Category Archives: River Thames

Maritime Ratcliff – and Martin Frobisher

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”!

Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

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.

Frobisher went on to become a naval commander, and was knighted for his service in seeing off the Spanish Armada in 1588. 

Close-up of Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

Close-up of Frobisher plaque, Ratcliff

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.

Frobisher memorial, St Giles Cripplegate

Frobisher memorial, St Giles Cripplegate

Frobisher portrait

Frobisher portrait. Note the Baggy Trousers – called Venetians. Image © The National Portrait Gallery

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.

Maritime Blackwall, the Virginia Settlers and the East India Company

Blackwall was first recorded in 1377.   It takes its name from the Old English “blaec”, meaning black, and “wall”, in reference to an artificial embankment put up here to hold back the waters of the Thames.

Virginia Settlers memorial, Virginia Quay

Virginia Settlers memorial, Virginia Quay

The Virginia Settlers

The Citizen and Cordwainer Captain John Smith  (1580-1631) set sail aboard the Susan Constant from Blackwall in 1606 to establish the first English colony in the Americas, at Jamestown in Virginia,  “from which began the overseas expansion of the English-speaking peoples”.

There is a memorial  to the  Virginia Settlers on Virginia Quay in Blackwall, and a plaque to Captain Christopher Newport, who commanded the Susan Constant, Godspeed and Discovery,  on Limehouse Causeway in nearby Limehouse, where he was born in 1560/1.

 Inscription on Virginia Settlers memorial

Inscription on Virginia Settlers memorial

Newport plaque, Limehouse Causeway

Newport plaque, Limehouse Causeway

John Smith is commemorated by a statue in the churchyard of St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside in the City of London, and by a stained glass window in the church of St Sepulchre on Newgate Street, where he was buried in 1633.  Incidentally, the Algonquin Princess Pocahontas, who famously saved Smith’s life in the Americas, later visited London, staying at the Bell Savage on Ludgate Hill, and died at Gravesend on her way home.

Smith statue, St Mary-le-Bow

Smith statue, St Mary-le-Bow

Smith window, St Sepulchre

Smith window, St Sepulchre

The East India Company

The East India Company established a shipyard and  docks in Blackwall in 1614.  The  docks came to be owned by the East India Dock Company, which considerably extended them in the nineteenth century; and in turn by the Port of London Authority, in the twentieth.  They  have been disused for nearly fifty years now, although some interesting structures still survive.

The (nineteenth-century) East India Dock

The (nineteenth-century) East India Dock

The entrance to the - nineteenth-century - pepper warehouse in East India Dock.  Note the caduceus, or winged staff with winding serpents (symbolising trade and medicine)

The entrance to the – nineteenth-century – pepper warehouse in East India Dock. Note the caduceus, or winged staff with winding serpents (symbolising trade and medicine)