This hamlet was known to several generations as Ratcliff, and so inscribed in the records of local government. In recent times the London County Council, having regard to sentiment, have officially adopted the older spelling of Ratcliffe, the style used in the days when the hamlet played a no small part in the rise of England to maritime power. The additional and redundant letter seems to have come to stay, and perhaps time will bring about uniformity. Any charge of inconsistency in employing different spellings in the following references to the hamlet is to be defended on the ground that each of them in turn has its vogue in common usage.
The origin of the name is to be clearly perceived in the description given in the fourteenth century to a spot situated in the locality that was alluded to as Le Redeclyve and Le Redeclyf, that is, the red cliff, which, though of slight elevation, was a feature discernible by all who in those days had occasion to pass up and down the river. That there was in a remote and unhistorical period a settlement made here is extremely likely on account of the advantages possessed by the foreshore, which, though small in extent, was kept free from silt because of its situation in the bend of the river - forming a bay - that had a flow of water free from eddies. The discovery of the Roman remains in the immediate neighbourhood - Sun Tavern Fields - indicates that later there was a way out of the city that terminated here.
Ratcliff was a place of some importance in the reign of Edward III, when the citizens of London were alarmed by the news that certain galleys were lying off the North Foreland presumably with the intention of making a raid. It was decided that to protect and preserve the King's ships lying at Le Redeclyve, and for the safety of the City generally, watch and ward be kept. This was in 1370. Seven years later, when danger again threatened, it was resolved that certain arbalasters hired by the City should remain continuously on guard in the outer ships, those lying off Le Redeclyf. In 1380 John Philpot, then Mayor, proposed, at his own expense, to build a tower on each side of the Thames, and between them to stretch a chain. The Common Council gave him boundless thanks for his generosity, but the defensive scheme was not completed. It went so far as the acquisition of the land at Ratcliff which he vested in the Corporation, and which has so continued for five centuries and more. This ground, once known as London Field, lay south of Stepney Station and extended from Rose Lane to the river. The local association with the City gave the name to London Street, now demolished - the site being now occupied by Beakesbourne Buildings.
To the small amount of shipping which then plied upon the Thames, Ratcliff became the entrance to the port of London. Merchandise was unloaded here, especially during the times of pestilence, and it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that the landing of goods subject to the payment of Customs duty was forbidden, and legal quays higher up the river were appointed for the purpose. In those adventurous days, when Englishmen began to rove the sea, for the sailor to reach Ratcliff was to come home. On 26 December 1580 Arthur Pett and his company on the George, on their way back from northern Russia, "turned as high as Ratcliffe and praised God for our safe return." On 6 October 1586, Richard Pope in the Sunshine, with a crew of fifteen, after losing his pinnace, the Northstarre, in a storm off Greenland, "came into the River Thames as high as Ratcliffe in safetie. God be thanked." To these instances of homecoming which are cited as being representative, two of many departures may well be given, one being that of Sir Hugh Willoughby's fleet of three small vessels that sought to find a way by the north-east to far Cathay, to discover unknown lands, to open trade, and to bring back the wealth of the East. It is recorded in the log of the Commodore's ship:
"These aforesaid ships being furnished with pinnaces and boats well appointed with all manner of artillery and other things necessary for their defence, with all the men aforesaid departed from Ratcliffe and sailed unto Deptford the 10th day of May 1553."
The other instance is that of Sir Martin Frobisher's expedition:
"On the 7th of June 1576 being Thursday when the two barks the Gabriell and the Michael and our pinnace set sail from Ratcliffe for the search of the straight or passage to China...."
During the sixteenth century the inhabitants of riverside Ratcliff were mainly concerned in fitting-out ships, in victualling them and in supplying the needs of seamen when they were ashore. It was a thriving little town conveniently within reach of London, the then silvery Thames being the royal highway between Westminster and Greenwich. Not only was the place favoured for the conduct of business, but the attractions of the pleasant country which it had for a background induced many merchants and such who were interested in maritime trade and commerce to come and dwell here away from the close air of the city. Referring to the neighbourhood in 1598, Stow remarks, "of late years shipwrights and, for the most part, other marine men have built many large and strong houses for themselves and smaller for sailors."
