The fire at Ratcliff which broke out on Wednesday, 28 July 1794, destroyed 458 dwelling-houses and upwards of twenty public buildings. It originated at Mr. Cloves's on Cock Hill, and extended from S.W. to N.E. to Ratcliff Square (now renamed Ratcliff Cross Street), and westwards of Schoolhouse Lane to beyond Butcher Row. Soon afterwards Mr. William Fraser of the Shadwell Waterworks published a plan of the neighbourhood...
On looking at the plan... there [can] be seen north of Cock Hill the spaces marked "Bowles's Manufactory" and "Glass Houses." They formed part of the premises of the once leading house in the glass industry in London, and here was produced for upwards of a century the famous Ratcliff Crown glass which was originally made in 1677, if not earlier, at the Bear Garden, Bankside, Southwark, by John Bowles, who was the first maker of the kind in this country. He had previously become interested in another factory, at Vauxhall, which was associated with the name of the Duke of Buckingham, who, claiming that he had discovered the art of making looking-glass plates (the secret of the Venetians), obtained a patent, or monopoly, in 1663, from Charles II. It was revoked five years later when Buckingham was proclaimed traitor and lodged in the Tower. The Duke gave the whole business to John Dawson, who had been an apprentice to him, and who shared the secret obtained from Venice. This factory, which covered six acres, was financed by John Bowles, who carried it on in partnership with Dawson, but later Bowles obtained sole possession. The glass industry was regarded in Stuart times as the exclusive privilege of the aristocracy, and was jealously guarded from public competition. James I granted a patent to Sir Robert Mansell, and under his protection a group of Frenchmen, including one Abraham Bigoe, had a glass factory as early as 1621 in Broad Street, Ratcliff. Here, probably, nothing more was produced than drinking and table vessels or such small ware. Whether Bigoe's place was on or near Cock Hill is not certain, but it is remarkable that the departure of his family to Stourbridge occurred about the time that John Bowles started in Ratcliff, and, besides, there are good grounds for believing that Bowles really did take over the site. The reason for his coming here may be that the wooden structures confined to small areas at Bankside and at Vauxhall (both places were beginning to be congested) were not adaptable to the needs of an expanding business. It was, therefore, necessary, because of the advantages of water carriage, to have another, more open, place on the river such as was provided by the western part of Ratcliff towards the end of the seventeenth century. In 1680 land was leased between Love Lane (then called Cut Throat Lane), the eastern boundary of Sun Tavern Fields and Schoolhouse Lane, and thereon were erected brick buildings for glass houses and workshops. There was subsequently built by John Bowles or his immediate successors a house of some size, stabling, and a coachhouse, with garden and orchard, which served as a residence from time to time for members of the family. The premises were approached through an archway bearing a shield with the Bowles arms, which was still standing until a recent period. The manufacture of Crown glass was transferred there, the older works being reserved for the making of looking-glass plates. Eighty years later the output of all kinds was concentrated at Ratcliff.
Crown glass appears to have been similar to the window-glass which had formerly been imported from Normandy, but improved in quality to meet the demand for a superior kind suitable for coaches and pictures, and more especially for sash windows, which were then coming into fashion, taking the place of the old lattice casements with their diamond-shaped panes. This glass was made for many years with a crown embossed in the centre of each plate, and it is said that there are windows in existence in some old houses in which the figure can be faintly traced.
The adventurous founder of the business, John Bowles, was the second son of Charles Bowles of Chatham, a wealthy landowner in Kent and Sussex who held a number of important offices during the Commonwealth, which gave him many opportunities for personal enrichment. He was a friend and neighbour of Pepys, who refers to him on several occasions in a way that suggests his being a good-natured, bright young man. At his death Charles left a large fortune of which John, then twenty-four years old, received a considerable share. This provided him with the necessary capital to engage in trade in the Mediterranean. To use old terms, he became a Turkey merchant or "a shipper of commodities from the East." His country residence was at Eltham, and his town house in Mark Lane. Among his many influential relations was his uncle by marriage, Peter Pett - a name familiar in Ratcliff and Deptford - who was for many years chief constructor of the Navy. The association of Bowles with the glass industry may have been through his ability to provide capital, and his personal contact with those interested in the art in England who were obliged to purchase their materials from the Continent.
