The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

It’s Halloween and I’ve done a number of related posts on the origins of Halloween, hauntings, the modern day Enfield Poltergeist and of course the infamous Jack The Ripper.  Real life figures such as the Victorian poisoner Mary Cotton and figures that merge myth and reality such as Springheeled Jack.

Perhaps more horrendous than any of the above were the events that terrified East London a life-time before the dreaded Jack The Ripper, they happened just a mile away

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 were the most notorious of their day. In the space of 12 days two families were butchered in their homes in such a terrible fashion that for weeks afterwards ‘terror was on every face’ as people barricaded their doors, bought guns and rattles and eyed every stranger they met with suspicion.

Not only that, but the failure to quickly catch the killers brought into question the entire system of policing the capital and contributed to the eventual formation of the Metropolitan Police force 18 years later.  It must have been something even for the times and yet today few people have heard of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.

The name Ratfcliffe is a corruption on RedCliffe which described the local geographical feature that ran a little inland from the broad expanse of the Thames.  Over the centuries, the name has changed again to simply The Highway, an old Roman road.

It all began shortly after midnight on Sunday, December 8, at Timothy Marr’s linen shop at number 29 on the Ratcliffe Highway.

Timothy Marr, 24, and his 14 year-old servant boy James Gowen had been clearing up after a day’s trading as they did at the end of each day.  His wife Celia, also 24, was probably tending to their three month-old son Timothy Jnr.

At some point before 12.30am, all four were beaten about the head with a carpenter’s maul or mallet. The baby’s throat was also cut to the bone.


Newspaper sketch of the murder weapon.

When servant girl Margaret Jewell returned from her unsuccessful errand to buy some oysters she found the door locked. Nobody answered the bell but she heard footsteps on the stairs and a baby’s cry. Then all was silent. It was not until 1am that she alerted a passing watchman.

Neighbour John Murray gained entrance through the back door only to find the body of James Gowen, his head caved in, surrounded by spattered blood and brains.  Celia Marr was lying face down near the front door. Her husband was dead behind the counter. The child was the last to be found, dead in his cradle in the basement.

What few clues could be found at the scene included the bloodstained maul left resting against a chair in the Marr’s bedroom, marked with the initials JP.  Interestingly for such an impoverished area, £152 was left untouched in a nearby drawer, a ripping chisel, not stained with blood, resting on the shop counter, and two sets of footprints leading from the back of the house.


Who would investigate in the times before the modern-era police? Those involved in the hunt for the killer included the River Thames Police and the unpaid constables and paid watchmen retained by the parish of St George’s-in-the-East, who offered a £50 reward. One of their first leads was a sighting of three men outside the shop that night, one described as tall and wearing a light-coloured coat. However the only significant arrest was of the carpenter employed by Marr to carry out improvements at the shop. His alibi bore out and he was released.

The first newspaper reports of the crime led to crowds of spectators attempting to visit the scene. By the time an even bigger crowd gathered the following Sunday for the funeral at nearby St George’s church, the Home Secretary Richard Ryder was taking an interest in the case and the rewards on offer had been increased to a total of £600.


Inquiries were still continuing when a second household was attacked in an equally brutal fashion. Some time after 11pm on December 19th the lodger at the King’s Arms at 81 New Gravel Lane was seen climbing down knotted sheets from a second-floor window. He was screaming “Murder, murder”.

Inside the pub, John Williamson, 56, was found lying on his back in the cellar, his head beaten in, his throat cut, his right leg fractured. Next to his body lay an iron bar. Injuries to his hand indicated he had tried to fend off blows before being overcome.


In the kitchen lay his 60 year-old wife Elizabeth and maidservant Bridget Harrington, her age somewhere between 50 and 60.  Both their skulls were fractured and their throats slashed. Mercifully the couple’s 14 year-old granddaughter Kitty Stillwell was unharmed, asleep in her bed.

The lodger, John Turner, was to tell how he fled out the window after seeing a tall man in a long coat standing over Mrs Williamson’s body at the bottom of the stairs.

