1870. This pier, a walkway on three pontoons, was designed by Stephen William Leach  was removed in 1901 for the building of Dundee Wharf. The postcard sent by Eric dates  from the early 20th century and features another Limehouse Pier, this construction  was built for the short lived  ‘Penny Steamer’ service in 1905 but managed to survive until 1948.

stairs limehouse

Other views of the pier are from Thames Riverscape  and the Britain from Above photographs. In 1937 the Port of London Authority commissioned Avery Illustrations to document both banks of the Thames between London Bridge and Greenwich/Island Gardens. This Thames Riverscape now provides an invaluable record of the Thames from this period.


The aerial picture from Britain from Above shows the pier in 1928 and clearly shows how far it extended.

The pier was not the most successful ever but it did feature in a 1927 poem by Helen Markham

At Limehouse Pier, the tide is strong,
And there are curious things adrift,
But the wind hath a nobler song,
Salt with the sea’s sharp kiss, and swift.
A flowing fire is on the river,
Like wine outpoured, wine-gold, wine-red,
or purging of her piteous dead.
The great crane engines swing and quiver.
And the lost sea-birds wheel and cry,
The long, slow barges, dreamfully,
The little brown-sailed boats, go by
Intent to find the sea.

To a large extent, Limehouse Hole has now disappeared underneath Westferry Circus and  the Riverside developments, this  stretch is now known as part of the longer Limehouse Reach but for centuries the name of Limehouse Hole and to a lesser extent Limehouse Pier were known all around the world.

The Woodward – Fishers of Limehouse


Some months ago, I wrote a post about Dorothea Woodward- Fisher who featured in a 1972 BBC documentary called Mother Thames OBE. The post was based on a magazine article about the show because any chance of finding a copy of the documentary seemed unlikely.
However through the persistence of Trevor Wayman who lived near the Woodward – Fisher yard in the 1960s, a copy of the programme has been obtained.


The theme of the documentary was the decline of the docks and river traffic in the 1970s and how this had affected the business of the redoubtable Dorothea Woodward- Fisher.


The Woodward Fishers had worked on the river for over 50 years and had a property in Narrow Street near Duke Store Stairs,  Mrs Woodward- Fisher and her husband Billy  ran a lighterage business on the Thames and in their heyday  had around 170 barges on the river, and a fleet of tugs.

When her husband died in the 1960s,  Mrs Woodward- Fisher took over the business as well as undertaking her considerable charity work and raised much of the money to build clubhouse for the Poplar, Blackwell and District Rowing Club.
In the programme she recalls that although she went to Cheltenham Ladies College, she was a bit of a rebel in her youth and the decision to marry a lighterman did not go down very well with her family. However with 20 pounds in capital and a barge worth 100 pounds, she and her husband started their business which carried on until 1973.


The Woodward Fisher company closed on her 79th birthday, when Mrs Woodward- Fisher took the remaining 88 barges out of commission. In the documentary the lines of barges are a sad reminder of the decline of river traffic and idle cranes along the river and docks add to the desolate scene.


Mrs Woodward- Fisher was an amazing personality, dressed in pinstripe suit, bow tie, gold rimmed monocle, and high-heeled crocodile shoes, she is often shown smoking her cigarette and swigging back a occasional large brandy.

As well as her three London wharves. Mrs Fisher owned a wharf and a refreshment bar on the Isle of Wight. Her large Victorian mansion in Lewisham was home to a menagerie of five tortoises, nine cats, two dogs, a parrot and a budgerigar.


Towards the end of the programme, she asks the question do we want a working river or a river flanked by apartments with just leisure boats going up and down ?

Over 40 years after the programme, the answer seems be the second option. The 1970s were the end of an era and the end of river trade that went back hundreds of years. When the programme ends with rows of barges sitting idle in the river and Mrs Woodward Fisher lamenting on the state of shipping in London, it is not difficult to understand that this demise was not just the loss of jobs but for many people the loss of a way of life.


As well  as being an extremely talented painter, Trevor Wayman is an exceptional model maker and often builds small sets on a particular theme. Above is his Limehouse 1965 which celebrates the Woodward- Fisher yard and the boats berthed in front.

The Story of Mary East by Bram Stoker


The true story of Mary East is a unusual one in many ways often told in various magazines from the mid 18th century. Here the creator of  ‘Dracula’ recounts the story in a theatrical manner for his book Famous Imposters published in 1910.

“A young fellow courted one Mary East, and for him she conceived the greatest liking; but he going upon the highway, was tried for a robbery and cast, but was afterwards transported.”

In 1736, when Mary East was sixteen, life was especially hard on women. Few honest occupations were open to them, and they were subject to all the hardships consequent on a system in which physical weakness was handicapped to a frightful extent. When this poor girl was bereft of her natural hope of a settlement in life she determined, as the least unattractive form of living open to her, to remain single. About the same time a friend of hers arrived at the same resolution but by a different road, her course being guided thereto by having “met with many crosses in love.” The two girls determined to join forces; and on consulting as to ways and means decided that the likeliest way to avoid suspicion was to live together under the guise of man and wife. The toss of a coin decided their respective roles, the “breeches part” as it is called in the argot of the theatre, falling to East.

