Victorian London - Districts - Streets - Ratcliff Highway

RATCLIFFE HIGHWAY runs from EAST SMITHFIELD to SHADWELL HIGH STREET, and was so called from the manor of Ratcliffe, in the parish of Stepney. ... The murders of Marr and Williamson in Ratcliffe-highway are among the best remembered atrocities of the present century. Marr kept a lace and pelisse warehouse at 29, Ratcliffe-highway, and about 12 at night, on Saturday, the 7th of December, 1811, had sent his female servant to purchase oysters for supper, whilst he was shutting up the shop windows. On her return, in about a quarter of an hour, she rang the bell repeatedly without any person coming. The house was then broken open, and Mr. and Mrs. Marr, the shop boy, and a child in the cradle, (the only human beings in the house), were found murdered. The murders of the Marr family were followed, twelve days later, and about 12 at night, by the murders of Williamson, land-lord of the King's Arms public-house, in Old Gravel-lane, Ratcliffe-highway, his wife, and female servant. A man named Williams, the only person suspected, hanged himself in prison, and was carried on a platform, placed on a high cart, past the houses of Marr and Williamson, and afterwards thrown, with a stake through his breast, into a hole dug for the purpose where the New-road crosses and Cannon-street-road begins.

"Many of our readers can remember the state of London just after the murders of Marr and Williamson-the terror which was on every face -the careful barring of doors - the providing of blunderbusses and watchmen's rattles. We know of a shopkeeper who on that occasion sold three hundred rattles in about ten hours. Those who remember that panic may be able is form some notion of the state of England after the death of Godfrey. - Macaulay's Essays

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

    Ratcliffe-highway-and Ratcliffe-highway by night! the head-quarters of unbridled vice and drunken violence-of all .that is dirty, disorderly, and debased. Splash, dash, down comes the rain; but it must fall a deluge indeed to wash away even a portion of the filth to be found in this detestable place. Like a drab, it lies side by side with the river, who holds it in a foul embrace, kissing its rottenness with slimy lips, and receiving into its broad bosom a portion of the corruption it contains.
    In another paper it is our intention to describe the aspect of Ratcliffe-highway by day ; our present business is with it by night-a journey taken in the rain, to see something of the wild life it contains. Everything here, like the shops we have described in the Old Mint, has a character of its own - all the shopkeepers have but one object, but one endeavour -viz., to attract the eye of the sailor, and inveigle him within their doors. "Man," it has been said, "is a dupeable animal;" and "that there is scarcely one who may not, like the trout, be taken by tickling. This may or may not be true as regards the generality of mankind: but there can be little doubt of its truth when applied to "poor Jack." He cannot move a step along the pavement without stumbling upon some magnificent attraction-some man-trap placed there for his especial behoof - some quaint device or "artful dodge calculated to turn his silly head with wonder and delight-to draw the money from his capacious and ever-opening pocket. Here, now, is a bushy-whiskered, broad-chested fellow, with a face like a piece of elaborate carving in the very darkest mahogany; he is caught in a moment-that watch in the window has done his business. Twice has he essayed to pass the shop, but in vain; and he now stands eyeing the trinket with a look of comic irresolution. The watch is of large, nay vast proportions, and, with undeniable utility, combines much that is ornamental in the shape of a gorgeous, pictorial, and moral adornment -a ship in full sail, a stormy sea, and the motto, "Such is Life," making to the sailor's eye a pleasing allegory. There is a card attached to this treasure, setting forth other and more hidden virtues ; it is as good as a chronometer; is jewelled in no end of holes ; is engine-turned, and to be sold, as a matter of philanthropy, for merely the price of the silver-casing. Still irresolute, Jack half turns away; when the shopkeeper-a hawk-visaged Jew, who had his eye upon him from the first-puts forth his hand and removes the trinket from the window. It is enough- Jack hastily enters the shop, soon to emerge triumphant with his purchase. Ah! Jack, there are few dangers in thy adventurous life so hard to avoid as those that here encompass thee at every step. New rum was bad enough, but the old rum sold here is worse. Doctored porter and "jigger gin" will kill body and brain faster than arrack punch or sangaree; and though the sharks of Port Royal have keen eyes and sharp teeth, they are but novices in their trade compared to these-the sharks of Ratcliffe-highway!
    It is strange Jack's fondness for large watches-watches of pantomime dimensions-watches such as Gargantua might have used, whose manufacture Gulliver might have witnessed in the thriving kingdom of Brobdignag-watches similar to the one of which a legend exists, that its owner having late one night wound it up with the bed-key, it was found going the next morning as well as ever, the treatment having by no means disturbed its internal arrangements; or to another, of equal celebrity, whose proprietor could never wind it up at all when on shore, the operation disturbing the entire house in which he resided.
    What is this? A dram-shop, rendered doubly attractive by sundry pictorial embellishments of sailors dancing horn- pipes-sailors carousing with their sweethearts; a sailor with a huge punchbowl before him, crammed with guineas, and labelled "Prize-money!" which he is supposed to have brought home to his "Molly," -an exceedingly flighty- looking young woman, who might be very capable of making him grog, but never of washing his trowsers. Beneath these cartoons are sundry announcements; such as "Grand Concert held here every evening, admission 2d. ;" " Le petit Elisa and le belle Pauline on the tight-rope" (the French of Ratcliffe-highway being decidedly French without a master);  "Mr. Darley will dance a hornpipe; and "the celebrated Mr. Towler, as the Maniac!" There is a very spirited drawing of Mr. Towler, in this, his favourite character, representing that gentleman in a thick and much-dishevelled bead of hair, large staring eyes, and a suit of clothes in so dilapidated a condition that none but a maniac would have thought them worth putting on at all. lie holds several yards of chain in his bands, and is glancing fiercely at a plump young lady dancing in a distant corridor, and who is evidently the cause of Mr. Towler's great internal and external disarrangement.
    Round the door of this temple of harmony-which, despite the weather, is filling rapidly-are grouped sailors of all kinds, and women of but one; here are mariners from every part of the globe-the negro from the Gold Coast; the lithe, active, tiger-cat Malay, with his voluble utterance, rapid gesticulation, and bright treacherous eyes ; rough, weatherbeaten men from the Arctic Seas; bronzed, hirsute fellows from the far Pacific Islands, or the burning coasts of Africa; ill-conditioned, careless-looking rascals from the American liners, who ask no questions, but man their vessels with refuse of all kinds,- the scurf of the earth, growls an old sailor, who has been impatiently surveying a group of these noisy-rioters.
    Shall we enter? No, not yet; "our friend" has another house in view, and so we proceed till we arrive at the commencement of New Gravel-lane. "All this is coming down", we are informed, and we utter a thanksgiving for the news as we pass down the lane, and glance at the dens of infamy-at the men and women with which these dens are peopled. "These are all sailors' lodging-houses." We glance at the right and left, and shudder: the "little cherub must indeed keep a bright look out, who, in places such as these, "watches over the life of' poor Jack." The women-look, here is one, a terrible sight to see-a drunken, screaming maniac, the wretched wreck of a woman, clinging to a post, and with hoarse, loud utterance, challenging time sailors as they pass, demanding "gin." Let her have it, in Pity's name-let her have oblivion at any price.
    We reach the bridge in New Gravel-lane, and gaze over into the inky water below-stagnant enough-disturbed only by the falling rain. This place is dismal at all times; but on a night like this, and with such a scene around, mournful and gloomy beyond expression. "Many a desperate wretch has hurled herself over here," remarks our friend ; "in the slang of the neighbourhood this is known as the Bloody Bridge, and many a poor devil who has escaped the dangers of wind and wave has found a miserable grave in these sluggish waters." We retrace our steps, and again come upon that screaming woman; she is staggering heavily along, hurling out a defiance to the world, and threatening "this blessed night to give somebody a walloping. Don't smile, reader, but reflect. Just now we passed a child-one of many born and bred in this horrible place ; now a girl, leaning on a sailor's arm, passes us, and, laughing loudly, takes to the road to avoid the infuriated drunkard on the pavement. Laughing loudly ! yet that girl was once as time child, and will be-with a certainty dreadful to contemplate- another such a woman as this gin-debased wretch you see. And the end-have you not seen that stagnant-looking water? that bridge with time ill-omened name? Is it not a conclusion fitting enough to a life commenced in .Ratcliffe-highway?
Now, gentlemen, and our friend halts before a door, "we will enter, if' you please ;" and enter we do, prepared to see something more of "life among the sailors.