I went to bed about five minutes before eleven o’clock; I had not been in bed more than five or ten minutes before I heard the cry of “We shall all be murdered,” which, I suppose, was the cry of the woman servant. I went downstairs, and I saw one of the villains cutting Mrs Williamson’s throat, and rifling her pockets.

I immediately ran upstairs; I took up the sheets from my bed and fastened them together, and lashed them to the bed-posts, I called to the watchman to give the alarm; I was hanging out of the front window by the sheets; the watchman received me in his arms, naked as I was: a great mob had then assembled opposite the door: as soon as I got upon my legs, the door was forced open; I entered, and found the bodies lying as described.

Examination of the scene revealed Mr Williamson’s watch was missing, and blood on the windowsill by an open window at the back of the pub.

While a footprint was found at the back of the house, witnesses also saw two men running up Ratcliffe Highway. The shorter one appeared lame while the taller one was heard to say something like ‘Come along Mahoney.’

These murders fell to the parish of St Paul’s in Shadwell to investigate, and a handbill offering a 100 guinea reward was posted less than an hour later. As panic rippled through London, other constables from Whitechapel and Wapping became involved in the hunt, as well as members of the Bow Street Runners and the River Thames Police.

Their efforts bore fruit with the arrest of John Williams on the same day the Williamson household was buried at St Paul’s Church, December 22, 1811. Williams, 27, had sailed with Marr in the ship the Dover Castle three years earlier and was lodging at the Pear Tree in Old Wapping. He had been seen at the King’s Arms a few hours before the murders but claimed to have been drinking elsewhere at the time they took place.

Two days later it emerged that the maul had previously been kept in a locker at the Pear Tree, having been left by a German sailor by the name of ‘John Peterson’ when he returned to sea. A laundress also claimed to have seen blood on two of Williams’ shirts, one before the Marr murders and the other four or five days afterwards.

St George In The East Church , it was somewhere in front of us where the Marr family were buried.

St George In The East Church , it was somewhere in front of us where the Marr family were buried.

The examination of the case by the Shadwell Magistrates was still in progress when Williams was found hanging by a handkerchief in his cell on December 27 at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell (now the site of the Royal Mail sorting office at Mount Pleasant). He had not yet been committed for trial but his suicide was taken as an indication of his guilt.


John Williams after his suicide.

Such was the outpouring of rage and fear in east London, that the Home Secretary ordered Williams’ body be paraded through the streets (a common practice at the time; in fact Williams was one of the last to receive such a dubious ‘honour’).On New Years Eve, Williams was placed on a tilted cart, the maul, chisel and iron crowbar placed above his head, and carried in public view down the Ratcliffe Highway. Crowds watched in silence as he was taken past Marr’s shop to the Pear Tree and then up to the King’s Arms before heading back down Ratcliffe Highway.

Whilst we might think this a little gory, it allowed people to vent their anger and more importantly, give some re-assurance that the monster who perpetuated the crimes was dead and so could no longer hurt them.

The body was eventually deposited into a hole in the ground at the junction of what is now Cable Street and Cannon Hill Road with a stake driven through the heart.


The body of John Williams being paraded through East London

A century later during road improvement works, the corpse was disinterred and the skull was placed behind the bar at the Crown & Dolphin pub on the corner though in recent years it has since disappeared.


The body of the presumer murderer, John Williams, was buried in a pit at this junction, the old pub sat on the corner.

Although Williams was seen by some as the sole perpetrator, investigations into other possible suspects continued. Then on January 14, 1812, a full search was made of the Pear Tree. Blood was found in the inside pocket of a blue jacket said to belong to Williams. In a closet a bloodstained clasp knife was found concealed in a mousehole.

