Ratcliffe Highway – The Folk Songs, The Sailors and the Death of it All

As I was a-walking  down London

From Wapping to Ratcliffe Highway

I chanced for to go into an alehouse

To spend a long night and a day

 – Ratcliffe Highway, as performed by  The Dubliners

There are two traditional songs that I know of that refer specifically to Ratcliffe Highway, both are called ‘Ratcliffe Highway’ but both are different stories about sailors waltzing on down the way for women and for  drink. The one quoted above is an Irish folk song where a young sailor pays a guinea for a bottle of wine but the hostess refuses to give him his change so, to return her greed, he steals a gold watch that hangs on the mantle and runs back to his ship.

The second one is a sea shanty which is related to another sea song ‘Blow the Man Down’ and is full of sailing-related euphemisms to describe the meeting and fun between a sailor and a woman of The Highway:

I tipped her my flipper and I took her in tow

And yardarm to yardarm away we did go

She took me up to her own private room

And there all the evening we drank and we spooned

It goes without saying though, and I didn’t need to do the walk to find it, but the crime filled den of sin that can be looked back on so romantically is dead; even the name has been changed to The Highway. It’s gone, all of it except from two churches – People are singing about other places, other struggles and highs and thefts and killings and fucks, that’s what Rap and Grime is I guess, where it came from, as the Blues did: the poor singing about being poor or about wishing to be rich or finding riches.

It doesn’t mean to say that the walk was fruitless though. Firstly, as Jaime Sabartes says of Picasso’s paintings: “It is a life in itself which detaches itself from life, the expressing of what is not seen…” thus, the buildings that were around the highway, the dockyards for instance, are in the real life of the present as well as in the real life of the past and, although both are separated by time, they unify in the expressing of change; they’re representations of their own change as well as the nation’s.

The Free Trade Wharf that I passed (above) shows this. The inscription on the arch says it was built in 1796. A website for the wharf recalls that the buildings were warehouses: “originally used by the East India Company to house saltpetre”. Now, like the rest of the docklands there, the Free Trade Wharf has undergone: “Luxury riverside residential development” and its flats cost £776,000 , or £2,700 a month if rented.

After some research, I found that this project and hundreds like it on The Highway and in the Docklands in general  began in 1981 when the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was established and closed in 1998.  Since the 1960s, the Docklands had been suffering from Containerisation, with goods coming via containers unloaded by ferries to larger ports away from the Docklands. Also, air cargo in Heathrow was becoming greatly significant. These factors along with manufacturing taking place more outside London to cut costs meant the Docklands were in rapid decline: first economically, with wharfs closing by the score, then, inevitably, people started to leave. The LDDC was the first real attempt at mass construction in the London Docklands since it was bombed out in the Second World War. These pictures below show the state it was in at the time – The Highway on the very left of the Wapping aerial photo.

According to one case study, the population of the Docklands had risen from 40,000 in 1981 to 85,000 in 2000 and the number of jobs from 27,000 to 90,000 in the same space of time. This is in the Docklands area as a whole which is highlighted below.


Now that’s good, it looks good, and I can’t say that I feel equipped enough to take a strong stand against it: I tried to look through recent government records on employment etc in Wapping but I can’t get a real sense of change or complete picture of employment for that area alone – in most reports it’s often merged with Tower Hamlets – so I’ll just say what I saw on the walk on The Highway.

It looks good, it’s mostly the old buildings converted – but into what?  Residential yes, but massively expensive residential buildings.  There were also more conventional housing but they surely must have been there before the LDDC – I’m telling you, it couldn’t have been the result of investment.  What low cost housing was there? This was one:IMG_6636.JPG

And just down the road, all the old harbour buildings and packing houses were converted into luxury flats:


The LDDC had land ownership and planning powers. It worked with private business (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) and sold areas and gave planning permission to companies, most notably, the Canary Wharf area. It isn’t bad to work with business, but it must be checked that it actually is wholesome to the area; that it is not only developed, but accessible and for the greater good of the locality.


Above, the Tobacco Dock – Its real-life in the past would have been a real bustling and producing and moving place – it was doing something, people were there producing or moving things. Now, in the real-life of the present:IMG_6653.JPG

A car park, also a venue and events space. It’s a service. That’s it. The whole Highway is a place of service: Cornershops, McDonalds, Petrol Station, and an expensive place to live. Where is stuff made? Another part of London? Another county? Another country?

The Highway was formerly the notorious Ratcliffe Highway, a rough crime-ridden slum area. (Not to worry though, it has since changed.) – The Free Trade Wharf housing website

That may be true; it’s been ‘rejuvenated’, it’s lived in by wealthier city professionals, but the: “rough crime-ridden slum area” of Ratcliffe Highway will just have been moved to a different place with a different name, the sailors have new professions and the songs have new words, that’s all.







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