    THE sharp rain still comes drizzling down as, drawing our coats closer around us, we proceed slowly down the street, inspecting the curious sights, listening to time Babel of sounds, and watching the endless varieties of character presented by Ratcliffe-highway. 
    The sharp rain comes drizzling down-time road is a swamp-a black and filthy stream goes leaping along the gutter, rushing towards the gaping drain, where, bubbling and seething, it is swallowed up-a perfect Maelstrom of liquid mud. A still more filthy torrent flows continuous over the slippery pavement-a torrent of vice and folly- that laughing, cursing, shouting, rushes madly along, to lose itself at last-to dart as swiftly from our sight as the discoloured water in the road. What a curious admixture of races meet our gaze ! what a strange clamour of tongues assail our cars ! Sailors of every nation continually pass us- men of every shade of colour between black and white, wearing costumes in endless variety, giving a carnival aspect to the crowded thoroughfare; many of the men speaking in tongues sufficiently unknown to strike a linguist with despair, and to set even the polyglot capacity of a Bowring at defiance. Let us pause and watch some of the groups, as, according to the "custom of their country," they lounge heavily, or walk briskly by.
    "The man who smokes," says Bulwer, "thinks like a philosopher, and acts like a Samaritan." Here, now, is a Dutchman, who smokes all day, and sleeps with his pipe in his mouth; he has not two ideas in his head, possibly from living in an impenetrable fog, created by the smoke from his pipe; and has just now kicked into the gutter that shivering tatterdemalion who craved his charity. His eyes are half shut, and his hands deep sunk in the pockets of his capacious trowsers. But behold a sailor of a different stamp. Look at his lean, swarthy face; eyes black as night-a night through whose darkness the lightning flashes ; brooding brows, and long black hair-a Spaniard! There is no mistaking him; he is but a common seaman, yet he walks the pavement within time step of a hidalgo. He is as great a rogue as Guzman d'Alfarache himself; is as mean a scamp as Lazarillo-that Proteus of vagabonds; would pick the pocket of the companion whose bed lie shares; would gamble away, were it possible, the soul that is in him ; yet would pawn his earrings to buy masses for the repose of his mother's-and would, moreover, with "hasty knife" slash into ribbons the doublet of flesh that encompasses you, gentle reader, did you reflect for a moment upon that sun-baked land he calls his country.
    Next comes a large-eyed, coal-black mariner, with limbs like an Ajax; his head erect, his white teeth glittering as he talks. He is fresh from time continent of Africa. A ribbon encircles his neck, and hangs partly concealed beneath his red shirt, low down upon his brawny chest. It molds his "charm," his "Fetish;" and beneath its mighty power the negro's heart beats happy and content. By his side, in curious contrast, with every muscle of the face in motion, keeping time as it were, and illustrating his rapid yet musical utterance, walks another-an Italian sailor, from Naples. He, too, wears a ribbon round his neck-a ribbon to which is attached a little leaden image of his guardian Saint; he looks upon dusky Ajax with scorn, and, with the image of lead lying cold upon his heart, pities the benighted heathen at his side.
    While they talk, another figure passes, and eyes them both with contempt-a grim figure, tall and lithe, with features hidden beneath a mask-a perfect network of tattooing; his eyes flash scornfully as the African exhibits his charm to the Italian, who laughs in mockery at the sight- flash scornfully, for he knows what the true faith should be. He is a Sandwich Islander, and carries his god in his pocket -a wooden little deity of home manufacture, who must be upon his good behaviour, lest he be split up into pipe-lights on the morrow. They walk briskly along, these three idolators, with a very heathen-like contempt for each other-each ready to die for the faith he professes; yet, let the sharp thong of the boatswain's whip touch with blistering kiss the broad back of the African, and away goes the "fetish," flung contemptuously into the waves by the indignant hand of its devotee;-let the Mediterranean storm come rushing down upon the trim "felucca," tearing the sails into ribbons and snapping the masts like reeds, and Giuseppe is off his knees in a moment, dancing like a madman upon his flattened saintship, while he scatters to the winds whole handfuls of his raven hair :-as for our Islander's god, destiny, as we have said, hangs over him in time shape of a clasp-knife, and at the slightest misdemeanour, he will be quickly whittled into nothing by his disgusted and vindictive worshipper.
    "The poor heathens!" murmurs Orthodoxy, as, fresh from a dispute about candlesticks, surplices, and genuflexions, it glances at time words we have written. "Blinded savages!" moans Dissent, as in spotless linen, and neckcloth stiff with starch, it descends the steps of Exeter Hall, calls its carriage, and rolls solemnly away. "What! carry a god in his breeches' pocket?" cries the merchant; "pooh, pooh-no such thing, sir, no such thing," -and buttoning his coat over his banker's book, he hurries home to dine. Well, but what has all this to do with the sailors? Nothing, certainly, nothing. We beseech our readers to pardon our digression, but a moral may be picked up even in Ratcliffe-highway.