Among the materials there was an essential ingredient which was used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was a weed called by the Spanish name of "barilla." On account of the large quantities of carbonate of soda yielded from the alkaline ash, much of it was shipped from Mediterranean ports. Foreign workmen also had to be sought after who could be induced to bring into England their knowledge and skill in the art which was long preserved as a secret process. It is likely enough that John Bowles and those who acted for him abroad were engaged in these transactions.
The business enjoyed a period of prosperity and was carried on by the descendants of the founder until the fifth generation. In 1794 a minor came into the inheritance, but the difficulties and personal financial risk of a trustee of a commercial undertaking in those times led to the final closing of the works. It is stated that at the time the manager was one Rosetti, a descendant of the man originally brought over from Venice by the Duke of Buckingham.
The Bowles family were wealthy landed proprietors and were not dependent on the profits derived from the trade. This doubtless contributed to the decision to discontinue the business. A wharf, however, continued to remain the property of the family until as late as 1918, when it was sold. It has since become incorporated in the premises of Free Trade Wharf. In the meantime Bowles's Wharf, which was copyhold, and that part of the leasehold land abutting on Schoolhouse Lane (now occupied by the L. C.C. [London County Council] School) were let on lease to the British Gas Company, who entered into possession in 1824 and erected their plant. In 1852 the Commercial Gas Company purchased the property and dismantled the works, and on the expiration of the lease in 1860 the ground landlords claimed £11,104 for dilapidations and for fixtures improperly removed, but this amount was subsequently reduced to £1,488 by award of arbitration.
In Schoolhouse Lane, on the side opposite to that which formed the boundary of Bowles's premises, were the almshouses and school which represented the foundation made in 1536 by Nicholas Gibson, a member of the Grocers' Company and Sheriff of London in 1539. The widow, Avice, who remarried Sir Anthony Knyvett, endowed them and vested the same in the Coopers' Company. The buildings, which were destroyed in the fire, were replaced soon afterwards. These, in their turn, were pulled down some forty years ago.
At the corner of Broad Street and Ratcliff Cross stood the Ship Tavern, which was the town's meeting-place. There assembled as occasion invited (and the attendance was always good) those in whom were entrusted the ordering of affairs in the neighbourhood. The official meetings were those of the trustees of the hamlet, and the unofficial ones took notice in a general way of everything domestic and otherwise affecting the vicinity. The trustees in 1772 appointed one George Silver their constable and beadle. His services appear to have been greatly appreciated, and he soon rose to be the beadle of the churchwarden, and master of the workhouse. Previous to bearing these blushing honours he had been appointed by the Lord of the Manor to be the bellman and common crier of the hamlet.
The safety of the neighbourhood was looked after in many ways. In 1756 complaints were made of the inefficient watch in Stepney Causeway, and the remedy had to be kept in abeyance until the press-gang were not so active. Apparently an able-bodied watchman was a desirable acquisition to the navy. In 1773 the steps at Ratcliff Cross had to be repaired, and hand rails fixed as well as five posts erected to prevent horses from trespassing. In 1774 the headborough, one of the inhabitants serving his turn as the chief of the watch (always an unpopular job) was fined for neglect of duty, and, shocking to relate, aggravated the offence, for, instead of offering an excuse when before his fellow townsmen, he assumed an abrupt and threatening attitude. As late as 1817 the bellman was ordered to give notice that all stray pigs should be impounded and returned to their owners only on payment of five shillings and expenses. These few small matters of local government dimly reflect the manners and activities of bygone times.
Until the end of the eighteenth century there were several orchards which adjoined the larger houses, one being Mr. Bere's, which has given the name to a court in Broad Street. In July 1793, a year before the general conflagration, a fire in Stepney Causeway spread to an adjoining orchard and destroyed the crop of fruit.
