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Turbulent Times in London’s East End

In the mid-afternoon around 3 pm on 23rd July 1794, something happened that resulted in the biggest fire to take place in London between the Great Fire of 1666 and the World War II Blitz of 1940. Fires were not unusual in the industrial buildings and warehouses in East London’s riverside districts. But the incident on that July Wednesday has gone down in history for the devastation it caused in a comparatively short time.

In those days, pitch (also called tar) was in common usage as a joint sealant wherever there were wooden-hull ships in a process called caulking. Besides sealing joints, pitch was used for waterproofing buckets, barrels and small boats[1].

Several things happened in quick succession. First, an unattended pitch kettle boiled over at the Clovers Barge Builders Yard, Cock Hill, not far from Cable Street (see later).

The Yard was set on fire, but as the Thames was at low tide at the time, there was insufficient water to douse the flames. The final factor was that a nearby barge carried saltpetre, a highly flammable substance used to make gunpowder and matches. The barge exploded violently, scattering burning fragments in all directions. Fires spread ferociously and quickly to the north and the east, consuming timber yards, rope yards and sugar warehouses.

Narrow streets and the low tide hampered fire fighting, and within a few hours, the fire had destroyed 453 houses and 20 warehouses – the damage to just one sugar warehouse alone was estimated to cost £40,000 (equivalent to £5,480,000 today)[2]. The fire left 1,400 people homeless and displaced. The government erected tents as a temporary shelter near St. Dunstan’s Church, whilst the Corporation of London, Lloyds and the East India Company contributed almost £2,000 to the relief of the homeless – a paucity that wouldn’t have gone very far being less than £300,000 in today’s money.

Originally, Ratcliffe was known as Red Cliff because of the small red sandstone cliff that stuck out above the surrounding marshes. Only one building survived the Ratcliffe Fire of 1794 – No. 2 Butcher’s Row, which today is a must-go-to tourist attraction.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Ratcliffe area developed an unsavoury reputation with its waterfront made up of lodging houses, pubs, brothels, music halls and opium dens. Although the slums returned, by the late 19th century, the area was cleaned up and populated with people involved in maritime activities. The area of old Ratcliffe was gradually subsumed into Limehouse.[3]

However bad the Ratcliffe Fire of 1794 may seem, it was minute compared with the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed most of the medieval City of London, sweeping away over 13000 houses, numerous wharves and businesses, three city gates, the entire Royal Exchange building 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 forward 51 new churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren[4].

The Regency Blog, inspired by the life and times of William-Pole-Tylney-Long-Wellesley (1788-1857), records[5]:

‘The Ratcliffe Fire is not commonly known and may have escaped attention perhaps because its victims were poor (and maybe regarded as irrelevant) or were tradespeople (and probably insured), but hopefully, because the aftermath of the fire was dealt with so quickly and humanely. Ratcliffe, 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.’

Throughout history, London has been all but destroyed by fire on more than a dozen different occasions—usually accidentally, but sometimes deliberately. As William Fitzstephen, a 12th century cleric and writer, once put it, ‘the only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires.’

Other Fires in London
A few arsonists hell-bent on burning London to ashes are identified in an interesting article posted online at Mental Floss[6]:

  • Boudicea Gets Her Revenge: Circa 60 AD: After the death of her husband Prasutagus in the mid-1st century AD, lands that should rightfully have passed to the ancient British queen Boudicea and her daughters were instead claimed by the invading Roman Empire. Enraged, Boudicea sacked the Roman city at Colchester and marched her army on towards London—or rather, to the newly founded Roman settlement of Londinium—and burned it to the ground.
  • The Hadrianic Fire C.122 AD: After Boadicea’s rampage, Londinium was speedily rebuilt and flourished for the next 60 years—until, according to archaeological evidence, it burned to the ground a second time sometime after the Roman Emperor Hadrian visited Britain in the early 120s. Precisely what caused this second destruction of the city remains a mystery, and debate continues whether it was an accident or not.
  • Anglo-Saxon England 1087 AD: According to Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography, devastating fires broke out in London in 675 CE—when the first wooden cathedral dedicated to St. Paul was destroyed—and in 764, 798, 852, 893, 961, 982, 1077, and 1087, when “the greater part of the city” was destroyed. According to records, St. Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed again in 961 and a third time in the 1087 fire.
  • The Pentecost Fire Circa 1135 AD: On Pentecost—Sunday, 26th May 1135 (or thereabouts), another devastating fire broke out close to London Bridge, possibly, according to some reports, in the home of the Sheriff of London, Gilbert Becket (father of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket). One chronicler said that St. Paul’s was destroyed in this fire, but most historians say that it survived. Much of the rest of the city fared less well: The fire all but destroyed the original wooden-frame London Bridge, as well as homes and properties across a 1.5-mile stretch of land along the banks of the Thames.
  • The Great Fire Of Southwark 1212 AD: On 10th July 1212, a fire broke out in the borough of Southwark on the southern end of London Bridge. The bridge itself had only recently been rebuilt—but this time, the bridge had been built from stone, and its main structure withstood the flames. The wooden shops and houses that King John had permitted to be built along the length of the bridge, however, fared less well. As many as 3000 people are said to have perished. Before 1666, this was the worst fire London had yet faced.

The Battle of Cable Street
It is interesting to note that Cable Street became famous in October 1936 when a violent confrontation between the Metropolitan Police and local communities took place, later named the ‘Battle of Cable Street’. Everybody with a grievance seemed to be there: communists, anarchists, labour, and Jewish groups joined with locals to resist a planned march through the East End by Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. The East End has traditionally been an area of London with a large Jewish population. It is estimated that around 100,000 Jews from Eastern Europe had fled to the East End in the 33-years up to 1914.

In the ‘Battle’, a bus was overturned and used as a barricade, Mosley’s car was attacked with bricks, and Britain’s capital witnessed some of the most violent hand-to-hand fighting ever seen in London. The march was eventually abandoned.

Picture Credit:Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford” by Cassowary Colorizations is marked with CC BY 2.0.

Sources, Excerpts and Further Reading
  1. When Henry VIII’s favourite ship, The Mary Rose, was raised in October 1982, she was found to be carrying a caulking mallet and tar pot. A piece of petrified tar was also found on board.
  2. Source:
  3. Ibid
  4. Source and narrative from:
  5. Ibid
  6. At:

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