Even with this new evidence, it was still felt the investigation had failed to catch all the culprits. Four days later a motion was made in parliament that a committee should examine the system of the Night Watch. As reported in Hansard, The Home Secretary “felt himself justified in stating, that if the expediency of the measure rested upon the late horrible murders alone, by which two whole families had been completely exterminated, the atrocity of those crimes would in themselves have afforded a sufficient ground. It was true that no system of police could prevent the commission of such murders, while there were persons vile and abandoned enough to commit them, under such circumstances of dextrous depravity; but as a better regulation of the Nightly Watch must have a tendency to diminish the chances, it was right that it should be resorted to.” Other speakers in the debate took the view the committee should go further and look into the ‘state of the police’ as a whole.


A Night Watchman of the time

The investigation came to an end in early February with the release of two other suspects – the tall and possibly lame William Ablass, who was said to have been involved in a mutiny aboard the Roxburgh Castle along with John Williams, and the carpenter who had worked at Marr’s shop, Cornelius Hart.

Three months later focus turned from the ‘horrible murders’ to a new atrocity – the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, at the House of Commons itself.

It took another 17 years, and the reports of three further committees, before the Metropolitan Police was set up by Robert Peel in 1829. But while the Ratcliffe Highway murders did not directly lead to reform of the state system of policing, they convinced many that it was necessary. They also ushered in a new, more insecure era in which crime appeared to be increasing year upon year and no one was truly safe, not even in their own homes. This attitude remains prevalent today.


Although the prime suspect committed suicide before facing trial, his name was immortalised in print and inspired the English writer Thomas De Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.’

Foreshadowing the modern exploitation of murder for entertainment in book, theatre and film, De Quincey wrote: ‘Mr Williams made his debut on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill respect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied with anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the crimson of his.’


The village of Ratcliffe and the old Ratcliffe Highway has almost vanished with the old Ratcliffe Cross Stairs which I visited in this recent post being one of the few reminders.

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My latest ‘mini’ horror movie – Bad Dream?

It’s become something of a tradition for my friend and I to make a Halloween inspired video and I thought I would share this years effort.

Bizarrely, whilst all the other young children would and still do watch cute shows, all of my favourite shows and films were adult historical/war, sci-fi and in horror and I watched the first Halloween film when aged about 5 years old and watched it many times throughout my 80’s childhood along with all the similar genre films of the day.

Our little film isn’t gory at all but hopefully you’d find it a bit creepy.

We made it with just one iPad and each scene was shot just once and all in just one hour. I think it is pretty effective but what do you think?


It’s all taken from my V character in the trilogy of the same name of which book 2 is now part-written with the original V1 Vixen is available on Kindle from Amazon UK, Amazon USA and around the world.
V1 Vixen is also available on iTunes, Kobo, Nook and all other electronic formats from all good retailers as well as on Paperback from Amazon UK, Amazon USA and around the world.

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V1 Vixen - Part 1 in the V Trilogy

V1 Vixen – Part 1 in the V Trilogy


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Æthelflaed – Lady of the Mercians

Every now and then I like to write a post about one of the important and often overlooked women in history and British history in particular.  Sometimes they appear in the most unexpected places such as the Wrestling Mongolian Princess Khutulun or a very  Grace Darling who became a heroine around the world in Victorian times.

We have a long history of incredible and formidable women and one of the earliest though by no means the first was Æthelflaed – Lady of the Mercians.   Whilst we all know it is 100 years since women won the right to vote here, it is also the 1,100 years since the death of a substantial Queen.


The real-life 7 kingdoms of old England

Æthelflaed was the eldest child of Alfred the Great, king of the West Saxons (reigned 871–899), and his wife Ealhswith. Ealhswith may have been related in turn to the royal house of the nearby kingdom of Mercia. Under pressure during the Viking invasions at the end of the 9th century, King Alfred made an alliance with Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. Æthelflaed subsequently married Æthelred, strengthening this bond.