    Crowds of Lascars and Malays hang about the grogshops-quarrelling, of course, writhing their bodies about like snakes, showing equal venom of tongue and double the wickedness of eye possessed by those interesting reptiles; Yankee sailors with drawling utterance, smoking deliberately and spitting immoderately; some miserable-looking Greeks-a cowardly and dishonest race, who, of little value on land, are absolutely helpless at sea ; Swedes and Danes by time score-good mariners all of them; a few Russians, and several Chinese; besides nondescripts of' all kinds, who help to make up the motley throng-a collection to be seen at any time by the curious when the wind is blowing in a favourable quarter, when plenty of vessels are in port, and the fickle goddess smiles upon the conscientious trades-- men who colonise this district.
    "Which way does the wind blow?" is a question ever upon their tongues, and anxiety is written in hard lines upon each calculating face. Here the Jew dealer paces before his wares, watching with an eagerness curious to contemplate the indications of the wind-watching within time rapacious eagerness of the Cornish wrecker, for upon its changes are grounded his hopes of plunder. See how the face wrinkles into a parchment smile-how the fleshless hands are rubbed joyously together till the joints snap and crackle beneath the friction, as he finds the wind to be "in the right quarter"-how he smiles upon the oleaginous partner of his bosom-how complacently he regards those thick-lipped children who are "playing at shops" near their parent's doorway! But- whirr-round goes the weathercock; the wind has changed, and behold, so has the temper of' Moses. Snarling, like a hyena, he shows his yellow fangs, rebuketh his hand-maiden Ruth, and fastens tooth and nail upon his ill-starred offspring.
    "Ah, my dear, times isn't as they used to be," laments a dirty little Jew, whose shabby exterior does not prevent his being looked up to as a "mine of wealth" in his neighbourhood. "Ven a sailor comes ashore now, if he's got a vife and child, he buttons up his pockets, makes a dart for the railvay, and never says nothing to us. S'elp me Cot, vot vith railvays an' Sailors' Homes, there'll soon be no living in Ratcliffe-highvay!" What! shall Golconda cease to yield ?- shall gold be no longer gathered on the banks of the dirty river near at hand-a veritable Pactolus to thee, Aminadab? Fear not, my friend; where there are sailors there will be folly; where there is folly, there vice will follow! And from folly and vice shall you get gold enough-enough to make you, Aminadab, a man to be sought after by pigeons from the West as well as at the East end of this thoughtless town.- Enough to make thee, too, thou dirty, week-day Rachel, with thy sallow face and greasy, ill-kempt hair, a star of splendour at the Synagogue-a bird rustling in gorgeous Sabbath plumage, the wonder of thy neighbours, and the envy of thy admiring friends!
    Dangerous was it to traverse, in times happily gone by, that broad Highway we call the sea. From Welsh Morgan to Scottish Jones, the line of ill-omened names-names of dread to a sailors' ear-is a long one. Then the cheek of hardy Jack would grow white at the mention of some ruthless robber, some tiger of the sea; or he would shudder, as in forecastle yarn he heard his comrade's voice sink to a whisper from excess of fear, as he murmured the name of Blackbeard the Pirate. Then the black flag was a flag of power ;-but those "dogs have had their day," and men no longer hurry by Execution Dock, their hearts turning to water at the clinking of the chains, as half a score of pirates shake and rattle in the rough night wind. No, the seas are safe-the great Highway is free: but are there no other pirates, Jack ?-no other foes as deadly to thee as yonder shark, who, has followed your ship for miles, and whose white teeth close with an expectant snap at every careless movement of thy restless limbs? Is Ezekiel Brown, of Gravel-lane, more merciful than Henry Morgan? Was Jack Avery more rapacious in. his dealings with thy fellows on the broad Highway of nations, than Aminidab is to thee in this narrow Highway of Ratcliffe? Alas, poor Jack! great sea-gull mocking at storms, confident in the strength of thy wings, skimming merrily over the waves, as in a heaven of safety and delight! there are dangers you know not of - shoals on which your bark will founder, yea, of which no chart shall speak-places where Aminidabs in plenty sit watching, patiently watching, the "changing of time wind." 
    Ratcliffe-highway can boast shops of all kinds,-shops that purchase of, as well as from, Jack. Here is the shop of a naturalist, as. full of parrots as a tropical forest; full of birds of all kinds and every plumage, from the pretty little wax-bill, or the sunny canary with its melodious note, to the more showy bishop-bird-so appropriately named, who, better housed, better fed, and higher-priced, utters no note to speak of, to redeem his keep. "They're the fashion, sir," says Mr. Jamrach, the proprietor; "but they'll pass away.! Again we look upon the useless bishop-birds, and devoutly hope they will. Numerous shells adorn these shop-windows shells resting on a bed of moss; some large enough to have cradled a sleeping Venus; others, horn-like and twisted in their shape, like those through which the Tritons blew their songs of welcome to Neptune's bright-haired queen; shells, pleasing to look upon, whose rosy-lipped loveliness takes the thought far away, till we forget the filth and misery around. Here, too, we find a bonnet-shop,-a sight rather unexpected in  Ratcliffe-highway; where the young ladies of time East, in point of fashion, have outdone the ladies of the West, the latter having still retained a vestige of what the former have long since discarded-keeping no other covering for their heads than that with which Nature has adorned them.

