Ratcliff, also known as Ratcliffe, was first recorded, as la Rede clive, in 1294. It takes its name from the Old English “read”, meaning red, and “clif”, meaning cliff, in reference to the colour of the soil on the bank of the Thames here. The river-front became built up and industrialised as long ago as the fourteenth century, when ships were built or fitted out here. Ratcliff was then connected to the City by the “Highway”, much travelled by Pepys, and probably originally a Roman road. The highway was the scene of a series of shocking murders in 1811, and went on in Victorian times to acquire a reputation as “the head-quarters of unbridled vice and drunken violence – of all that is dirty, disorderly and debased”!
The sometime privateer and merchant-adventurer Martin Frobisher (1535?-94) set sail on board the Gabriel from Ratcliff in 1576 on the second of his three ultimately unsuccessful voyages in search of the North-West Passage to China, returning from Canada with a cargo of what turned out to be worthless “fool’s gold”. The site is marked by a “London County Council” plaque of 1922 in King Edward Memorial Park (beside the building housing one of the shafts servicing the Rotherhithe Tunnel).
Frobisher went on to become a naval commander, and was knighted for his service in seeing off the Spanish Armada in 1588.
He died of wounds sustained in another naval action against the Spanish in 1594. His organs were buried in the church of St Andrew in Plymouth, and the rest of his body in the church of St Giles Cripplegate in London, where there is a memorial to him.
A portrait of him, commissioned by the Cathay Company, and painted by the Dutch artist Cornelis Ketel, which normally hangs in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, was included in the “Elizabeth I & Her People” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (10th October 2013 – 5th January 2014). The superbly illustrated exhibition catalogue of the same title by Tarnya Cooper can be purchased both from the National Portrait Gallery and other good bookshops, including Waterstones.