The Highway, E1W

Road in/near Wapping, existing until now

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Road · Wapping · E1W ·
MARCH
17
2017

The Highway was once the Ratcliffe Highway.

The ruins of Ratcliff after the fire of 1794
In the early days of England’s rise to maritime power, when the foundations of the British Commonwealth were being laid by adventurous men whose courage made their own endeavours seem to themselves nothing but casual events in the life they lived, it was often said of the little vessels when they moored in the Lower Pool that they were "off Ratcliff."

Indeed they were, for the hamlet, which for several generations was the abode ashore of many fine seamen, once extended along the riverside westwards so far as to be separated from the Precinct of St. Katharine by the Tower only by Wapping Marsh, a watery waste consisting of 180 acres lying between the Hermitage and Foxes Lane. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, after much difficulty, it was effectually drained, and a new Wapping came into existence close behind the wall that embanked the Thames. The reclaimed land was recognised as being in the Hamlet of Wapping, or the Lower Hamlet of Whitechapel, in which parish it was included until 1694, when, by Act of Parliament, it was made a separate parish. The remaining part of old Wapping was, however, kept in the parish of Stepney, and for the sake of distinction called Wapping Stepney until 1729, when it became incorporated in the newly formed parish of St. George-in-the-East.

Long before this time the number of houses and the population of the hamlet of Ratcliff had increased. This was due principally to the building of Shadwell on the ground that lay between Foxes Lane and the part of Ratcliff known as the "town," which was so described to distinguish a particular locality (the business part) from the hamlet as a whole. The Vestry of Stepney decided in 1694 to make a boundary between the two places (Shadwell was not made a parish until 1669) and the dividing line at the riverside was by "the old baliste wharf," which is to-day Bell Wharf, Broad Street. Here was Cock Hill, which gently rose from the Thames, and the elevation being continued, Ratcliff Highway passed along it. The subsoil of this upland and the adjacent fields northwards was of gravel which, it is highly probable, belonged to the same deposit as that of the patch of light red gravel mentioned by Mr. A. G. Linney in his Lure and Lore of London River - as being visible to-day below the entrance to Millwall Dock at low water. To some it may be a pleasing thought that in the days of sail many tons of Ratcliff gravel soil were shipped as ballast, and being borne away came to be scattered over the face of the globe.

The town of Ratcliff from time immemorial extended along the strand or foreshore now represented by the length of Broad Street and part of Narrow Street. At its western extremity adjoining Bell Wharf there formerly existed a way down to the river. A painted notice on a board affixed to the wall at the entry declared its use to be a public right. The notice was put up by the old Limehouse Board of Works at the instance of some who were concerned in the past history of the neighbourhood, and believed that the spot marked on old maps as "the Lord’s waste," or common ground (indicating thereby its direct association with the manor) was identical with Stebenhythe, whence the name of Stepney was derived. The public right was extinguished by statute in 1922, when the space was taken into the Shadwell Park.

On the rising land at the back of Broad Street and parallel to it Brook Street came into existence. This was a paved way from the stream that flowed along the line of what is now Butcher Row. It is far from being a modern street, as it was mentioned in 1453, when Henry VI granted Garlek House, Brook Street, Stepney, to Sir Thomas Vaughan. Four years afterwards, on his surrender of it, the king re-granted it to him jointly with Jasper, Earl of Pembroke. This has been taken as an indication of the status of Ratcliff nearly 500 years ago, but, however much it may suggest that the house was desirable as a place of residence, the troubled times - the beginning of the War of the Roses - were not favourable to a settled life of ease and homely care. It is more likely that the premises, which may be located as being near to the way down to Ratcliff Cross, were used for official purposes in collecting the customs on wine, wool, skins and other merchandise which were unloaded from the little trading vessels on to the adjacent quays. Although a statute of 1480 provided that the King should not take the duties without consent of Parliament, he was at this period not only doing so, but was exacting increased customs by arrangement with the merchants. It is such matters on the fringe of parochial history that give it an added interest, and inquiries into their relation to the subject adds to knowledge, even it be only the mere linking of a local habitation and a name.