Watts Phillips, The Wild Tribes of London, 1855

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in The Night Side of London - click here

see also George Sala in Gaslight and Daylight - click here

see also Thomas Archer in The Pauper, The Thief and The Convict - click here

Passing through Ratcliff Highway, now known as St. George's-street, the headquarters of seamen belonging to the merchant service, and remarkable for nothing if not for its numerous marine-store shops, gin-shops, and slop-shops, its fish-stalls in the streets, and its scores of unbonneted women ...

Routledge's Popular Guide to London, [c.1873]

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Ratcliff Highway.?This, which until within the last few years was one of the sights of the metropolis, and almost unique in Europe as a scene of coarse riot and debauchery, is now chiefly noteworthy as an example of what may be done by effective police supervision thoroughly carried out. The dancing-rooms arid foreign caf?s of the Highway ? now rechristened St. George?s-street?are still well worthy a visit from the student of human nature, and are each, for the most part, devoted almost exclusively to the accommodation of a single nationality. Thus at the ?Rose and Crown,? near the western end of the Highway, the company will be principally Spanish and Maltese. At the ?Preussische Adler,? just by the entrance into Wellclose-square, you will meet, as might be anticipated, German sailors; whilst Lawson?s, a little farther east, though kept by a German, finds its clientele among the Norwegian and Swedish sailors, who form no inconsiderable or despicable portion of the motley crews of our modem mercantile fleet. Over the way, a little farther down, is the Italian house, a quaint and quiet place, full of models and ?curios? of every conceivable and inconceivable description, and nearly opposite the large and strikingly clean caravanserai, where a pretty, but anxious-looking Maid of Athens receives daily, with a hospitality whose cordiality hardly seems to smack of fear, any number of gift-bearing Greeks. These two latter, by-the-way, are not dancing-rooms, but boarding-houses pure and simple ; whilst farther still to the eastward is yet another variety in the shape of a music hall, where Dolly Dripping, the cook, in a draggled old print gown and a huge (natural) moustache; and Corporal Coldmutton, of the Guards, in a cast militia tunic, and a tattered pair of mufti inexpressibles; and Pleeseman X 999, in the general get up of a Guy Fawkes in a bankrupt pantomime, make simple fun for the edification of Quashie and Sambo, whose shining ebony faces stand jovially out even against the grimy blackness of the wails. Perfectly well conducted is the performance at the ?Bell,? without the smallest need to shrink from comparison in that respect with the first of our West-end music halls. The performance is not of a refined description, nor is the audience; but it is just possible that, from an exclusively moral point of view, the advantage may even be proved to be not altogether on the side of the higher refinement. Hard by Quashie?s music-hall is a narrow passage, dull and empty, even at the lively hour of 11 pm., through which, by devious ways, we penetrate at length to a squalid cul-de-sac, which seems indeed the very end of all things. Chaos and space are here at present almost at odds which is which, for improvement has at the present moment only reached the point of partial destruction, and some of the dismal dog-holes still swarm with squalid life, while others gape tenantless and ghastly with sightless windows and darksome doorways, waiting their turn to be swept away into the blank open space that yawns by their side. At the bottom of this slough of grimy Despond is the little breathless garret where Johnny the Chinaman swelters night and day curled up on his gruesome couch, carefully toasting in the dim flame of a smoky lamp the tiny lumps of delight which shall transport the opium-smoker for awhile into his paradise. If you are only a casual visitor you will not care for much of Johnny?s company, and will speedily find your way down the filthy creaking stairs into the reeking outer air, which appears almost fresh by contrast. Then Johnny, whose head and stomach are seasoned by the unceasing opium pipes of forty years, shuts the grimy window down with a shudder as unaffected as that with which you just now opened it, and toasts another little dab of the thick brown drug in readiness for the next comer. But if you visit Johnny as a customer, you pay your shilling, and curl yourself up on another grisly couch, which almost fills the remainder of the apartment. Johnny hands you an instrument like a broken-down flageolet, and the long supple brown fingers cram into its microscopic bowl the little modicum of magic, and you suck hard through it at the smoky little flame, and?if your stomach be educated and strong ? pass duly off into elysium. Then, when your blissful dream is over, you go your way, a wiser if not a sadder man. Perhaps the most appropriate visit you can next pay is to the casual ward of St. George?s Workhouse, hard by, at the bottom of Old Gravel-lane, and thence, if it be not too late in the evening, to the mission church of St. Peter?s, Dock-street, hard by, where you will find in full work an agency which, if the people of the neighbourhood are to be believed, has had in the marvellous transformation which has taken place a more potent influence oven than police and parliament combined. Returning thence to Shadwell High-street, you may visit the ?White Swan,? popularly known as ?Paddy?s Goose,? once the uproarious rendezvous of half the tramps and thieves of London, now quiet, sedate, and, to confess the truth, dull?very dull. Down to the right here, again, is the little waterside police-station, where the grim harvest of the ?drag,? the weird flotsam and jetsam of the cruel river, lies awaiting the verdict that will? let us hope? ?find it Christian burial.? And so back into the highway again, and up Cannon-street road, where stands St. George?s Church, the scene of the famous riots of 1858-59, which gave the first popular impulse to the ?ritualistic? movement, and out into the wide Commercial-road, the boundary of ?Jack?s? dominion, beyond which again lie the bustling ?Yiddisher? quarter of Whitechapel and the swarming squalor of Spitalfields.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

