Ratcliff – The other Great Fire of London

Not just 1666! – Fires were a regular occurrence in London

The Great Fire of London is a very important and well-remembered event in the timeline of London’s life story. Over a period of 4 days beginning 2nd September 1666 the fire destroyed most of the medieval City of London, sweeping away over 13000 houses, numerous wharves and businesses, and 87 churches – including St Paul’s CathedraI. This disaster has been widely recorded, not least by diarist Samuel Pepys. Its aftermath led to the reconstruction of early modern London, replacing narrow thoroughfares and wooden structures with wide streets and brick buildings – and brought us 51 new churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren. ‘Great Fire’ certainly befits this calamity; but it should not mask the fact that London (like many other early modern cities) always lived under the constant spectre of fire, and that buildings and places of importance were lost to fire on a fairly regular basis. Hence it is useful to look beyond the Great Fire of 1666, and at other fires in order to fully appreciate the extent to which blazes were a very real and life-changing disaster for the people affected. The best place to start, therefore, is to find another great fire of London- so we head east of the City to Ratcliff.

 

Ratcliff Cross (1791)

This blog examines the Ratcliff Fire, said to be the biggest conflagration that London saw between 1666 and the Blitz in 1940. This fire seems to have escaped attention perhaps because its victims were poor (who were irrelevant) or tradesmen (who were probably insured), but hopefully because its aftermath was dealt with so quickly and humanely. Ratcliff(e) in earlier times was also known as “sailor town”, was originally known for shipbuilding but from the 1300s more for fitting and provisioning ships. By the end of the 1700s Ratcliff was a village-cum-shanty-town on the Thames situated between Shadwell and Limehouse, due south of Stepney village, still offering various maritime services, but now also containing warehousing and storage for a variety of imported goods, from which manufacturing industries nearby relied. Ratcliff tended to specialise in docking of combustible cargoes considered too risky to be bulk-handled in the City, and this ultimately proved to be its downfall. Here are some contemporary reports of the fire:

On Wednesday afternoon at 3 o’clock on July 23rd 1794 the hamlet of Ratcliff suffered a dreadful fire. It began at Mr Clove’s, a barge-builder at Cock Hill, and was occasioned by the boiling over of a pitch kettle that flood under his warehouse, which was consumed within a very short time. It also set light to a barge (it being low water) lying close to the premises, laden with saltpetre – which subsequently spectacularly exploded. The blowing-up of the saltpetre occasioned large flakes of flame to rain down upon riverside buildings – one of which belonged to the East India Company, from which a store of saltpetre was in the process of removing to the Tower of London – 20 tons of which had been fortunately removed the preceding day. Consequently the fire wrought carnage both on land and river – and very soon all the houses on either side of Brook Street were destroyed as far as Ratcliff Cross, as well as several alleyways – and several large ships, including the East Indiaman Hannah, which was about to depart for Barbados, and other smaller boats were utterly burnt out. The fire found new fuel at Ratcliffe Cross when it over-ran a sugar-house. This new ignition point meant that the adjacent glassworks and a lighter-builders yard were lost.

Ratcliff Fire damage – as seen from the Thames

The blaze continued until the following morning and its progress was helped mainly by the narrowness of the streets, which prevented fire engines being of any practical service. The wind blowing strong from the south fanned the flames onwards: it reached the premises of Joseph Hanks, a timber merchants, in London Street and extended on into Butcher Row – the whole of the west, and part of the east side of which was consumed. At Stepney Causeway the fire caught the premises of Mr Shakespeare, a rope-maker, and burnt through to the fields at the other side before dying down. It was only the boundaries of urban development that prevented further progress of the inferno. Almost no property in the vicinity was spared loss or damage, though it was singularly odd that the dwelling house of Mr Bere – a very extensive building – was surrounded by fire but emerged entirely unscathed.

Scene showing Mr Bere’s house escaping the inferno

It was reported that Mr Clove broke an arm fighting the initial fire, and one of his servants was sent to London Hospital with terrible burns. A survey carried out after the fire showed that only 570 out of 1200 buildings survived – and that most of those lost served as housing for the poor. The Government reacted by erecting 120 tents in Stepney Fields to accommodate the poor – hardly a generous deed given that 1000+ people were made homeless. The loss to tradesmen was equally bad – for example Mr Whiting, who owned the sugar-house, lost £40,000 worth of stock. There is no record of any loss of life resulting from the fire, but Lloyd’s Evening Post does seem to imply death amongst the poor without enumerating the extent.

