Downriver of London the hamlets directly on the north bank were quite isolated from the City and surrounding districts until at least the 16th century. They were most easily reached by boat and evolved into communities employed in maritime industries, looking outwards to the river.
During Roman times there was a settlement in what is now Wapping that included a bath-house, in existence between the 2nd and 4th centuries. Much of the area was submerged at high tides but a gravel bank that ran parallel with the Thames, known as the Linches until the 12th century, allowed for a pathway, which in later centuries would become Ratcliff Highway. During the Anglo-Saxon period a church was established dedicated to St.Dunstan at what was then known as Stibenhede. The village of Stepney, as it later became known, gradually grew in all directions around it, including down to the riverside hamlet of Ratcliff where Stepney’s port developed, with cottages inhabited by fisherman and ferrymen. Ratcliff was first mentioned in documents in around 1000 and in the 14th century was referred to as Redclyf. Its gravel shoreline was one of the few suitable landing places below London Bridge. From there, slightly higher ground allowed for White Horse Lane to lead to St.Dunstan’s and onward to Stepney Green where it met Mile End Road, the old route from London to Essex.
Most of the nearby area had been marshy until the Middle Ages. It was held by the bishops of London until the 16th century and in the reign of Edward II their bondmen converted much of Stepney Marsh – the Isle of Dogs – to meadow, with the alluvial deposits making it a rich pastureland. There were serious floods at various times, the most significant in March 1660. Three days after it occurred Samuel Pepys was passing by boat and recorded: “…in our way we saw the great breach which the late high water had made, to the loss of many 1000l [£1000] to the people about Limehouse”.
The process of draining the marshes to the west of Ratcliff was undertaken in the early 16th century when Cornelius Vanderdelft, a Dutchman with specialist knowledge in land drainage, was commissioned to oversee the task. A wall of built-up ground as high as eight or nine feet above the level of the land was created, eventually extending all the way along the riverside as far as the River Lea, with drainage ditches dug across the low ground. Cottages and workshops developed along the water’s edge, creating the hamlet of Wapping-in-the-Wose (‘in the marsh’), with each householder responsible for maintaining the wall. The buildings were constructed in precarious and rickety fashion overhanging the wall, interrupted by numerous stairs down to the river. The wall formed the streets of Wapping High Street and Wapping Wall, as well as Foxes Lanes (now Glamis Road), creating a link between London to the west and the hamlets of Shadwell and Ratcliff to the east. Similarly, causeways higher than the surrounding fields were created with buildings along them. Thus, Wapping evolved as a river-facing community, otherwise isolated by its surrounding marsh.
London, located on a broad and deep river, ideally located for both internal and overseas trade, grew into one of England’s major ports during the Middle Ages. Goods arriving or leaving primarily passed through wharves located along the City’s riverside between London Bridge and the Tower. During the time of Elizabeth I new regulations made landing at the City wharves to be mandatory for customs purposes. Her father, Henry VIII, had created new naval dockyards further downriver on the south bank at Woolwich and Deptford. Located between the naval dockyards to the east and the City to the west, the riverside hamlets on both banks grew into communities that serviced the maritime trade. Shipbuilding was taking place at Ratcliff at least as early as the early 17th century.
During the Middle Ages Deptford Strand, opposite the Isle of Dogs on the south bank of the Thames, developed as a fishing village. It was very close to the royal palace of Greenwich and therefore not surprising that Henry VIII chose to develop a naval dockyard there. The village thus became a centre of shipbuilding and repairing and home to marine craftsmen and mariners. A group of master-mariners were concerned with safety on the river and its estuary and in 1513 petitioned the king to form a standard of pilotage. Thus, the organisation that became known as Trinity House was founded, which is still deeply involved in maritime safety around Britain.