Until the reign of Elizabeth, when it was forbidden, the discharge of dutiable goods at Ratcliff went on uninterruptedly, and in times of outbreak of plague it was of great advantage to those engaged in the work, as well as to others who were employed in the various occupations associated with shipping and commerce. When the time had come for the landing of merchandise on the appointed quays higher up the river, the building, repairing and victualling of ships at Ratcliff had made considerable progress, and Ratcliff Cross was already a rallying-place for master mariners and their crews. From the Stairs nearby they went on board their ships wherever they might be in the Thames. In the neighbourhood abounded inns and taverns, and in those of the better sort a good deal of business was transacted with conviviality and profit.

In 1794 a great fire destroyed most of Ratcliff in a few hours. An engraving entitled "The Ruins of Ratcliffe" shows the riverside. Some curiosity may be excited as to the appearance of the streets which were so quickly swept away. It is possible that a few of the houses were old timber-framed structures which had escaped previous lesser conflagrations. From time to time many had so perished of which there is no record. There was another fire in 1765, when between twenty and thirty old wooden houses were burnt and ten damaged, the loss being valued at £19,000, a remarkable sum, if true. In the eighteenth century many of the ancient properties had disappeared and commodious houses took their place, occupied by merchants, captains, and master craftsmen. The ease with which the great fire made its progress was principally due to the presence of a large number of wooden workshops and warehouses containing inflammable goods, and, of course, the difficulty of obtaining water. Of the buildings erected immediately afterwards, very few, if any, now remain to share the company of those which escaped disaster. In Narrow Street, near Ratcliff Cross Stairs, there is a house still standing that came into being in the days of Queen Anne. Altered in appearance by age and ill-treatment, it is less attractive than one or two houses in Stepney Causeway which were built some fifty years later. A good specimen of a house which was built about 1780 remains in Butcher Row. It was once the residence of a wealthy shipowner, and to it were attached extensive gardens. It is now St. James’s Vicarage, and is practically unchanged, and contains many features of interest, principal among them being the fine entrance. On the walls of the dining- and drawing-rooms are painted seascapes and Italian scenery. A little room - a powder closet - is a survival of the days when wigs were worn, and had to be occasionally dusted over.

A change which is occasioned by a catastrophe is amazing to contemporaries, but one which takes place over a series of years passes almost unnoticed, for few eyes see the full effect of the slow transformation. By the construction of Rotherhithe Tunnel (the approach to which passes under Broad Street) and the demolition of courts and alleys to make room for the extension of business premises and for the erection of blocks of dwellings, not only the aspect, but the character of the whole neighbourhood has been altered.

Ratcliff Causeway. Photograph by William WhiffinThere are some who can remember it as it was in the seventies of the last century: Broad Street with a bowsprite projecting across the road and almost touching the window of the house opposite the dry dock. The sight of the tall ship itself was enough to conjure up visions in a boy’s mind of pirates on the Spanish Main and pieces of eight. The street was redolent of odours strange and varied - hay, ship’s biscuits, coals, tarred twine, horses, brewers’ grains, paint, kippers, coffee, stale beer, and the mustiness of water-logged wood, all in sequence, but each individually blended with jam in the making. While the nose was enjoying the exercise of a generally much-neglected sense, the eyes peeped at the broad river, at the gap of Stone Stairs, or else through the arch at Free Trade Wharf. This arch has now gone, but the carved coat of arms of the East India Company which formerly surmounted it has happily been placed above the new entry, as a reminder of a great enterprise.

In Brook Street the courts and alleys - Harris Court, Hamlet Court, Blue Anchor Alley, etc., together with the houses that were built on the garden ground attached to Mr. Bere’s residence, which so "miraculously" was preserved from the flames, have all been demolished. Some of these were rebuilt soon after the Fire, and many of the occupants were employed in making the high-crowned beaver hats that were worn by gentlemen of fashion and of dignified deportment. The beaver left the hat industry and the silkworm took its place, and the old class of tenants vanished. The Irish came and took possession for many years of the houses which until then had been decently and tidily kept. They were a rough, hard-working, hard drinking (if they had the wherewithal) warm-hearted, hot-headed people, who had an objection to paying rent, and loved to have a shindy among themselves, with a constable or two to fortify the mixture. They did not beg but were delighted to receive, and they could in charming accents invoke a multitude of blessings on this slight provocation.