Stepney Causeway is now known throughout the wide world for the "Ever-Open Door" of Dr. Barnardo's Home for Destitute Children. Once the short narrow street was a fashionable place where City merchants and other well-to-do people dwelt. Among the residents in it may be included Alderman John Shakespeare; one of the Robartes of the banking concern of Robartes, Lubbock & Company, now incorporated with Coutts; Mrs. J. H. Riddell the Victorian novelist; and Mr. C. T. Ritchie, before he entered Parliament as member for the Tower Hamlets and afterwards the St. George's division of it, to become the Home Secretary, and to be afterwards created Lord Ritchie.
The original name of Stepney Causeway was Church Street, the intention being to extend it to Stepney Church as an alternative way to White Horse Street, which was the only road from Ratcliff. Its present designation dates from towards the middle of the eighteenth century, when it was paved and had a narrow bridge crossing over a passage that ran below the level of the street communicating the rope grounds with the warehouses which were the property of John Shakespeare. His father Jonathan removed from Shadwell to Ratcliff in 1700, and his grandfather was John Shakespeare of Shadwell. John the Alderman, ropemaker to his Majesty's Ordnance, West India merchant, whose city office was in Billiter Square, was elected Alderman of the Aldgate Ward in 1749 and Sheriff of London in 1768. An alley (perhaps the longest to be found anywhere) running from Stepney Causeway to Devonport Street, and called James Place, represents to-day the sometime ropewalk.
Mrs. J. H. Riddell was a deservedly popular novelist of the mid-Victorian period, but her works are now neglected and almost forgotten. She was born here. Her novel, The Race for Wealth, which was published in 1866, relates to a period many years before.
The following quotations from it are little cameos, and give the impressions of one who had acquaintance with the place.
"Laurence found himself in Stepney Causeway; there was an odour of aldermanic gentility still hanging about the place; it was dull but not vulgar. Have patience, we are standing on the doorstep of that home once tenanted by Alderman Shakespeare."
"Laurence was ushered into the back-room on the ground floor called by courtesy Mr. Sondes' study, the large window which looked out in those days on a pleasant garden well stocked with fruit trees. Beyond was a small paddock now covered by Dorset Street."
Another character says, as he pauses on his way upstairs to look out of the window over the garden, "it is a delicious house, so peaceful, so unlike anything we would look for in such a neighbourhood."
The rope grounds passed from the Shakespeare family, and the house was bought in 1820 by a well-known and respected inhabitant, Matthew Warton, who lived in it. In 1850 it was vacated, and remained tenantless for some years, until in 1853 it was hired by a lady to give a ball on the occasion of her son's coming-of-age. One brief fleeting night of light, of laughter, music and twinkling feet, and then again the silence and darkness. It is now a common lodging-house, one of the better sort, where any man for a few pence can get a bed and the use of the fire in the kitchen downstairs; where before one of the large fireplaces is still the rack that once held the spits in readiness to pierce the giant prime joint, and the lesser, but plump, bird. The handsome panelling, beaded cornice and the mahogany doors of the parlour have gone, and all that is left of its past is passing away, the staircase, the woodwork in the entrance hail, and the solid front door with the little grille through which curious and assessing eyes inside would, with precaution, view the visitor who so loudly knocked, or so meekly tapped without.
Not long ago a descendant of John Shakespeare who built the house crossed its threshold one Christmas Day. He and some of his kindred being mindful of the old time before them, had provided a dinner there and then for those who were "out of suit with fortune" and "had lookt on better days." It was enough that these sojourned for the season in the shelter of the dwelling-place of the worthy Alderman who had in his day enjoyed the exercise of the rites of hospitality. Just as you like it, the lines in the play may or not have been spoken, but as the action suited the words, they are apt and to the purpose:
" Therefore sit you down in gentleness
And take upon command what help we have
That to your wanting may be ministered."
(As You Like It, ii, 7).
by Sydney Maddocks