One of the things that makes Tower Hamlets such a unique quarter of London
is the name itself. For the East End is not a homogeneous borough or town, but a
collection of villages – the old hamlets of Bow, Bromley, Wapping and the rest.
Right up to the 18th century, two of the riverside hamlets stood side by side. Limehouse and Ratcliff were both notorious areas, catering to the locals and the huge influx of sailors and immigrants alike with
their disreputable taverns, flophouses and brothels.
But while Limehouse has gone on to prosper – being transformed from a decaying industrial wasteland into a trendy residential area, with its restored 18th century houses – Ratcliff is much reduced from its former size, and has almost vanished.
Ratcliff was born as the first landfall for ships hitting the capital. The first wharf was built in 1348, and was the first recorded instance of the river being used for business east of the City.
The hamlet quickly grew, spreading north along Butcher Row, the main route to Stepney and Hackney.
By the 17th century, there were more people – 3,500 –
living in Ratcliff than in any of the other Stepney hamlets. Its bustling streets were lined with sailors’ houses, shipwrights’ offices and taverns.
But in 1794, disaster struck the area. A fire broke out on a barge loaded with saltpetre, the volatile substance used to make matches. This fire, at what is now the Free Trade Wharf, quickly spread to the wooden buildings on the shore, destroying the whole of the southern part of Ratcliff.
Much rebuilding ensued, and with the huge influx of immigrants in the 19th century, the area changed drastically.
In 1801 the population of Ratcliff was just 5,000; in 1861 it had soared to 17,000. Along the way, in 1840, it had been established as a parish district within Stepney, being split off from Limehouse.
The prosperous wharfingers and businessmen had now made way for sailors and dockers, and Ratcliff was entering the period of its greatest notoriety.
Broad Street, now the east end of The Highway, became a terrible slum. Ratcliff became renowned for drunkenness, vice, opium dens and poverty. The authorities demanded that something be done.
Like Chinatown, in neighbouring Limehouse, Ratcliff was planned out of existence. The building of the Commercial Road, and of the London and Blackwall Railway demanded massive demolition; the digging of the Rotherhithe Tunnel did the rest.
As the 20th century rolled on, the laying out of the King Edward VII Memorial Park, the damage wreaked by the Luftwaffe’s bombs, and the ongoing programme of slum clearance just about finished off Ratcliff for good.
As its warehouses fell into decline, they were not allowed to stand, like those in neighbouring Wapping and Limehouse, but were cleared in the name of improvement.
Today, of course, those derelict warehouses have been renovated into smart new homes, while the majority of Ratcliff lies buried beneath the roads, railways and tunnel diggings of the riverside.
The only reminder is Free Trade Wharf, which you approach from The Highway – once the Ratcliff Highway – via a huge gateway, bearing lions and the coat of arms of the East India Company.
When you pass through the gate, originally built for the bustling area in 1796, you can reflect that you are walking on what was once one of the most infamous quarters of London – but now disappeared and almost forgotten.