Above: An old street nameplate for one of the last streets in Ratcliffe to carry the name of the ancient hamlet.
Ratcliffe was one of several hamlets beside the Thames in Tudor times. It was one of 21 Tower Hamlets – some beside the Thames but even more inland – listed by Strype in 1720. Ratcliffe was in the ancient parish of Stepney. Rather confusingly, the street nameplate carries the spelling ‘Ratcliffe’ – which is the usual spelling of the hamlet – but the stairs beside the Thames have always omitted the ‘e’ in the name, being written ‘Ratcliff Cross Stairs’. Along the Thames – from east to west – were once hamlets called Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliffe and Limehouse.
On the south side of the Thames was Rotherhithe whose old name was Redriff. The name Ratcliffe comes from ‘Red Cliff” which is also very similar to Redriff which was originally known as a ‘Red Reef’.
It would seem that there was a length of red sandstone (or similar rock) which ran from the north bank of the river, extending under the Thames, and emerging on the Rotherhithe bank. Although the author has contacted many people working on the river over the years, nobody has ever been found who can confirm the existence of the ‘red rock’ from their first-hand experience.
Above: Part of Richard Horwood’s map of 1799 showing ‘Ratcliff Cross’. The hamlet was situated around the Cross.
Ratcliffe (or Ratcliff) as a place name has almost completely disappeared. There are only two reminders left – one is a street called Ratcliffe Lane and the other is Ratcliff Cross Stairs on the shore, which is shown on maps of the Thames. It is likely that only older people still living in the vicinity might continue to use the name Ratcliffe for the place where they live. It is more likely that today’s local residents would say that they live in Shadwell or Limehouse.
Although Ratcliffe was a riverside hamlet, its population never grew sufficiently for it to become a village. The neighbouring hamlet of Wapping became a village when the parish of St John was created. Similarly, the hamlet of Shadwell became a village when the parish of St Paul was created. To the east, the hamlet of Limehouse became a village when the parish of St Anne came into being. The hamlet of Ratcliffe was ‘left behind’ as the adjacent hamlets became villages, each with their own parish church. The result has been that the name of Ratcliffe is dying out as places that once carried that name cease to exist,