From this region of turbulence one could, in a few paces, come to the neat abode of silence and peace. At the corner of School house Lane was the Quakers’ meeting-house and burial-ground. The building, which was pulled down this summer, was erected in 1794, and a view of its interior in its latter days is shown below. The land was purchased in 1666, this part of the street being then rural, by Thomas Yoakley on behalf of the Society of Friends who were treated here by the authorities, as else where, with great intolerance. In 1670 Sir John Robinson, the then Governor of the Tower and a violent opponent and persecutor of the Friends, came with soldiers and seized sixty-one forms and two tables. Justice Rycroft attended and fined them and also tendered the oath of allegiance, and on their refusal to be sworn committed them to Newgate. Placid and undismayed amid these disturbances, the Friends, who numbered among them master mariners and others connected with nautical affairs, subsequently met amid the ruins of their meeting-house, were fined, and sent to prison. Among those who are interred in the little burial-ground is John Scott, the Quaker poet who died in 1788. His poetry was known to Dr. Johnson and to Sir Walter Scott, the latter alluding to him (Redgauntlet, Letter vii) as one "who constructed verses well approved of even in the world." John Scott, whose settled place of residence was at Amwell, every year spent some time occasionally at a house which he had at Ratcliff Cross. Inspired by the view of the river from Ratcliff he composed the subjoined verses - a scene that is very different, even allowing for poetic licence, from that of to-day.

Based on "The Copartnership Herald", Vol. V, no. 58 (December 1935) by Sydney Maddocks

xxx

The ruins of Ratcliff after the fire of 1794
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VIEW THE WAPPING AREA IN THE 1750s
The 1750 Rocque map is bounded by Sudbury (NW), Snaresbrook (NE), Eltham (SE) and Hampton Court (SW).
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VIEW THE WAPPING AREA IN THE 1800s
The 1800 mapping is bounded by Stanmore (NW), Woodford (NE), Bromley (SE) and Hampton Court (SW).
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VIEW THE WAPPING AREA IN THE 1830s
The 1830 mapping is bounded by West Hampstead (NW), Hackney (NE), Greenwich (SE) and Chelsea (SW).
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VIEW THE WAPPING AREA IN THE 1860s
The 1860 mapping is bounded by Brent Cross (NW), Stratford (NE), Greenwich (SE) and Hammermith (SW).
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VIEW THE WAPPING AREA IN THE 1900s
The 1900 mapping covers all of the London area.

 

Wapping

Wapping's proximity to the Thames has given the area a strong maritime character, which it retains through its riverside public houses and steps.

The area was first settled by Saxons, from whom it takes its name (meaning literally [the place of] Wæppa's people). It developed along the embankment of the Thames, hemmed in by the river to the south and the now-drained Wapping Marsh to the north. This gave it a peculiarly narrow and constricted shape, consisting of little more than the axis of Wapping High Street and some north-south side streets. John Stow, the 16th century historian, described it as a "continual street, or a filthy strait passage, with alleys of small tenements or cottages, built, inhabited by sailors' victuallers".

Wapping was inhabited by sailors, mastmakers, boat-builders, blockmakers, instrument-makers, victuallers and representatives of all the other trades that supported the seafarer. Wapping was also the site of 'Execution Dock', where pirates and other water-borne criminals faced execution by hanging from a gibbet constructed close to the low water mark. Their bodies would be left dangling until they had been submerged three times by the tide. Though Execution Dock is long gone, this gibbet is still maintained on the Thames foreshore by the Prospect of Whitby public house

Said to be England's first, the Marine Police Force was formed in 1798 by magistrate Patrick Colquhoun and a Master Mariner, John Harriott, to tackle theft and looting from ships anchored in the Pool of London and the lower reaches of the river. Its base was (and remains) in Wapping High Street and it is now known as the Marine Support Unit. The Thames Police Museum, dedicated to the history of the Marine Police Force, is currently housed within the headquarters of the Marine Support Unit, and is open to the public by appointment.

In 1811, the horrific Ratcliff Highway murders took place nearby at The Highway and Wapping Lane.

