Ratcliff (or Ratcliffe) is a former locality now split between the modern day districts of Limehouse, Stepney and Shadwell after being absorbed into them.

The name Ratcliffe derives from a small red sandstone cliff that stood above the surrounding marshes. Located at the western end of Narrow Street it was by the eighteenth century made up of lodging houses, bars, brothels and opium dens. It acquired an unsavoury reputation with a large transient population. In 1794 approximately half of the hamlet was destroyed in a fire but, even so, it continued as a notorious slum well into the nineteenth century.

Ratcliffe was originally known for shipbuilding but from the fourteenth century more for fitting and provisioning ships. By the early seventeenth century it had the largest population of any village in Stepney, with 3500 residents.

A number of sailing warships were built for the Royal Navy here, including one of the earliest frigates, the Constant Warwick in 1645.

From the late sixteenth century Ratcliffe and surrounding areas were notable areas for non-conformist Christianity. The parish church of Ratcliffe, St James in Butcher Row, was built in 1838 and served the area until 1951 when the parish was merged with St Paul, Shadwell.

In late 1811 seven murders took place in Ratcliffe Highway (St George’s Street), allegedly committed by a sailor named Williams, who committed suicide after being captured.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, the condition of the area had improved somewhat - the 1868 ’National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland’ describes Ratcliffe as inhabited by persons connected with shipping and having extensive warehouses, with the area ’well paved, lighted with gas, and supplied with water from the reservoir at Old Ford’.

return to article