see also Richard Rowe in Life in the London Streets

see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click here

see also Howard J. Goldsmid in Dottings of a Dosser - click here

    The Ratcliff Highway, now St. George's Street East, alongside the Docks, was a place where crime stalked unmolested, and to thread its deadly length was a foolhardy act that might quail the stoutest heart. 
    Every square yard was occupied by motley groups; drunken sailors of every nationality in long sea-boots, and deadly knives at every girdle; drunken women with bloated faces, caressing their unsavoury admirers, and here and there constables in pairs by way of moral effect, but powerless - as they well know - if outrage and free fights commenced in real earnest. Behind these outworks of lawlessness were dens of infamy beyond the power of description - sing-song caves and dancing-booths, wine bars and opium dens, where all day and all night Chinamen might be seen in every degree of insensibility from the noxious fumes.
    The detective who was to be our cicerone was known to every evil-doer in the metropolis. Entering these dens when not in pursuit of quarry was to him a pilgrimage of absolute safety, and a friendly nod accompanied by "All right ,lads, only some gents to stand you a drink" extended the protection to all who accompanied him. A freemasonry, indeed, appeared to exist between these conflicting members of society whereby, by some unwritten code, it was understood that when either side passed its word every one was on his parole to "play the game".
    The first place the explorers entered was a sing-song in the vicinity of Nile Street, but it was evidently an "off-night" for, with the exception of a dozen half-drunken men and women, the place was practically empty. As we entered, however, a sign of vitality was apparent, and the chairman announced that a gent would oblige with a stave; but the cicerone with commendable promptitude called out "Not necessary, thank you all the same," and prompted his followers to lay five shillings on the desk. But the compliment was not to be denied, and a drunken refrain soon filled the air, which was absolutely inaudible except:
    "She turned up her nose at Bob Simmons and me"
    The next place was infinitely more interesting - the "Jolly Sailors" in Ship Alley. "A dozen," explained our cicerone as he tendered a coin and our party awaited admission. "Keep your money, sergeant," was the ominous reply. "of course, I know you; but we've got a mangy lot here to-night; they won't cotton to the gents. If they ask any of their women to dance it will be taken as an affront, and if they don't ask them it will be taken as an affront; leave well alone, say I. Most nights it might do, but not to-night, sergeant; the drink's got hold of most of them, and there's a lot of scurvy Greeks about who will whip out their knives afore you can say what's what."
    "Nonsense, man," cut in Bobby, "we don't want to have a row, we've come for a spree; there's the money, we'll take our chance." The Baron also, who prided himself on his mastery of our vernacular, interposed with: "Posh, I snaps my finger at eem! Am I afraid of a tirty Greek? Posh! All our intent is larks; we want no rows. Posh!" And regardless of the friendly monition, our party trooped into the room. The scene that presented itself was not an encouraging one; perched on a rickety stool was a fiddler scraping with an energy only to be attained by incessant application to a mug of Hollands that stood at his elbow, and to which he appeared to resort frequently. Polkaing in every grotesque attitude were some twenty couples, the males attired for the most part in sea-boot and jerseys, their partners with dishevelled hair and bloated countenances, all more or less under the influence of gin or beer; here and there couples, apparently too overcome to continue the giddy joy, were propped against the wall gurgling out blasphemy and snatches of ribald song, whilst in alcoves or leaning over a trestle table were knots of men, smoking, cursing, swilling strong drinks, and casting wicked eyes at the intruders. "Aven't they a leg of mutton and currant dumplin's at 'ome wi'out comin' 'ere?" inquired a ferocious ruffian. "What for brings 'em a-messing about 'ere, I'd like to know?"
    "Blast me if I wudn't knife 'em; what say you, lads?" replied a stump-ended figure, stiffening himself.
    "Bide a while, lads; let's make 'em show their colours. What cheer, there?" shouted a huge Scandinavian, as a contingent detaching itself from the main body lurched towards the explorers.
    "What cheer, my hearties?" sang back Hasting, and, with a diplomacy that might have done credit to a Richlieu, the entire party were fraternising within a minute.
    "The Jolly Sailors" was admittedly the most dangerous of all the dens, even amid such hotbeds of iniquity as "The King of Prussia," "The Prince Regent," "The Old Mahogany Bar," "The Old Gun," "The Blue Anchor," and "The Rose and Crown," and had decoys in all directions to lure drunken sailors or foolish sightseers within its fatal portals. Situated at the extremity of Grace's Alley, it led directly into Wellclose Square, a cul de sac it was easier to enter than to leave; but sailors of all nationalities are admittedly the most impressionable of mortals, and happily in the present case the sang-froid, the unexpected rejoinder, the devil-may-care bearing, disarmed apparently their rugged hostile intentions, and with half an hour visitors and regular customers - Germans, English, Scandinavians, and nondescripts - were shouting:
    "What's old England coming to?
    Board of Trade ahoy!"
    What any of us knew of the Board of Trade or the Mercantile Marine does not say.
    The opium dens in this delectable quarter were situated higher up Shadwell, but the charms of the "Jolly Sailors" proving too much for our heroes, they elected to explore no further.
    How different is the entire neighbourhood to-day! The very name Ratcliff Highway was disappeared and been replaced by that of Saint George's Street East; where constables once patrolled on the qui vive in twos and threes a solitary embodiment of the law may now be seen, strolling along in a manner that once would not have been worth an hour's purchase; where drunken sailors in sea-boots and knives at every girdle lurched against inoffensive pedestrians, unwashed women may now be seen at corners knitting stockings, whilst unsavoury tadpoles are constructing mud-pies in the gutter; here and there may still be seen an inebriated foreigner and rows of loafers - with a striking resemblance to the "unemployed" - hanging about the public houses, but the solitary specimen in blue seems to exercise a salutary hypnotising  effect, all which (justice demands) shall be placed to the credit of these enlightened days. Not that this welcome change has been long arrived at: not four years ago a respectable tradesman, Abrahams, a naturalist, of 191, St. George's Street East, was attacked a 2 p.m., within fifty yards of his own door, and succumbed to his injuries within twenty-four hours,  and even to-day to ostentatiously show a watch chain passing certain corners, say Artichoke Lane, would not be without danger; but when all is said and done, there is much to interest the seeker after novelty by a visit to the Ratcliff Highway of to-day. Here at the "Brown Bear" may now be seen the rooms, once devoted to orgies, filled to their utmost capacity with canaries sending up songs to heaven purer far than those of the long-ago sixties. Continuing along St. George's Street will be found Jamrach's menagerie, whence filter most of the rarities that find their way to the Zoological Gardens; and the place is no ordinary bird shop, but a museum of information in more ways than one. Here one large room will be found stuffed with bronzes and curios from all parts of the world, which every American visiting London, who fancies he is a critic, does not fail to inspect; for Mr. Jamrach - like his father - is an authority, and a naturalist in the highest acceptation of the term. 
    Lovers of animals will not regret a pilgrimage to "the Highway," a pilgrimage which, by the aid of the District Railway and broad, electric-lighted streets, is no longer attended with discomfort or danger.

