Ian launched our summer term of visits and guided walks with a fascinating walk through the old riverside districts of Ratcliffe and Shadwell, exploring the area around two parallel east-west roads, The Highway with its thundering traffic and the much quieter Cable Street.
Our first stop was outside the Royal Foundation of Saint Katharine, a religious house founded by Queen Matilda in 1147, whose royal origins saved it from dissolution by Henry VIII. As some of us discovered, its café in a yurt in the grounds serves rather good coffee. We then passed artists’ studios in a former sweet factory, two charming rows of Victorian cottages and two late 18th century warehouses converted into flats – an early indication of the very mixed past and present economy of the area.
We then walked through the first public park in Stepney, opened in 1922 close to Ratcliffe Cross where several 16th century explorers set sail in search of the North West Passage. This brought us to Shadwell Basin, the easternmost and best surviving part of the former London Docks, and Shadwell’s parish church, St Paul’s.
A little further west, we heard the gruesome story of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, which shook London in December 1811. A seaman was convicted posthumously of the seven very violent killings, but the evidence was flimsy and the truth has never been established. Walking on through the welcome greenery of the recently created Wapping Wood, we then admired the house where wealthy local brewer Henry Raine set up a free school for poor children in 1719.
We speculated on the prospects for the Grade I listed warehouse at Tobacco Dock. When the docks closed, it was turned into a top-end shopping centre, but this was one of the slowest areas in Docklands to regenerate and the shops failed. Twenty years later it is being marketed as a business and events venue, but uptake seems slow.
Back on The Highway, we came to the site of Jamrach’s Animal Emporium, set up in the 1840s to import exotic animals for onward sale to zoos and menageries. We heard the high Victorian tale of the tiger which escaped and captured a small boy. Thanks to the quick-witted bravery of Jamrach and his staff, the story had a happy ending.
We continued to St George’s in the East, a Hawksmoor church rebuilt within its shell after bombing in the Blitz. We were divided on the success of the new design. On the side of St George’s Town Hall, we admired the large mural which commemorates the 1936 Battle of Cable Street, when local people turned out in numbers to prevent a Fascist march from passing along the street.
In Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, we saw houses and shops surviving much as they were in the early 19th century. By contrast, we then passed through the area where two fashionable squares were built in the 17th century: Prince’s Square, completely obliterated in the 1960s; and Wellclose Square, where the layout remains but the original buildings have all been lost.
Our last two stops provided contrast. At the first we admired a survivor of the 1960s purge which destroyed the nearby squares: Wilton’s Music Hall, created out of a row of four houses in the 1840s and 1850s and functioning as a theatre today, though with a long period in between as a Methodist meeting hall, followed by decades of uncertainty and gradual restoration. The final stop was the site of a short-lived disaster, the Royal Brunswick Theatre, built in 1828 and demolished after collapsing three weeks later. The subsequent 1830 building, originally a seamen’s home, largely survives, alongside the 1890s home of the Mercantile Marine Office, which regulated the employment of seamen – a fitting reminder at the end of our walk of the maritime origins of the area.
Our many thanks to Ian for all his research and planning, and for a very enjoyable and informative guided walk.