By the first years of the 10th century, Æthelred had become very ill. When he died in 911, Æthelflaed became the ruler of the Mercians in her own right. As lady of the Mercians (‘Myrcna hlæfdige’), Æthelflaed expanded her territories to the north, east and west. She fortified settlements, or burhs, and led her armies into Wales and Northumbria. In the final year of her life, the people of York even pledged to obey her ‘direction’ (‘rædenne’). It is possible that some of her military exploits were coordinated to help her brother, King Edward the Elder (reigned 899–924), but at other times Æthelflaed seems to have been acting independently.



Lady Æthelflaed


Æthelflaed’s reign was unusual. Her successful political career did not necessarily reflect tolerant contemporary attitudes towards women, and (with one brief exception) she did not pave the way for future Anglo-Saxon female leaders. According to Asser, her father’s biographer, the West Saxon court where she grew up was particularly opposed to over-mighty queens: ‘The West Saxons do not allow a queen to sit beside the king, nor to be called a queen, but only the king’s wife [because of] a certain obstinate and malevolent queen [from Mercia], who did everything she could against her lord and whole people’

Æthelflaed must have been imbued with some incredible personal qualities as people didn’t rebel and pretenders to the throne didn’t chance their luck.  All were happy to be led and ruled by this strong and woman.

It’s not clear if she ever fought in battle, it would be impossible to rule it out as fighting in battle was one of the key elements in the contract between the monarch and people; if the monarch can’t act with strength to defend your lives then why would the people be loyal to the crown?  However, she was definitely present at the siege of Derby, where she lost thegns ‘who were dear to her’ and we can infer that it was she who oversaw the successful defence of Chester in 907, because we know that by this time her husband was incapacitated. In 917, an abbot of whom she was fond was murdered by the Welsh, and she led an army into Brycheiniog, attacking the fort on Llangorse Lake and taking many hostages. Clearly, this was not a lady to be messed with!

Even when she died, she was in the middle of negotiations with a deputation from the north, who had asked for her help against a fresh wave of invaders.

Really she deserves to be remembered along with other great Queens such as Boudicca and Elizabeth of England or across the Channel in France, Joan of Arc.



Æthelflaed as remembered in a much later 13th-century geneaology of the kings of England


Sadly history barely remembers her, possibly because the main primary source for this period in our history is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  As this great work was commissioned by Alfred the Great and was written by monks of Wessex,  they naturally had a bias towards the West Saxons. But she is at least remembered in the old capital of Mercia, Tamworth, where in 1918 they erected a statue of her.


Æthelflaed was initially succeeded by her daughter, Ælfwynn, whose reign was significantly shorter. The Mercian Register claims that just one year later, in 919, ‘the daughter of Æthelred, lord of the Mercians, was deprived of all authority in Mercia and taken into Wessex, three weeks before Christmas’. England would have to wait a few hundred years for another queen to rule unchallenged in her own right.

You have probably noticed this article gave me the unavoidable chance to use Æ which is an old Anglo-Saxon letter which comes from ancient Greece.  If you’d like to know more about this largely forgotten digraph then check out my post The Ædifying use of Æ.


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The evocative gardens of Arundel Castle

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the wonderful little Sussex town of Arundel whose centrepiece is one of the most imposing castles in southern Britain.

The castle is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Norfolk and is set in 40 acres, with fine views across the South Downs. There is a vinery, nineteenth-century walled kitchen garden, cut flower border and Fitzalan Chapel with its own white garden. A new garden opened at Arundel in May 2008 – The Collector Earl’s Garden. The area was originally part of the kitchen garden but had been used as a car park since the 1970s until its redevelopment. It is a memorial to the 14th Earl of Arundel, an avid art collector. There is a central canal and domed pergola too and various glass houses and long walks.

As it is 26 degrees (82F) in London as I write this on Saturday 13th October, it seemed timely to post some beautiful photos of this incredible garden bathed in autumnal sunshine.

Like most big country gardens, there are actually several gardens within the entire estate all with different functions and developed through the centuries, often as a way for a Duke to leave a mark on the planet.

One of the pleasant surprises that I found was that several areas had a theme that I found evocative of my travels in the Middle-East.