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908 

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


   Its situation?Its condition twenty-five years ago?Poor Jack in the hands of the Philistines?A modern Babel?The Thames Tunnel?? The Forty Thieves?? ?Paddys Goose? ?I visit the neighbourhood?An opium den??Amok Amok ?__We conceal ourselves?Scene in the street?Its cause?Strange manner of taking an oath?Watney Street ?Thames Police Court?An interesting case?its termination?A revengeful design frustrated by accident ?A curious batch of summonses?Ratcliff Highway improved?us causes?Further improvement required.
   THE condition of Ratcliff Highway some five-and-twenty or thirty years ago was a terrible disgrace to London. Matters have vastly improved since that time, though even now the thoroughfare is very far indeed from being a model one.
   Ratcliff Highway, running parallel with the river, extends from Little Tower Hill to Shadwell, and is in close proximity with the London, the Wapping, the Regent?s Canal, and other docks, which at the period I have alluded to were continuously crowded with shipping. In those days the Highway was the scene of riots, debaucheries, robberies, and all conceivable deeds of darkness. Such, indeed, was the character of the place that it would have been madness for any respectable woman, or, for the matter of that, for any well-dressed man, to proceed thither alone. The police themselves seldom ventured there save in twos and threes, and brutal assaults upon them were of frequent occurrence.
   The inhabitants of Ratcliff Highway lived upon the sailors. There were a great many lodging-houses there; still more clothiers and outfitters; and any number of public-houses and beershops, nearly every one of which had a dancing saloon at [-75-] the back of the bar. Jack came ashore with his pockets full of money, but they quickly emptied. He was ready enough to spend his pay, but there were other persons still more ready to despoil him of it. In those days there were no Government officials to board the vessels and arrange for the safe despatch of Jack?s money, and Jack himself to his home. No sooner did a vessel reach her moorings than she was swarming with boarding-house touts, crimps, outfitters, runners, and other rapacious beasts of prey. Poor Jack was soon in the hands of the Philistines.
   From the public-houses in Ratcliff Highway there constantly issued the sound of loud laughter, mingled with shouting and fearful imprecations. Far into the night the women and the drunken sailors danced and sang to the accompaniment of screeching fiddles. For the most part the women wore white dresses and white shoes. If the sailors were not entirely fleeced inside the saloons, the process was completed by bullies and fighting men when they staggered out into the street. The poor fellows were frequently drugged, and sometimes half murdered.
   Sailors of every nationality were to be met in this thoroughfare, including a great many Portuguese, Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, Norwegians, and Scandinavians. The Highway was indeed a veritable modern Babel. Among the disreputable characters to be met there were men dressed as sailors who sold parrots and parrakeets, many of which could blaspheme almost as naturally as their owners.
   The Thames Tunnel was open in its original form at the time of which I am writing. As my readers are aware, it is now used by a railway. Previously, besides a roadway, there was on one side a pavement set apart for the use of pedestrians. The charge for admission was a penny for each person. One of the features of the place was a bazaar, where a variety of goods were exposed for sale. Several times during the year a regular fair was held in the tunnel, among its attractions being swings and donkey-riding. Those fairs certainly ranked among the curious sights of old London.
   The immediate neighbourhood of Ratcliff Highway was as bad as the thoroughfare itself. In Albert Street half the houses were of the vilest description, and very much the same may be said of Albert Square, Victoria Street, Chancery Lane, and Baroda Place. These places were frequented by a band of robbers who openly called themselves ?The Forty Thieves,? [-76-] and who plied their nefarious calling by day as well as by night. Sometimes these ruffians went the length of attacking and robbing pedestrians in Devonshire Street and Commercial Road.
   One of the vilest houses in the Highway was the ?White Swan,? better known as ?Paddy?s Goose?; oddly enough, its site is now occupied by the Wesleyan Methodist Home Mission Hall. This excellent institution has done much to purify the neighbourhood.
   My last visit to Ratcliff Highway, which was paid early in the seventies, very nearly resulted in serious consequences to myself. The adventure is worth describing, as it throws some light on the horrors of the district.
   If any one in those days desired to visit Ratcliff Highway and its environments, it was usual, and indeed necessary, to get permission from the authorities at Scotland Yard for either a lodging-house inspector or a police officer to act as an escort.
   One day I and some friends, after dining at the ?Ship and Turtle,? proceeded to the Leman Street police station, where, as had been arranged, we picked up two officers who were to act as our East End guides. From Leman Street we proceeded at once to Bluegate Fields and Ratcliff Highway.
   Going the round of the drinking and dancing houses, we witnessed some curious sights. The women, thieves, and other bad characters appeared to be on the best of terms with our companions, who were repeatedly offered drink, and once or twice invited to join in a dance. Of my friends and myself no notice whatever was taken.
   During the evening we went to the Chinese quarter, where are to be found the opium dens, into one of which we penetrated. Ascending a ladder, we entered a loft where about a dozen men were sitting or reclining on wooden benches, smoking opium. Our guides shook hands with the man who ?bossed? the premises, and whose manner was the pink of politeness. His language, of course, none of us understood. Motioning us to seat ourselves in this most rudely constructed and uncomfortable of divans, he proceeded to offer each of us the calumet of peace.
   The officers had told us what to do. We were to accept the pipes, take one or two whiffs, and then put them down again. That, we were assured, would suffice to satisfy the laws of hospitality.
   [-77-] When the man offered me a pipe, I made certain signs to indicate that I should prefer a cigarette. Being extremely intelligent, he understood my meaning in a moment, and at once folded a little opium in paper and handed it to me. I proceeded very gingerly to smoke it, not without grave misgivings; but, I am happy to add, no unpleasant consequences resulted. The cigarette had a very soothing effect, but it neither drugged me nor made me ill.
   After tipping the courteous Chinaman we took our leave, and wended our way back to the Highway, where we proposed to wait a short time preparatory to visiting the ?Bridge of Sighs,? and the night refuge in its immediate vicinity. It must have been very nearly one in the morning.
   Now it was that the serious occurrence to which I have alluded took place.
