I work now in Ratcliffe, the hamlet that has disappeared really…sitting between Limehouse and Shadwell it was bombed heavily in the war, and then the building of Commercial Street and the Rotherhithe Tunnel, along with the new railway line and its thick arches destroyed most of the rest. I work now in the remains of an old mansion belonging to a sugar merchant, on the site where the church and school once stood before their remnants were torn down. There is not much else left.
It’s very different now, so it’s fascinating to read old descriptions of what was once there. These are from Walter Besant’s East London. I don’t much care for his view of the working (or even lower) classes, but these are fascinating as glimpses of this part of the East End (and a bit of casual racism really…though perhaps more directed at sailors in general?):
The Church of St. George’s-in-the-East stands…beside the once infamous street called the Ratcliffe Highway….Portugal Jack and Italy Jack and Lascar Jack have always been very handy with their knives, while no one interfered and the police could only walk about in little companies of three and four. Within these houses, these windows, these doors, their fronts stained and discolored like a drunkard’s face, there lay men stark and dead… (72)
More on Ratcliffe:
It consists of mean and dirty streets–there is not a single street which is not mean and dirty; none of the houses are old; none are picturesque in the least; they are rickety, dirty, shabby, without one redeeming feature; there is a church but it is not stately…it is unlovely; there are “stairs” to the river and that are rickety, there are warehouses which contain nothing and are tumbling down; there are public houses which do not pretend to be bright and attractive–low-browed, dirty dens, which reek of bad beer and bad gin. Yet the place, when you linger in it and talk about it to the clergy and the ladies who work for it, it is full of interest. For it is a quarter entirely occupied by the hand-to-mouth laborer; the people live in tenements; it is thought luxury to have two rooms; there are eight thousand of them, three quarters being Irish; in the whole parish there is not a single person of what we call respectability, except two or three clergymen and half a dozen ladies; there are no good shops, there are no doctors or lawyers, there is not even a news vender, for nobody in Ratcliffe reads a newspaper. But the place swarms with humanity; the children play by thousands in the gutters; and on the door-steps the wives and mothers sit all day long and in all weathers, carrying on a perpetual parliament of grievance. (81-82)
There is still a Ratcliffe-Cross Street but it ends at Cable Street rather than stretching down to the river. It’s almost hard to believe now that enough people lived here to muster a side in the massive fights between Cable Street and Brook St residents — a street that used to be the center and heart of Ratcliffe and is no longer even on the map.
There is also a mention of the old heritage of the Dissenters in Ratcliffe in the physical form of Medland Hall, formerly a Dissenting Chapel and become what Besant called a free lodging house on the riverside at Ratcliffe. To be explored in a future post…