The area's strong maritime associations changed radically in the 19th century when the London Docks were built to the north and west of the High Street. Wapping's population plummeted by nearly 60% during that century, with many houses destroyed by the construction of the docks and giant warehouses along the riverfront. Squeezed between the high walls of the docks and warehouses, the district became isolated from the rest of London, although some relief was provided by Brunel's Thames Tunnel to Rotherhithe. The opening of Wapping tube station on the East London Line in 1869 provided a direct rail link to the rest of London.

Wapping was devastated by German bombing in World War II[8] and by the post-war closure of the docks. It remained a run-down and derelict area into the 1980s, when the area was transferred to the management of the London Docklands Development Corporation, a government quango with the task of redeveloping the Docklands. The London Docks were largely filled in and redeveloped with a variety of commercial, light industrial and residential properties.

In 1986, Rupert Murdoch's News International built a new £80m printing and publishing works in the north of Wapping. This became the scene of violent protests after News International's UK operation moved from Fleet Street to Wapping, with over 5,000 print workers being sacked when new technology was introduced.

Perhaps Wapping's greatest attraction is the Thames foreshore itself, and the venerable public houses that face onto it. A number of the old 'stairs', such as Wapping Old Stairs and Pelican Stairs (by the Prospect of Whitby) give public access to a littoral zone (for the Thames is tidal at this point) littered with flotsam, jetsam and fragments of old dock installations. Understandably it is popular with amateur archaeologists and treasure hunters - it is surprisingly easy for even a casual visitor to pick up a centuries-old shard of pottery here.

Three venerable public houses are located near Stairs. By Pelican Stairs is the Prospect of Whitby, which has a much-disputed claim to be the oldest Thames-side public house still in existence. Be that as it may, there has been an inn on the site since the reign of Henry VIII, and it is certainly one of the most famous public houses in London. It is named after a then-famous collier that used to dock regularly at Wapping. A replica of the old Execution Dock gibbet is maintained on the adjacent foreshore, although the actual site of Execution Dock was nearer to the Town of Ramsgate. This also is on the site of a 16th-century inn and is located next to Wapping Old Stairs to the west of the Prospect; by Wapping Pier Head — the former local headquarters of the Customs and Excise.

Wapping has been used as the setting for a number of works of fiction, including The Long Good Friday; the Ruby In The Smoke novel in the Sally Lockhart series by Phillip Pullman and the brothel in The Threepenny Opera, in which Mack the Knife is betrayed by Jenny Diver.

Among the people born in Wapping are W.W. Jacobs, author of The Monkey's Paw. The American painter James McNeill Whistler, well known for his Thames views, painted Wapping when he lived here between October 1860 and 1864. John Newton, Anglican clergyman and author of many hymns including Amazing Grace was born here. During the 1990s, Wapping was home to American entertainer Cher.
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Central London, south east (1901) FREE DOWNLOAD
Central London, south east.
Stanford's Geographical Establishment. London : Edward Stanford, 26 & 27, Cockspur St., Charing Cross, S.W. (1901)

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Central London, north east.
Stanford's Geographical Establishment. London : Edward Stanford, 26 & 27, Cockspur St., Charing Cross, S.W. (1901)

Cary's New And Accurate Plan of London and Westminster (1818) FREE DOWNLOAD
Cary's map provides a detailed view of London. With print date of 1 January 1818, Cary's map has 27 panels arranged in 3 rows of 9 panels, each measuring approximately 6 1/2 by 10 5/8 inches. The complete map measures 32 1/8 by 59 1/2 inches. Digitising this map has involved aligning the panels into one contiguous map.
John Cary

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Engraved map. Hand coloured. Insets: A view of the Tower from London Bridge -- A view of London from Copenhagen Fields. Includes views of facades of 25 structures "A comparison of the principal buildings of London."
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London Underground Map (1921).  FREE DOWNLOAD
London Underground map from 1921.
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Published By J. H. Colton. No. 172 William St. New York

London Underground Map (1908).  FREE DOWNLOAD
London Underground map from 1908.
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Ordnance Survey of the London region (1939) FREE DOWNLOAD
Ordnance Survey colour map of the environs of London 1:10,560 scale
Ordnance Survey. Crown Copyright 1939.

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Stanford's Geographical Establishment. London : Edward Stanford, 26 & 27, Cockspur St., Charing Cross, S.W. (1901)
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