The combined resources of the girls totalled some thirty pounds sterling, so after buying masculine garb for Mary they set out to find a place where they were unknown and so might settle down in peace. They found the sort of place they sought in the neighbourhood of Epping Forest where, there being a little public-house vacant, Mary now under the name of James How — became the tenant. For some time they lived in peace at Epping, with the exception of a quarrel forced by a young gentleman on the alleged James How in which the latter was wounded in the hand. It must have been a very one-sided affair, for when the injured “man” took action he was awarded £500 damages — a large sum in those days and for such a cause. With this increase to their capital the two women moved to Limehouse on the east side of London where they took at Limehouse-hole a more important public-house. This they managed in so excellent a manner that they won the respect of their neighbours and throve exceedingly.

After a time they moved from Limehouse to Poplar where they bought another house and added to their little estate by the purchase of other houses. Peace, hard work, and prosperity marked their life thence-forward, till fourteen years had passed since the beginning of their joint venture.

Peace and prosperity are, however, but feeble guardians to weakness. Nay, rather are they incentive to evil doing. For all these years the two young women had conducted themselves with such rectitude, and observed so much discretion, that even envy could not assail them through the web of good repute which they had woven round their masquerade. Alone they lived, keeping neither female servant nor male assistant. They were scrupulously honest in their many commercial dealings and, absolutely punctual in their agreements and obligations. James How took a part in the public life of his locality, filling in turn every parish office except those of Constable and Churchwarden.
From the former he was excused on account of the injury to his hand from which he had never completely recovered. Regarding the other his time had not yet come, but he was named for Churchwarden in the year following to that in which a bolt fell from the blue, 1730. It came in this wise : A woman whose name of coverture was Bently,and who was now resident in Poplar, had known the alleged James How in the days when they were both young. Her own present circumstances were poor and she looked on the prosperity of her old acquaintance as a means to her own betterment. It was but another instance of the old crime of “blackmail.” She sent to the former Mary East for a loan of £10, intimating that if the latter did not send it she would make known the secret of her sex. The poor panic-stricken woman foolishly complied with the demand, thus forcing herself deeper into the mire of the other woman’s unscrupulousness. The forced loan, together with Bently’s fears for her own misdeed procured immunity for some fifteen years from further aggression. At the end of that time, however, under the renewed pressure of need Bently repeated her demand. “James How” had not the sum by her, but she sent £5— another link in the chain of her thraldom.

From that time on there was no more peace for poor Mary East. Her companion of nearly thirty- five years died and she, having a secret to guard and no assistance being possible, was more helpless than ever and more than ever under the merciless yoke of the blackmailer. Mrs. Bently had a fair idea of how to play her own despicable game. As her victim’s fear was her own stock-in-trade she supplemented the sense of fear which she knew to exist by a conspiracy strengthened by all sorts of
schemes to support its seeming bona fides. She took in two male accomplices and, thus enforced, began operations. Her confederates called on James How, one armed with a constable’s staff, the other appearing as one of the “thief -takers” of the gang of the notorious magistrate, Fielding — an evil product of an evil time. Having confronted How they told him that they had come by order of Mr. Justice Fielding to arrest him for the commission of a robbery over forty years before, alleging that they were aware of his being a woman.
Mary East, though quite innocent of any such offence but acutely conscious of her imposture of manhood, in her dismay sought the aid of a friend called Williams who understood and helped her. He went to the magistrates of the district and then to Sir John Fielding to make inquiries and claim
protection. During his absence the two villains took Mary East from her house and by threats secured from her a draft on Williams for £100. With this in hand they released their victim who was even more anxious than themselves not to let the matter have greater publicity than it had already obtained. However, Justice demanded a further investigation, and one of the men being captured — the other had escaped — was tried, and being found guilty, was sentenced to imprisonment for four years together with four appearances in the pillory.

Altogether Mary East and her companion had lived together as husband and wife for nearly thirty-five years, during which time they had honestly earned, and by self-denial saved, over four thousand pounds sterling and won the good opinion of all with whom they had come in contact. They were never known to cook a joint of meat for their own use, to employ any help, or to entertain private” friends in their house. They were cautious, careful, and discreet in every way and seemed to live
their lives in exceeding blamelessness.

The pub that Mary East ran in Poplar was the White Horse. An archaeological dig in 2004 found  documentary evidence for a tavern on the site dating from 1690, and  connections to brewing dating back to the 14th century.

images whiffen

White Horse pub – picture taken by William Whiffen (Poplar Photographer)

The pub was rebuilt in 1870 and in 1928. It closed and was demolished in 2003. All that remains of the historic tavern is a pub sign of a white horse on a pole.