Among the residents at this time was John Vassall, citizen of London, one of the founders of Virginia, who, when Spain threatened England with invasion in 1588, fitted out at his own expense' two ships, The Samuel and The Little Toby (one of which he commanded himself) to fight the great Armada. His house was on Ratcliffe Wall, now Broad Street, which runs parallel to the river. At one end of the street, the western, were the free school and the almshouses, the gift of Nicholas Gibson and his wife Dame Avice, and at the other end, at the bottom of Butcher Row, stood the Market Cross, an old, and perhaps ancient, structure which in part was still standing in 1732, and then referred to as being one of the "remarkable things to be seen" in the locality. The date of its final disappearance is not known, but the market - a hay-market - had been long before removed a little distance away into Market (or Ratcliff) Square, which has been renamed Ratcliffe Cross Street.
In the hamlet lived Captain George Best, one of the early explorers, who commanded the Anne in one of Sir Martin Frobisher's expeditions to the Northern Seas, and his son Thomas Best, captain in the East India Company's service, who was virtually the founder of British power in India, for sailing in 1611-12 he there defeated the Portuguese in a series of brilliant engagements. It has been stated that Thomas Best lived in White Horse Street, and this is probably true, as the street was the thoroughfare leading from Ratcliff Cross to Stepney Church, and contained many large houses with gardens attached. Among those who were living there in 1623 was Robert Salmon (hence Salmon Lane), a merchant and prominent director of the East India Company, who was Master of Trinity House. There also lived for some time his colleague, Sir Robert Bell, who did good service in building ships for the navy and in crushing piracy. These sometime inhabitants who have been briefly mentioned are but a few of those who in their time helped England to win the sovereignty of the sea.
In the beginning of the seventeenth century Ratcliff was an important centre of maritime affairs. Certain shipwrights on the Thames had associated, were incorporated in 1612 as the Worshipful Company of Shipwrights, and built their Hall in Butcher Row, on part of the land vested in the Corporation of London by the patriotic John Philpot, as previously related. The site of the Hall is now within the pleasure grounds attached to St. James's Church. The Brethren of Trinity House also made Ratcliff their headquarters before they removed to the City, and preserved among the State Papers are documents dated in 1618 and 1622 from "Trinity House, Ratcliffe."
The shipbuilding which had begun at Deptford in the days of Henry VII, and which had spread to Blackwall and Ratcliff, with the increase of naval activity in the course of the next hundred and fifty years produced a numerous riverside population. The Stepney Vestry Minutes records, under date 19 May 1641, "whereas the Hamlet of Ratcliffe is of late so largely increased, by the multitude of the same is found to be a burden too heavy for one church warden." The churchwarden of Ratcliff then exercised his powers over the area which was to a large extent unbuilt upon, out of which were afterwards created the parishes of Shadwell and St. George's-in-the-East. In order to overcome the difficulty it was resolved that two churchwardens should be appointed, and both were to be taken as one churchwarden in the performance and execution of the office. The district allotted to the Ratcliff warden practically agrees with the extent of the hamlet which, after the formation of the other two parishes, was left.
Less than a hundred years ago the hamlet still retained its two distinctive features, the one by the busy riverside and the other northwards of it that was rural in character. The latter part was and is still known as, Stepney, and its common designation has concealed the fact that the old parish church and spacious church yard are entirely within it. In olden times this was not allowed to be forgotten, and the precedence of the Ratcliff churchwarden was jealously maintained, for it was held that of all the hamlets lying within the ancient parish of Stepney, the antiquity of Ratcliff gave to it the premier place. The church mace, having a medallion of the Tower of London on one side and with a ship on the other, inscribed "Ratclife 1700" and "beautified" 1804, is a fitting emblem of the local pride.
by Sydney Maddocks