The distress of the miserable inhabitants exceeded all description. In the surrounding fields were deposited a few goods, consisting chiefly of bedding, they were able to save. Stepney Church was opened for their reception, and above a thousand people were obliged to remain all night in the fields, watching the remnants of their property. Children crying for their lost parents, and parents lamenting the fate of their children, added to the horrors of a scene not equalled during the present century

Before any financial assistance arrived in the Ratcliff area, a very different kind of flood inundated the scene. This was in the form of thousands of spectators arriving from the City to view the extensive ruins. It was reported that a great many carriages deposited men and women decanting on foot for a closer look at the scene, including a tour of the rows of tents erected for the poor. But these were not mere gawping onlookers, because evidence reveals their prime motivation was charitable feeling towards to the distressed families they came to see. Within a week the True Briton was able to report that charitable subscription from all quarters had already exceeded £4000 – a figure that rose to £15000 within a few weeks. Business was also quick to resume in the area. By November 1794 the Whitehall Post announced that the East India Company had commenced rebuilding its saltpetre works at Ratcliff, engaging 200 men in the process

The public responded quickly for victims of the fire

Historic UK has a detailed report and more images of the Ratcliff Fire together with the pleasing news that the Corporation of London, Lloyds and the East India Company also contributed almost £2,000 to the relief of the homeless.

This is one of a series of posts I will be doing in 2017 based upon the Crace Collection at the British Museum – all images used here come from that source.You may wish to know more about Frederick Crace or Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (one of his principle contributors).

For other London related posts, you might be interested in the death of a Regency Prizefighter, or see how multicultural Regency London may have been via this post on Thomas Hood . Finally, for a wider look at Regency era sketches why not join Anne Rushout on tour.

 

Principal Departures for London Coaches (1819)

Rules of the Road | Wanstead | UK Destinations | Porters, Goods & Luggage

coaching inn porter 4 1829 satire

If you are heading out of London in 1819, you ought to be aware the best coaching inn from where to begin your journey. First and foremost it is important to remember that London is served by over 120 stagecoach inns, and every one of them offers a selection of destinations. Where stabling is ample, such as the Golden Cross in Charing Cross, the widest selection of options are available. However, most inns concentrate on specific routes to the same part of the country. A good example of this is the Blue Boar Cellar at Aldgate, which heavily relies upon Essex trade. Inns cited near important industry or London markets such as Smithfield will place greater emphasis on waggons or carts with much less traffic by stagecoach. Blossoms Inn (see below) has taken advantage of the recent boom in tourism by providing  a frequent and regular service to Brighton.  Some inns are owned by the same businessmen. The Swan with 2 necks, the Spread Eagle and the White Horse all belong to William Chaplin. Chaplin is ahead of his time in regard to corporate branding because all coaches have livery relating to the specific inn from where they operate. Thus it is common to see coaches with either a two-necked swan, a white horse or an eagle emblazoned across their rear.

 

In this blog have I have listed the principal London departure points for major towns throughout Britain in the year 1819, and tried to give some background information on each inn selected.

swan with 2 necks lad lane - london coaching inn

The Swan with Two Necks, Cheapside

The Swan with Two Necks was in Lad Lane (renamed Gresham Street in 1851). Known to have existed since the 16th Century this large inn was significant from early days of organised coach travel, and was a key departure point for the mail coaches until the 1840s

Depart here for: Andover, Axminster, Basingstoke, Bath, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Camelford, Chester, Coventry, Daventry, Dartmouth, Devonport, Exeter, Falmouth, Ipswich, Leicester, Liverpool, Macclesfield, Manchester, Nottingham, Penzance, Plymouth, Preston, Reigate, Salisbury, Southampton, Stroud, Totnes, Towcester, Truro, Winchester, or Wolverhampton

golden cross charing x - London coaching inn

The Golden Cross, Charing Cross

This famous inn was a thriving transport hub back in the days when Charing Cross was a mere village between the cities of London and Westminster. Probably reaching its apogee in 1819, a combination of pressure for urban redevelopment and the onset of railways lead to a sudden death for this inn. By 1827 The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that the Golden Cross and its ‘extensive stables’ had been acquired by commissioners acting on behalf of the architect John Nash for the princely sum of £30,000 – and Trafalgar Square’s development was underway. There is a great literary connection to Charles Dickens as The Golden Cross features in Sketches by Boz, David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers

Depart here for: Ashby de la Zouch, Ashford (Kent), Birmingham, Burton-on-Trent, Chichester, Dover, Durham, Eastbourne, Harrogate, Hastings, Hull, Leeds, Litchfield, Ludlow, Maidstone, Mitcham, Nantwich, Newmarket, Potteries (Stafford), Stratford upon Avon, Tamworth, Taunton, Thetford, Worcester, Wrotham (Kent),  or York

La Belle Sauvage, Ludgate Hill, London Coaching Inn

La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill

This coaching inn has been around since Elizabethan times where it also served as a playhouse and venue for sporting events, its rear balconies serving as upper and lower circles for crowds attending. Famous lodgers include Pocahontas (1616), and it is said to be the place where the first rhinoceros brought to England was kept. This is one of several pubs and inns mentioned in Dickens novel The Pickwick Papers. La Belle Sauvage was literally swept away by the railways when it was demolished in 1873 to make way for a viaduct.

Depart here for: Anglesey, Chippenham, Colchester, Darlington, Downham (Norfolk), Ely, Fulham, Holyhead, Kew, (Kings) Lynn, Maidenhead (Berks), Norwich, Shepton Mallet, Sherborne (Dorset), Shrewsbury, St Austell, Swindon, Tiverton, Trowbridge, Walsall, Warminster, Warrington, Warwick, Wimborne, or Windsor

white horse fetter lane - London coaching inn

The White Horse, Fetter Lane

The yard of this inn provided stabling for over 70 horses, and there were ample lodgings for both long and short-term visitors to the capital. It was demolished and rebuilt to a smaller scale in 1899, as the stables were no longer needed for the hotel guests, most of whom now travelled by rail.

Depart here for: Aberdeen, Aldborough, Arundel, Barnet,Barton Mills, Bishop Auckland, Blackburn, Bradford, Bury, Canterbury, Cromer, Croydon, Darlington, Dartford, Douglas (Isle of Man), Edinburgh, Gosport, Halifax, Hartlepool, Holmes Chapel, Hounslow, Huddersfield, Inverness, Kidderminster, Kilmarnock, Kirby Lonsdale, Kirkaldy, Knutsford, Lancaster, Leek, Milford Haven, Newark, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Newport Pagnall, Nuneaton, Peterhead, Pontefract, Rugby, Stockton on Tees, Selkirk, Sheerness, Sheffield, Stevenage, Stockport, Stockton upon Tees, Sunderland, Swansea, Ware (Herts), Wetherby, Wisbech, OR Worksop

 

Saracens Head Aldgate 1855 - London coaching inn

The Saracen’s Head, Snow Hill

The Saracen’s Head Hotel, Snow Hill (Holborn) is described in Chapter Four of Charles Dickens Nicholas Nickleby

Near to the jail, and by consequence near to Smithfield…and on that particular part of Snow Hill where omnibus horses going eastwards seriously think of falling down on purpose, and where horses in hackney cabriolets going westwards not unfrequently fall by accident, is the coach-yard of the Saracen’s Head inn, its portal guarded by two Saracens’ heads and shoulders…frowning upon you from either side of the gateway, and the inn itself, garnished with another Saracen’s Head, frowns upon you from the top of the yard

Knocked down to make way for the Holborn Viaduct in 1868 this ancient inn was once frequented by Samuel Pepys

Depart here for: Arbroath, Barnsley, Braintree, Burnley, Chelmsford, Cheshunt, Colne, Egham, Falkirk, Fishguard, Forfar,Greenwich, Grimsby, Hertford, Huntingdon, Kendall, Malmsbury, Marlborough, Minehead, Montrose, Newbury, Oldham, Padstow, Paisley, Perth, Poole, Reading, Sidmouth, Stirling, Thirsk, Ulverstone (Lancs), Upminster, Wakefield, Welwyn, Wentworth (Yorks), Weymouth, Whitehaven, OR Wigan

Bull and Mouth St Matrins le Grand 1830 - London coaching inn

The Bull & Mouth, St Martins Le Grand

This inn was situated near Smithfield Market was originally named ‘Boulogne Mouth’ in reference to a siege laid upon this French port by Henry VIII. It was burned down in the Great Fire of London and rebuilt as a thriving coaching inn until 1831, when it was replaced by The Queen’s Hotel. On his excellent London rambles blog Mark Rowland has written an intriguing post about the mystery of the Bull & Mouth

Depart here for: Bangor, Cardiff, Carlisle, Carnavon, Chesterfield, Dublin, Dudley, Dunstable, Glasgow, Fakenham, Henley, Knaresborough, Leighton Buzzard, Melton Mowbray, Northampton, Pembroke, Ripon, Rotherham, Scarborough, Skipton, St Albans, Stamford, Stourbridge, Stow on the Wold, Stranraer, Sutton Coldfield, Tipton, Wells (Norfolk), Woburn, OR Wrexham

Inner yard Blossoms Inn, Lawrence Lane Cheapside 1850 London coaching inn

Blossoms Inn, Cheapside

A corruption of the somewhat bawdy ‘Bosoms Inn’ this coaching inn dates back to the 14th century. In 1331 it was the venue for a jousting tournament that lasted three days. Pickfords Travel Company based their London headquarters here in 1720.