A Tiger Loose in Limehouse – 1839

Whilst doing a little research about the Regent’s Canal, I came across the following story which is relatively unknown compared the Jamrach and the Tiger incident illustrated above that happened in 1857 on Ratcliffe Highway.  Well before Jamrach set up his emporium, George Wombwell  was the undisputed King of the Menageries and he had a base in Commercial Road near to the Regent’s Canal.

From there he travelled all over the country to the many fairs to exhibit his wild animals, however he also used his base in Commercial Road to buy animals bought from all over the world by sailors  who berthed in the local docks. He would then sell the animals  on to Zoo’s and other interested parties.

The following newspaper report is from 1839 and is interesting for more than one reason, the local characters such as Mr Thomas and the Irish Coal Whipper  are particularly entertaining.

wombwell 6666

Escape of a Large Bengal Tiger  – 1839

Escape of a large Bengal tiger from Wombwell’s menagerie at Limehouse, near the Regent’s-canal Dock-bridge. It appeared that the animal broke loose from its den about half-past seven o’clock, and found its way into the Commercial-road, where it was first seen leisurely walking along by Mr Thomas, a boot and shoe-maker in Ratcliffe Highway. He first observed the animal near the White Horse-gate. and, supposing it to be a bear, called out to a female who was near him, ” Stand back. here is a bear coming ” The young woman immediately threw off her pattens, and ran away down an adjoining street leading towards Shadwell, and was not seen again.

Directly afterwards the tiger passed Mr Thomas who had sought refuge in a doorway. After the tiger had passed him. Mr Thomas, lost no time in communicating the circumstance to all the policemen in the vicinity, who proceeded in various directions, and warned the passengers of the locality of the dangerous beast. The tiger in the meantime continued his course along the Commercial-road, the people flying in great terror on his approach, until he met a large mastiff dog, which he instantly attacked, striking the dog on the back with his paw and crushing him with a single blow, and seizing the poor animal with his teeth threw him into the air. The dog fell lifeless on the ground, and the tiger then continued to amuse himself with the carcase for some time, running up and down the road with it until he reached a house near the bridge. The gate of the garden having been left open, he entered with his prey and laid down to devour it. The only person at-home was a servant girl, the family being absent at church. Hearing a noise in the garden she took a light, and went to the door to ascertain the cause. upon opening the door several policemen called out to ‘her to close it directly, and keep within the house: and it was fortunate she did so, for at that moment the tiger, attracted by, the light, was about to spring upon her.

The tiger remained in the garden for some time, busily engaged in devouring the dog, until a policeman, more bold than the rest, advanced towards the spot, and closed the gate upon it. A stout rope was immediately procured, and a slip noose having been made It was thrown across the animal, which made a sudden spring towards the railing, about six feet in height, separating the garden from the foot path. In doing so, the noose fastened itself round it, and the tiger remained with its head towards the ground, and loins on the rails for some time, roaring tremendously and alarming the whole neighbourhood.

The mob, which had kept at a respectful distance while the animal was at liberty, now advanced; but although the beast was under some restraint, it struggled violently, and made use of its fore paws. One man, an Irish coal whipper, who got too near, had his cheek torn open and his belly severely lacerated. So great was the curiosity of the populace, that the police had great difficulty in keeping them beyond the reach of danger! and some fool hardy, half-drunken ballast-getters and coal whippers were with some difficulty, restrained from making an attack upon the tiger.

The keepers of Wombwell’s menagerie were soon apprised by the police, and brought ropes, which they fastened round the tiger’s neck, and after a good deal of resistance led him back to his den. One of the keepers was severely injured while securing the animal, which tore his hand, and put him in great pain. It was some time before the neighbourhood recovered from the alarm which this event occasioned. It appears that the door of the tiger’s den had been incautiously left open, and it broke a chain by which it was secured to the side of the cage or caravan, and got out.

The aftermath of the drama was Mr Wombwell was bought in front of the  local magistrates who had been told there had been other occasions when an animal had escaped. Apparently a Polar Bear had escaped a few months previously which had nearly killed a passer-by. Mr Wombwell’s defence was that all the animals had been trained to appear on the stage and were docile, he claimed it was the dog that had frightened the tiger and led to the incident. Amazingly he got off with the recommendation that he should make sure there was no reoccurrence.


George Wombwell

But even if Mr Wombwell kept his promise, the people of Limehouse , Shadwell and Wapping were not safe from attacks from wild animals.  In 1857, a large tiger escaped from Jamrach’s menagerie and attacked a young boy, Jamrach himself wrestled with the tiger and eventually rescued the boy.

To celebrate this event,  there is a statue  now in Tobacco Dock that show the incident between the tiger and the little boy.

tobacco dock

Jamrach’s and Wombwell’s were not the only menageries on Commercial Road or in the area, thankfully by the twentieth century these type of establishments were dying out and people could walk down the road without  the possibility of facing a tiger or a polar bear.