Above: Looking east towards Canary Wharf at the causeway. The image was taken at low tide in April 1998.
The site of Ratcliff Cross Stairs is one of the most historic anywhere along the Thames and yet the lonely site has no plaque to explain to the visitor how important it is. Some information about the area is provided on a large decorated wall but that is about half a mile away in a public park.
First of all, we will explain what the site consists of today. Narrow Street is, as its name implies, a narrow street running parallel to the Thames to the west of Limehouse. If you look on a street map for Narrow Street, Ratcliff Cross Stairs lead down to the beach (at low tide) at the western end. The stairs are not old, being formed of concrete. They are likely to have been rebuilt early in the 20th century. When the tide is out it is possible to gain access to the beach and, until the start of the 21st century, it was possible to see the remains of a stone causeway, leading into the River Thames. That causeway was probably Victorian or maybe older.
The stairs and causeway are named after the tiny hamlet of Ratcliffe whose name has almost completely vanished as a place name. Notice that the stairs are written ‘Ratcliff’ (without an ‘e’) but the place name is written ‘Ratcliffe’. Why that has happened is not known but any map of large enough scale will confirm this to be the case. A short distance north of the stairs can be found the street names Ratcliffe Lane and Ratcliffe Cross Street on a modern street map but they do not appear on old street maps. The names were probably assigned to modern streets that were laid out in the 1950s.
Having set the scene, it is time to explain why the site is so important. The ‘Cross’ in the name is believed to have been removed after 1732, having stood near the stairs for centuries. Near the site of the Cross was the ancient hall of the Shipwrights Company who moved from Rotherhithe to Ratcliffe in 1782. In 1794 the area suffered one of the worst fires in London when 630 houses near the Cross, including the East India warehouses, were burnt. The loss was estimated at a million pounds which, at the time, was a vast sum of money. It is said that Ratcliff Cross, which stood at the top of Ratcliff Cross Stairs, was one of the places at which a new Sovereign was proclaimed monarch. Bezant said he believed that Queen Victoria had been so proclaimed in 1837. To the west of Ratcliff Cross was a small natural creek which is no longer to be seen.
Several famous events in history took place at Ratcliff Cross Stairs. Admiral Sir Hugh Willoughby embarked from this point, on 10 May 1553, on a voyage from which he was destined never to return. He set off with three ships, fitted at Deptford, of size 160, 120 and 90 tons, and led the first English expedition to leave London in search of the NE and NW passages. He was hoping to reach Cathay (the old name for China) by the NE passage. On board were also the two brothers Stephen and William Borough.
Willoughby and two of his ships were lost but his second in command, Richard Chancellor, reached Archangel and pressed on further to Moscow on sledges. Once there, Chancellor met the Tsar Ivan the Terrible and, on his return to England, negotiated for a trading agreement which opened the way for the establishment, in 1555, of the Muscovy Company. Due to the cold climate in Russia, it offered an outlet for woollen goods.
The famous explorer Martin Frobisher sailed from Ratcliff Cross Stairs to seek the NW passage to China. He tried the passage three times – 1576, 1577 and 1578.
Above: A photograph from the early 1900s showing two men in a rowing boat, possibly a ferry boat at the causeway.
The stairs run south off Narrow Street, at its western end, beside the east side of Keepier Wharf. They lead onto the beach which, when the tide is out is quite extensive. Until the start of the 21st century, part of the old causeway could be seen when the tide was out. The stairs and causeway were formerly a much-used landing-place and ferry point. Until Victorian times pedestrians could take a ferry boat at Ratcliffe and be rowed up-river or down-river. The ferry would also take them across the Thames to the Rotherhithe bank.
Above: View from the south side of the Thames at low tide in 1998, showing that the old causeway on the beach is no longer to be seen. Ratcliff Cross Stairs lead onto the beach between Keepier Wharf (the dark-brick building on the left, now in use as apartments) and Phoenix Wharf (the narrow yellow-brick building).
A few years after 2000 (the exact date is not known) the old causeway was no longer to be seen and the visitor to the site will now find only a smooth beach at low tide. The reason for its removal is not known. The loss of the causeway is a shame because of its historic associations with the past.
Keepier Wharf is now a large building, having been redeveloped as up-market apartments probably in the early 1990s. The development stands on the old Keepier Wharf which was built in 1830 as a coal depot. The unusual name derives from a coal-mining area in County Durham.