The centre piece of a small walled garden.  Reminding me a little of an Iranian (Persian) courtyard which is of course where the origin of the word Paradise can be found.



I don’t know why everyone has their holidays in the summer when everywhere is hot, crowded and often with premium charges.  I’ve always tried to take my breaks in late September or October so I enjoy the sights in peace and quiet.



There is so much flowing water in these gardens, you can hear it roaring behind walls and trees. Here you can see the edge of Arundel Cathedral in the background.




40 acres of paradise all to myself in beautiful October sunshine.




I particularly liked these parts of the gardens, such a wonderful surprise to be wandering around a little oasis in Egypt or Iraq.




The view back to the original Norman Keep.



Below is perhaps my favourite view that I came across, looking back from the chapel towards Arundel Castle itself.


The view from the chapel.


I took over 300 photos and really none of them do justice to the gardens of Arundel Castle but hopefully, this gives you a little taste of what they are like.

Interesting that on a very, very rare day off that I do for fun on my own what I do with others in my job.


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The ticking timebomb shipwreck that could damage half of London

Every now and then a newly made discovery of a long-lost shipwreck makes the news with everything from RMS Titanic to the lost ship of Captain Cook and everything in between.

There are a few shipwrecks however that are well known, even visible to us today.  Out of them all, there can’t be any more dangerous than the S.S. Richard Montgomery which since WW2 has lain, partially above water on the mouth of the River Thames.

The S.S. Richard Montgomery was a Liberty ship, from the United States bringing over 9,000 high explosive munitions and one of many reason why one has to be careful when looking for ‘treasures’ on the banks of the Thames as I did in my recent post.

Known semi-affectionately to locals as the “Monty”, the 441ft-long (134m) vessel was a US Liberty ship, a type of cargo ship used during World War II. It arrived off the coast in August 1944 carrying munitions to help the war effort. On 20 August, while waiting to join a convoy across the channel to France, harsh weather caused the ship to drag anchor and founder on a sand bank, of which there are many treacherous examples in the Thames estuary.

As the tide receded the vessel was left stranded. The hull’s welded plates began to crack and buckle under the weight of the explosives on board.  Local dockworkers hurriedly mounted a salvage operation. They managed to empty the rear half of the ship before finally abandoning it on 25 September, when the forward section flooded and the vessel snapped in half.

Since then, no one has been aboard the ship – at least not officially. And without any surviving records of what actually was removed in 1944, it’s impossible to say precisely what cargo remains.


The masts of the S.S. Richard Montgomery

The ship lies just 1.5 miles (2.4km) from shore in the mouth of the bustling Thames estuary. Clearly visible from the land – its rusting masts rising ominously from the water – the sunken vessel contains disturbing cargo: 1,400 tonnes of high explosives which many fear could go off at any time, potentially causing one of the most devastating non-nuclear peace-time explosions ever seen.

It is something that locals near the coast have long worried about whilst millions of Londoners remain blissfully unaware that they are living well withing the shockwaves of a ticking time-bomb.

According to a survey carried out in 2000 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), the ship likely contains a staggering assortment of more than 9,000 US-made explosives.

These include 286 giant 2,000lb ‘blockbuster’ bombs, 4,439 1,000lb devices and – perhaps most worryingly of all – more than 2,500 cluster bombs. Unlike most of the other items on board, cluster bombs would have been transported with their fuses in place, leaving them more prone to detonation.

It seems incredible that such hazardous cargo was abandoned so close to civilisation and in the middle of the one of the UK’s busiest shipping lanes. But in the final stages of the war, the wreck’s recovery wasn’t a priority.

In the decades that followed, authorities considered non-intervention to be the safest course of action. That became particularly true when a 1967 attempt to clear the Kielce – a smaller wrecked munitions vessel almost four miles (6.4km) out to sea – triggered an explosion that measured 4.5 on the Richter scale and damaged property in nearby Folkestone, though no injuries were reported.“Expert advice has always been that the munitions are likely to be stable if left undisturbed,” says the MCA’s Receiver of the Wreck Alison Kentuck, who oversees management of the SS Richard Montgomery, including arranging detailed annual surveys of the site (see box out). “If you go and disturb them, you’re increasing the risk factor.”

