Ratcliffe Cross Stairs – Where fires raged, explorers set sail and pirates hung

Last week whilst scouting out a new walking tour of just a small part of East London, one of the places I most wanted to visit is the slipway which was once known as Ratcliffe Cross Stairs.

The village of Ratcliffe itself is all but forgotten and subsumed by Limehouse which is itself unknown by most away from London, hidden away in a maze of housing, industrial units and a whole load of former maritime wharves and stores.  Originally, Ratcliffe was known as Red Cliff on account of the small red sandstone cliff that stuck out above the surrounding marshes.



Ratcliffe Cross Stairs in East London.  At High Tide the river comes right up these steps.


I like visiting less visited places and for somewhere that is almost unknown, a whole lot of history has taken place at Ratcliffe Cross Stairs.

On the 10th May 1553, Admiral Sir Hugh Willoughby embarked on a voyage from which he was destined never to return from this very spot. Setting off with three ships which had been fitted out at nearby Deptford and weighing in at 160, 120 and 90 tonnes, the Admiral led the first English expedition to leave London in search of the NE and NW passages. He was hoping to reach China by the North East passage going along the northern coast of Russia and what today is Siberia.



A view of the Isle of Dogs / Canary Wharf… a little reminiscent of the view of New York from across the river.


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, Richard Chancellor met the Tsar, Ivan the Terrible, and on his return to England negotiated for a trading agreement which led in 1855 to the establishment of the Muscovy Company. Due to the cold climate in Russia, it offered an outlet for woollen good which of course was one of our most lucrative natural assets.

Perhaps more famously and certainly why I wanted to visit here is because the famous explorer Martin Frobisher sailed from Ratcliff Cross Stairs to seek the NorthWest passage to China. He tried the passage three times – 1576, 1577 and 1578.

Much more has happened here including in 1794 one of the worst fires in London when 630 houses near the Cross, including the East India warehouses, were burnt.  The costs were in the millions even then.



A narrow passage by The Won of Ramsgate Pub which leads to the Thames


In the 17th and 18th century, Ratcliffe developed an unsavoury reputation with waterfront made up of lodging houses, pubs, brothels and music halls. In 1794, almost half of the hamlet was destroyed in a fire which began when a barge loaded with saltpetre exploded, the resulting fire destroyed over 400 homes and 20 warehouses and left 1000 people homeless.

Although the slums returned in the early nineteen century, by the late 19th century the area was cleaned up and populated with people associated with the maritime trade which largely continued until the area was decimated by aerial bombing in the WW2 Blitz.



Pirates were once tied to these then bigger posts and the 30 feet tides would wash over them


Since the 1980’s the area has been almost wholly regenerated and is now almost unrecognisable compared to how it was just a few years ago though away from the river remain areas of severe deprivation.

Just a little way down the road into Wapping you find the Town of Ramsgate Pub, one of several famous Docklands watering holes.  Squeeze down the narrow passage behind the pub and down onto the river and you can see the remains of posts where pirates and over criminals were either hung or simply tied up to let the tide wash up over them.



This anchor was too heavy for two of us to even move it.  There is 30 feet of chain attached too.


Whilst I was there, I found all manner of artefacts, bones and a huge anchor.




A big rivet and a long slim nail from a timber sail ship



About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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8 Responses to Ratcliffe Cross Stairs – Where fires raged, explorers set sail and pirates hung

  1. Genesis our Evolution says:

    Interesting facts about unknown or forgotten parts of our history… Loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

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