   We had just emerged from a narrow passage, and had proceeded a few yards down the main thoroughfare, when out attention was suddenly arrested by the shrieking and shouting of a number of persons evidently running helter-skelter in our direction. The next minute above the din we heard the cry ?Amok! amok!? at which the police officers were evidently very much alarmed.
   ?This way, gentlemen, and be quick, for God?s sake 1? they exclaimed, as they unceremoniously hurried us through the nearest doorway. When I looked around me I found we were in one of those East End shows which I have described in a former paper. Having fastened the door, the two officers consulted together in an undertone. We heard the sound of fleeing footsteps outside, mingled with human screams, groans, and oaths. My friends and I stood stock still and listened. The sounds gradually passed away in the distance. In a little while one of the officers opened the door and slipped out. The other remained behind, and in answer to our enquiries said he was afraid it was an ugly business, and that his comrade had gone out to see how the land lay, and to render any assistance in his power. Pending the other?s return, he peremptorily forbade us to stir from where we were.
   In a little while the other officer came back and said it would now be safe for us to quit the premises. On our emerging into the Street an extraordinary sight met our eyes. There were pools and trails of blood on the pavement and in the roadway; here and there was the prostrate form of a [-78-] human being surrounded by men and women half distraught with grief and fear; a couple of four-wheeled cabs had just arrived crowded with policemen, and, in the distance, men carrying stretchers were to be seen rapidly approaching.
   We soon learnt what had occurred. A number of China-men had been drinking with some women in a public-house, and just as the premises were about to close, a dispute had taken place. The foreigners alleged that they had been robbed; this was indignantly denied by the women; some Englishmen came forward and had their say in the matter, and, in the end, a serious disturbance took place. Finding that the affair was becoming one of blows as well as words, the Chinamen ranged themselves in a body, drew their knives from their pockets, and, shouting ?Amok! amok !? fought their way into the road and rushed upon all whom they met, stabbing and cutting men, women, and children indiscriminately. The knives of these people are peculiarly adapted for ripping flesh, and thus the wounds inflicted were for the most part of a very serious nature.
   A body of police arrived upon the scene, and the murderous ruffians were all arrested and removed to Leman Street. It only remained to convey the wounded to the London Hospital, and this was done with commendable despatch.
   Subsequently I had the satisfaction of seeing the culprits tried and convicted. For the defence there were several Chinese witnesses, each of whom, on being sworn, went through the extraordinary process of taking up a plate and breaking it?a fate which, if I am not much mistaken, in some instances overtook the oath itself.
   As I have said, Ratcliff Highway has greatly improved in recent years. The same cannot, however, be said of its immediate neighbourhood. Certain streets in Shadwell could never have been in a worse condition than they are at present.
   While acting as one of the magistrates of the Worship Street district it was a part of my duty to sit on certain days at the Thames Police Court. I found that the most convenient way to reach it from the West End was to go by the underground railway from Baker Street to Shadwell and proceed thence on foot. The distance from the railway station to the Court is an inconsiderable one but the best route is through Watney Street, which is the most disgraceful thoroughfare I was ever doomed to traverse.
   On either side of the way are poor, squalid shops. Through-[-79-]out the day the road and the pavement are crowded with barrows laden with fish, vegetables, and other articles of food, cheap second-hand furniture, old iron, rabbit skins, and many articles besides. So great is the throng of dirty and ragged human beings that it is very difficult to make one?s way through the street. There is a good deal of unceremonious shoving in the crowd, but to remonstrate thereat would be to run a very good chance of being sent rolling in the gutter. A few policemen pick their way through the street, but I think they would be slow to incur the displeasure of such an evil-looking crowd.
   The stench in Watney Street is sickening. It arises for the most part from the greasy mash formed underfoot by the miscellaneous refuse from the barrows.
   Needless to say, this pandemonium contains a number of thriving public-houses. The women who infest the place are of a lower order than those to be met with in the Ratcliff Highway of to-day. When you gaze on their brutal and vicious faces, soddened with drink, you have a difficulty in believing that such beings are fellow human creatures.
   While I was discharging temporary duty at the Thames Police Court, several interesting cases from Ratcliff Highway came before me. One was that of a sailor who was charged with stealing a watch. The prosecutrix, who it was evident from her brogue hailed from the Emerald Isle, entered the box and told her story. She said that she kept a lodging-house for sailors, and that the prisoner always stayed there when he was on shore. The good woman proceeded to expatiate upon her own virtues, which, as I had a tolerably extensive knowledge of the class to which he belonged, made me follow her narrative with some suspicion.
   ?I have been,? she declared with emotion, ?more than a mother to the boy? (the ?boy? being, I should say, over thirty, and standing six feet high). ?When he got with bad people and lost, all his money some time ago, I took him in, sir, just the same, and gave him clothes and food, and, as if that wasn?t enough, I got him a kit when he went to sea again, because he hadn?t a farthing in the world to buy one.?
   Whi1e she said this, the alleged culprit, standing bolt upright in the dock, simply smiled.
   Stopping the prosecutrix, I begged her to come at once to the subject matter of her complaint.
   ?Well, sir,? she continued, ?I had two watches, which I [-80-] kept in a drawer in the kitchen. They were safe enough there yesterday, because I saw them, and I went out shopping, sir, leaving the prisoner in the kitchen, and when I came back he was gone and so was one of the watches. I went and told the. police, sir, and they?ve found the watch in a pawnshop, and the assistant what serves there has seen this man, and he is sure it was him as pawned the watch.?
   Witnesses were called who bore out the prosecutrix?s story, and the prisoner declined to put any questions to them. Thus the case against him seemed tolerably clear, and I was about to have the depositions read over, preparatory to committing him for trial, when, not feeling quite satisfied, I said to him:
   ?You will have an opportunity presently of saying what you like in your defence; but before the witnesses leave the Court, are you sure you would not care to put any questions to them ??
   ?Quite sure,? he replied; ?but if you wouldn?t mind, sir, I should like to put a question to you.?