“Expert advice has always been that the munitions are likely to be stable if left undisturbed,” says the MCA’s Receiver of the Wreck Alison Kentuck, who oversees management of the SS Richard Montgomery, including arranging detailed annual surveys of the site (see box out). “If you go and disturb them, you’re increasing the risk factor.”

Most agree that the bombs are relatively safe as long as they aren’t exposed to sudden shock, friction or heat. But as happened with the famous wreck of Titanic, recent MCA surveys confirm the wreck is gradually disintegrating. Its deterioration could lead to a sudden collapse that triggers the sympathetic detonation of some, if not all, of the remaining explosives.

If this happened, the consequences could be catastrophic. Some analyses – as reported in the New Scientist in 2004 – suggest that spontaneous detonation of the entire cargo would hurl a column of debris up to 1.8 miles (three kilometres) into the air, send a 40 foot high tsunami sweeping up the Thames and along the Kent coast, cause a shock wave that would damage buildings for miles around, including the liquid gas containers on the nearby Isle of Grain.

It’s a scenario that keeps many, including local historian Colin Harvey, awake at night. “The remit area for the explosion would be from Margate to the centre of London,” he says. “It would level Sheerness, and a 30 or 40ft wave would breach sea defences. Sheppey’s got a population of 25,000 people. Where would they go?”

For those of us who like to put our head in the sands, happily not everyone shares this apocalyptic view.

Dave Welch is a former Royal Navy bomb disposal expert who now runs Ramora UK, an EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) consultancy which carries out a large amount of work on underwater ordnance. Welch, who advised the government on the SS Richard Montgomery’s munitions, says he’s unconvinced by some of the wilder predictions.

“The idea that if one item goes ‘bang’ then everything will is, I think, pretty unlikely,” he says. “Unless you’ve got intimate contact between two munitions subsurface, you’ll rarely cause the other to detonate, because water is a very good mitigator. If you’ve got a 1,000lb bomb two metres from another 1,000lb bomb, the other one won’t go bang. I know that for a fact – I did it last Tuesday..

The wreck is surveyed annually. Although in the past, the process could take up to a month, advances in subsea surveying technology mean that it now takes as little as a couple of days. Two key techniques are used: laser scanning and multi-beam sonar. Laser scanning examine the sections of the ship above the water, while sonar images the subsea sections. These two data sets are knitted together to create an overall image that gives a detailed view of the exterior of the wreck, as well as the surrounding seabed.


A scan showing Monty in two parts.

He suggests that a more likely – albeit only marginally less terrifying – scenario is the detonation of a large item initiating a ripple effect through the vessel, which would send munitions flying through the air and scatter hazardous items over a wide area.

And while the likeliest trigger for such an event is the natural disintegration of the vessel, that’s not the only potential cause.

One concern is that the vessel could be struck by one of the many boats that pass close by every day. And although the wreck is surrounded by an 875-yard (800m) exclusion zone and monitored 24 hours a day by the Medway Ports authority, there are concerns that it’s not as well protected as the authorities claim. Indeed, Harvey says there have been at least 22 near-misses over the last few decades.

Perhaps the most serious incident occurred back in May 1980, a Danish fuel tanker strayed off course in poor weather and had to take last-minute evasive action to avoid hitting the wreck.

More recently, an idiotic paddle-boarder provoked an outcry when he posted a photo of himself on Facebook leaning against one of the vessel’s masts.

Perhaps more worryingly is that it could prove to be a tempting target for terrorists that could relatively easily attack the shipwreck to cause the biggest explosion of the 21st century.   In fact during the London 2012 Olympics the ship was under armed protection.

