Ratcliffe Highway: the unreadable road

Ratcliffe Highway: the unreadable road

Ratcliffe Highway: the unreadable road

By Dr Nadia Valman, Reader in English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London

Dr Nadia Valman tells us about the hedonistic history of Ratcliffe Highway, an east London road with a complex and murderous past. For Being Human, Dr Valman led a walk through the area, a version of which is recorded in the podcast below as an audio-walk, complete with Victorian texts and original sound composition, available for download. The project was funded by the British Academy.

The Highway, E1, is surely one of London’s bleakest streets. It’s wide, windswept and opaque, sometimes overshadowed by battered hoardings, sometimes opening vertiginously onto whole blocks of rubble-strewn dereliction. It’s not the obvious place for a guided walk, not least because the unceasing growl of traffic heading east to the Limehouse Link Tunnel makes hearing the guide difficult. I’ve led many walks in the East End, in streets replete with fragments of a rich cultural history, but The Highway is the unloveliest and most unreadable. So my task, in designing a walk for it, was to conjure with the aid of literary texts a past that is now all but invisible. In the nineteenth century, this street, then known as Ratcliffe Highway, was one of the most notorious streets in London. If you’ve heard of Ratcliffe Highway today it’s probably because of the famous murders that happened here in 1811. Much more fascinating, though, are the many accounts of the street by journalists, social investigators, clergymen and novelists. Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew and Arthur Morrison, among others, tell of the sailors, dockworkers, publicans and prostitutes who populated this area bordering the massive London Docks complex. For Victorians, Ratcliffe was a place of unique fascination, a carnival of brutality and hedonism. Yet behind the words of these writers lie the stories of lives rendered precarious by the shifting fortunes of London’s maritime economy.