   ?Well,? said I, ? it?s a little irregular, but if it will do you any good, I have no objection.?
   ?Thank you,? he returned. ?What I want to ask you, sir, is this. Can a man be guilty of stealing his own property??
   ?Certainly not,? I replied. ?But what on earth do you mean??
   ?Well, sir,? said he, ?it?s just this way. I did take the watch, and I did pawn it, but I had a perfect right to do so, for it is my property. It was given to me by my uncle nine years ago. Before I went my last voyage I gave it to the old woman to keep, and when I returned I asked her for it, but she always put me off with excuses. Yesterday I found out where it was, and after she went out I took it, and thought it would be far safer it I pawned it.?
   I called the woman back into the box, and asked her what she had to say to the man?s explanation. Without changing colour or moving a muscle of her face, she gave an emphatic denial to his statement, which she characterised as a pack of lies from beginning to end.
   This did not by any means satisfy me, and, turning to the prisoner, I asked him if he knew the number of his watch.
   ?Yes, sir,? he replied. ?Seventeen hundred and ninety-four. My uncle, whose name was , bought the watch at Sir John Bennett?s two days before Christmas Day in the year 18??
   [-81-] This detailed statement, I confess, was rather more than I had expected. It made my course of action very simple. Ordering the case to be put back, I despatched an officer to Sir John Bennett?s to make enquiries, and, if necessary, request Sir John to send any assistant who might possibly be able to throw light upon the case.
   Later in the day the sailor was put back into the dock. An assistant from the watchmaker?s entered the box and explained to me that it was the custom at their establishment to enter in a book the name of every purchaser of a watch, together with its number. This book he had brought with him and produced. There, sure enough, under the date in question, was the name of the prisoner?s uncle, bracketed with the number ? 1794.?
   I told the prosecutrix what was my opinion of her, and at once discharged the prisoner.
   For a specimen of villainy and perjury this was bad enough; but the matter did not rest here.
   My usual days for sitting at this Court were Monday and Tuesday, but it so happened that, in the following week, I chose the Thursday instead of the Tuesday.
   Among the night charges there appeared, to my great surprise, my friend the sailor. Referring to my register, which lay before me, I found that he was charged with stealing a razor from a barber?s shop. The barber himself was the first witness. He deposed that the prisoner came to his establishment for a shave, and that soon afterwards a razor was missing from a shelf. It appeared that while he was shaving the sailor, he was called away to another part of the shop to serve a customer, and that, according to his statement, the theft occurred while his back was turned.
   I asked the witness whether he had any other evidence to call.
   ?Yes,? he replied, ?a woman is here who was looking through the window and who saw the prisoner take the razor from the shelf and hand it to another man.?
   Hereupon with the greatest effrontery in the world, the lodging-house keeper who had prosecuted in the other case stepped into the box. A few questions sufficed to smash her testimony to pieces, and the sailor was once more discharged. This vile woman had either tricked the barber, or by some means had induced him to enter into the plot, and I doubt not that she craftily arranged for the case to come into Court [-82-] on a day when I was not likely to be sitting. Happily an accidental circumstance was the means of frustrating her revengeful design.
   A batch of summonses of rather a curious character came before me one morning. For years a number of women had, in Ratcliff Highway and the vicinity, kept shops which were ostensibly for the sale of ginger-beer, cigars, and matches, but which were in reality for the sale, without a license and during prohibited hours, of spirits and malt liquors.
   The evil grew to such an extent that representations were at length made to the authorities, who decided to take strong measures to put an end to it. It was arranged that two police officers, dressed as sailors, should go the round of the cigar and ginger-beer shops to obtain incriminating evidence against the women who were carrying on this lawless traffic.
   Two detectives from the West End were selected for the purpose, as it was felt that there was a likelihood of local members of the force being recognised.
   The ruse answered admirably, and a number of convictions were secured. It was curious to watch the faces of the female defendants while the officers were giving their evidence. One old woman shook with fury as the detective recalled the incidents of his visit?how she had said, ?Yours ain?t much like the hands of a sailor?; how he had replied, ?No, of course not, because I?m a purser?s clerk?; and how the two had laughed over the ease with which the accused were being hoodwinked. I never, before or since, heard such venomous abuse as that which poured from the lips of this old woman. There cannot be touch doubt that if the two detectives had shown their faces in Ratcliff Highway within a year of that date, they would have been somewhat roughly handled.
   After the great strikes the maritime prosperity of London began to wane, and one result was that the character of Ratcliff Highway somewhat improved. Other circumstances have assisted to purify that region. New docks drew the shipping lower down the Thames; the great liners are manned by a better class of men than were the sailing vessels of thirty years ago; and I am not sure that the changes brought about in the shipping world by the construction of the Suez Canal had not something to do with the transformation alluded to.
   Much good has no doubt been effected by the appointment of certain Board of Trade officials. A sailor is now shipped in [-83-] proper form. Articles are no longer signed in some disreputable little public-house, and Jack is no longer sent off on a long voyage with a kit barely adequate for a trip to Ireland.
   But though it gives me great satisfaction to record that Ratcliff Highway is better than it was, I confess I could wish to see it better than it is.

[---nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.---]

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - St. George's Street (Ratcliff Highway)

St. George's Street (Ratcliff Highway) - photograph


The old name of Ratcliff Highway still clings to the unlovely St. George's Street, which lies to the north of the London Docks, and connects the Tower district with Shadwell. Once upon a time fair elm trees on both the sides of the Highway gave it a dignity which it has long lost. It became notorious early in the present century, owing to a series of murders anti to various acts of lawlessness committed by Jack ashore; but now the Street is chiefly remarkable for the shops of dealers in wild beasts, birds, etc. Its former name is derived from Ratcliff Manor, in Stepney. In a vault beneath the Swedish Church, in Prince's Square, which lies off St. George's Street, Emmanuel Swedenborg, the mystic, who died in 1772, is buried.