But the biggest risk factor is undoubtedly the state of the ship itself. “The items aren’t the ticking time bomb, the wreck is,” says Welch. “It’s the fact that they’re inside a ship which is slowly decaying that could have the potential of causing enough energy going in them to cause them to detonate.”



Warning buoy marking the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery photo by Gill Edwards


So what are the options?

Over the years, a variety of suggestions have been made, ranging from the clumsily dangerous option of simply towing the vessel to deeper water to more complex civil engineering solutions involving entombing the wreck in some kind of giant sarcophagus.

The project would, Welch says, cost tens of millions of pounds. “There are lots of examples of wrecks being emptied,” he says. “The thing that makes this different is that it’s a much larger payload and the vessel is slowly crumbling away. What makes it very difficult is where it is.”

Still, Welch and a number of other operators are confident that they could safely clear the wreck site. But there are few signs that anyone will be given the go-ahead any time soon.

One thing that might hasten a solution would be a major infrastructure project, like the former London Mayor Boris Johnson’s proposal for a new airport in the Thames Estuary: the Airport Commission said that before it could be built, the wreck would have to be moved. But with ‘Boris Island’ looking increasingly unlikely, at least for now, we could be in for a long wait – and most seem to agree that the longer the vessel is left, the harder it will be to deal with.

However the wreck is dealt with, it seems unlikely that inaction is going to be a tenable course of action and that sometime in the next 10 years a very difficult decision to make and the sooner it is made then the easier and cheaper it will be.

As decision makers more distant sit on their hands, there is always the horrific possibility that the people of coastal towns such as Sheerness will see an unprecedented disaster which is 80 years in the waiting.

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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



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The Kazakhstan art exhibition in a disused London power station

Whilst out and about scouting a new walking tour in the East End of London, I had the good fortune to come across one of those hidden treasures which I still do so regularly even after all my exploration.


Going along old Wapping High Street, one of the most unexpected sights you might see is the wonderful old Victorian bridge which crosses the channel from the Thames to the Shadwell Basin, an old docks area now converted to luxury housing and outdoor life.   Originally the bridge moved due to good old-fashioned steam power before eventually being converted to run on electricity.


In the background of the photo above, you can see the disused Wapping Hydraulic Power Station which was originally built in 1890 and run by the London Hydraulic Power Company.  It was used to power machinery, including lifts, across London, not least this fantastic. The Tower Subway was used to transfer the power, and steam, to districts south of the river.

After its closure earlier in the year, the building was designated a grade II* listed building in December 1977.   It was saved from total dereliction in 1993 when it became the home of both art and culinary experiences in the unique setting of a Victorian industrial setting, complete with much of the original machinery.


The exhibition I came across was one that featured art from Kazakhstan from a modern and post-nomadic perspective.


Having studied and always wanted to visit Kazakhstan, I think the curator of the event was a little surprised to have someone visit who could converse about Kazakhstan as most could about France or Canada.

Kazakhstan in Central Asia is a country that is rapidly modernising away from its nomadic and horse-based lifestyle oppressed by the Soviet Union into a vibrant and proud country.  It still faces challenges though with poverty and environmental issues, not least with the death of Aral Sea which I wrote about in 2014.  All of these things are evident in the exhibition.


What made the art itself all the more stunning was this unique setting, sat amongst heavy old machinery.


I deliberately haven’t posted all the photos I took as I don’t want to discourage anyone from visiting and as you might be able to tell, it isn’t one of the most visited galleries in London.


There were many highlights here but one of the most moving is the exhibit below which deals with the Great Purge, an awful event during Stalinist rule which saw millions sent into exile or simply murdered.


It was such an interesting experience and such a unique setting.  It just goes to show that there is so much more to London than the big tourist locations.  If you want to experience a different side of London then remember Ye Olde England Tours …. we do the big sights too 🙂

If you’d like to visit the Post-nomadic exhibition then you have until October 16th  Opening hours: Mon-Sat: 10 am- 7 pm, Sun: 11 am – 6 pm Venue: Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, 37 Wapping Wall, E1W 3SG



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