Reference NumberL/RAT
TitleRecords of the Hamlet of Ratcliff
DescriptionRemoval orders and electoral records
Extent45 items
AdminHistoryOrigins and extent
In the nineteenth century Ratcliff was one of the four hamlets - the others being Mile End Old Town, Poplar and Blackwall until 1820, and Mile End New Town - which formed the large mother parish of Stepney, some six square miles in extent. (The distinguishing feature of any hamlet was, strictly speaking, the lack of a church in which parishioners could worship, although St Dunstan's Church itself was situated in Ratcliff.)

In the seventeenth century Stepney had been even larger, but the process of sub-dividing the parish, a practical response to relentless population growth in the area, had begun in 1711. Ratcliff, however, remained an administrative part of Stepney until the 1850s; at that time Ratcliff was some 113 acres in extent, with a population of 15,212 (1851 census).

Before 1855 the parish vestry had met to discharge the business of both ecclesiastical and secular local government. Parish vestries were committees of prominent householders and church officials. The name came from the way meetings took place in the church vestry or sacristy; this is the room where the priest prepares for a service and where vestments and articles of worship are stored.

Being a part of the parish of Stepney until the 1850s, the Hamlet of Ratcliff was thus governed by the Stepney Vestry. The administrative arrangements had some elective and representative elements of government: of the 50 vestrymen elected in the mid-1650s, for example, 20 were from Ratcliff. However, the administrative structure of the Stepney Vestry was far from stable; it changed a number of times during the seventeenth century because of political events, and Vestry meetings at this time were also irregular.

The two main secular functions of the parish of Stepney (and which obviously impacted on life in Ratcliff) were:
(i) the care of the poor and the administration of parochial charities.
(ii) the maintenance of roads and bridges.

There was also some management of petty law and order.

Of the 54 parochial officers recorded for the parish of Stepney in the middle of the eighteenth century, a total of 15 served the Hamlet of Ratcliff:
- Churchwardens: 1
- Overseers of the Poor: 2
- Constables/Headboroughs: 6
- Surveyors: 2
- Beadles: 1
- Watchmen: 3

Most of these officers ultimately derived their historical origins and authority from a variety of sources: the Churchwardens had always been elected by the parishioners; the Overseers were appointed by the County Justices of the Peace; the Constables and Headboroughs were originally manorial officers appointed by the Court Leet; the Surveyors were appointed by the JPs from a list submitted by the parish. The Parish Clerk, the Beadle and probably the Watchmen were the only officials who derived their authority solely from the vestry. As time went on these arcane distinctions of origin, jurisdiction and responsibility became increasingly blurred.

At this time, the key officials in Ratcliff responsible for 'local authority' functions were:

1. Overseer of the Poor: an unpaid office created in 1572. Officials were initially responsible for supervising endowments and charitable funds. Following the 1601 Poor Law Act, the churchwardens of the parish together with two or more substantial local landowners were to act as Overseers. Their role was to collect the poor rate and supervise the relief of the poor, including managing workhouses and arranging the apprenticeship of poor orphans. The 1662 Law of Settlement Act empowered Overseers to remove 'strangers' from the parish. Sometimes referred to as 'aliens' these were people who did not have rights to settle, because, for example, they were born outside the parish. Overseers were chosen at Vestry meetings to administer the Poor Law for the ensuing year. Under the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, Boards of Guardians replaced the Overseers and administration of poor relief left the parish's powers.

2. Surveyor of the Highways: an unpaid position created in 1555. The parish Surveyor's role was to inspect roads and bridges three times a year and to organise repairs. The Surveyor could also raise rates.
- The Surveyors and Overseers kept accounts and were answerable to the Justices of the Peace. A new system was introduced in 1835, whereby
JPs appointed paid surveyors to groups of parishes.

3. Constable: although the office was manorial in origin, vestries gradually acquired responsibilities for appointing constables. The position was filled by rotation and was unpaid. Constables' roles included dealing with petty issues of law and order, the collection of rates and taxes, maintenance of the forms of punishment (stocks and pillories - a wooden framework with holes for the head and hands, in which offenders were formerly imprisoned and exposed to public abuse), inspection of taverns, supervision of jury service, apprehending escaped prisoners and convening parish meetings.

The early form of local government outlined above was a fusion of ecclesiastical and civil functions. It evolved to meet the needs of the inhabitants as they arose. A generalised system of local government, separate to ecclesiastical concerns, slowly took shape during the course of the nineteenth century. The first concerted attempt to rationalise administration came in the form of the 1855 Metropolis Management Act. While retaining the ancient parish unit as a basis for government, this Act provided for the election of a new type of vestry by the ratepayers of each parish. In the less densely populated parishes of London such as Ratcliff, these vestries - technically known as 'Schedule B Vestries' from that part of the 1855 Act in which they were listed - were invested with no authority apart from the power to elect representatives to a District Board. It was this District Board which was endowed with municipal powers under the 1855 Act. Limehouse District Board of Works - which included Ratcliff - was one of the 12 newly created District Boards (along with 22 vestries) across central London to govern and manage certain defined aspects of local affairs. Ratcliff elected 12 members to the Board.

In time, the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney was created under the terms of the 1899 London Government Act. The Act replaced the old system of governance, and across London, 28 new borough councils were created. The new Metropolitan Borough of Stepney absorbed the Limehouse District Board of Works.

Key developments and dates
15 August 1710: Ratcliff Charity School instituted in White Horse Street

1720: opening of the first Charity schoolhouse; it remained standing until 1853

1778-1809: the population in Ratcliff declines slightly, as shown by the rateable values:
- 1778: £11,292
- 1789: £8,930
- 1798: £9.268
- 1809: £10,554

23 July 1794: fire destroys much of Ratcliffe

1810: Commercial Road opened

1811: the infamous Ratcliff Highway murders

1820: Limehouse Basin opens

1800-1860s: rapid development and population growth occurs; Irish immigration occurs on a significant scale

1870: Dr Barnardo's establishes its headquarters on Stepney Causeway

- Steven Friar, The Local History Companion (Stroud: Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2001)
- David Hey (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Family and Local History (Oxford: OUP, 2010)
- Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, The History of East London (London: Macmillan, 1939)
- Daniel Lysons, The Environs of London, Vol. 3 (London, 1795)
- Albert Bassett Hopkins, The Boroughs of the Metropolis (London: Bemrose and Sons, 1900)
- Rev. J. V. Pixell, A Short History of the Hamlet of Ratcliff School (London: Stepney Press, 1910)
- William A. Robson, The Government and Misgovernment of London (London: Allen and Unwin, 1939)
- Frederick Whelen, London Government (London: Grant Richards, 1898)
RelatedMaterialInformation relating to Ratcliff can be found among the parochial place of worship parish records for Stepney held by the London Metropolitan Archives (collection reference P93/DUN). These records cover some 400 years, and include parish registers recording baptisms, marriages and burials, vestry minutes, tithe books, financial records and papers of charities.

Further information about Ratcliff can also be found in the records of the Limehouse District Board of Works held by Tower Hamlets Local History and Archives (ref: L/LBW).

Other relevant printed material such as reports, maps and plans are in the Local History Library. For maps and plans of the parish boundaries in the Local History Library search reference code 'LCM' [add * to search across these formats].
SubjectElectoral registers
Access StatusOpen
RequestNO - This does not represent a physical document. Please click on the reference number and view list of records to find material available to order at file or item level.
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