In 1822 The New Monthly Magazine published a popular ode to the coach journey from Bloossoms Inn to Brighton
blossoms inn poetry - London coaching inn

Depart here for: Brighton, Folkstone, Ramsgate, OR Sittingbourne,

spread eagle gracechurch st - London coaching inn

The Spread Eagle, Gracechurch Street

This pub is recorded as a very important commuter hub for counting-house (banking) employees in the 1760s with a service 4 times daily to Camberwell. By 1819 it was still a very important meeting place and venue for commercial activities. One such businessman who used the Spread Eagle for deliveries was Thomas Twining the tea merchant.

Depart here for: Bromley (Kent), Epsom, Gravesend, Harwich, Lewisham, Lincoln, Lowestoft, Peterborough, Rochester, Sleaford, Stilton, Stoke (Suffolk), Streatham, Tooting, Woodbridge (Suffolk), OR Yarmouth

Bell Inn Holborn 1853 rear view - London coaching inn

The Bell and Crown, Holborn

This Holborn pub was largely concerned with routes from London into Hampshire, with Southampton and Winchester fairly important goods destinations.It was a very important masonic meeting place – Well past its best by 1819 – constrained by size and competition from a myriad of inns in and around Holborn

Depart here for: Aylesbury, Banbury, Berkhamstead, Edgware, Edmonton, Hampstead, Harrow on on the Hill, Hemel Hempstead, Leatherhead, Lewes, Rickmansworth, Stokenchurch, Teignmouth (Devon), Tottenham, Walthamstow, Watford, OR Wendover

blue boar aldgate - London coaching inn

The Blue Boar Cellar, Aldgate

If Eastenders had a coaching inn, this would be it. The bulk of all coach travel into Essex originated at the Blue Boar Cellar. But in the 1750s it was more renowned as a departure point for young men heading on a Grand Tour of Europe – Stagecoaches ran to the port of Harwich which was the favoured port for those travelling to the Low Countries or Germany. By 1819 and the restoration of peace with France, Dover and Folkestone had gained the ascendancy for cross-channel trips.

Depart here for: Barking, Bishops Stortford, Brentwood, Chigwell, Dagenham, East Ham, Epping, Grays, Harlow. Hornchurch, Ilford, Plaistow, Rayleigh, Romford ,Southend-on-Sea, Stanstead, Stratford (Essex), OR Waltham Abbey

The Bolt and Tun Fleet St 1859 - London coaching inn

The Bolt in Tun, Fleet Street

The Bolt in Tun is recorded as open as long ago as 1443, and it survived right up until 1853. The coming of the railways put paid to the vast majority of coaching inns by 1850, so the demise of the Bolt in Tun was not surprising. Bolt-in-Tun is Regency period slang for a man who has absconded from lodgings, or escaped from jail. The pub itself had a reputation for riotous celebrations and drunkenness amongst its clientele, so perhaps it was popular with wild youth of the Georgian era. Book your journey from here by all means, but don’t hang around after dark!

Depart here for: Aberystwyth, Battle (Hastings), Cheltenham, Cowes (Isle of Wight), Esher, Eton, Froom, Gloucester, Guildford, Havant, Hereford, Margate, Monmouth, Oxford, Petworth, Portsmouth, Sevenoaks, Shepperton, Tewkesbury, Tunbridge, Twickenham, Walton on Thames, OR Wells (Somerset),

For a very comprehensive guide to London’s lost pubs and inns look no further than Pubs History

If you like Georgian London, then try Death of a Regency Prizefighter or a brief history of Royal Ascot – or you can find out just how multicultural our great city was 200 years ago

In the final part of my blog series on transport from 1819 I will describe the role of the inn porter: what was expected of him, and what recourse disgruntled travellers have when things don’t go according to plan. I will also give you some guidance on transporting goods – what you can take and how much it is likely to cost. Finally we can consider some of the many wharfs and docks serving London and providing an equally important and reliable transportation system