England’s overseas trade was mostly with the near-Continent during the Middle Ages but, starting from the 16th century, English merchants and sea-farers began to seek markets further afield. Some of the earliest voyages of discovery were made by captains, crew, and ships from the east-of-London riverside hamlets. In 1553 Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chandler set off from Ratcliff in three ships in search of a north-east passage to the Orient. Although failing in their mission, trade was nevertheless initiated with Russia. The distinguished mariner Sir William Borough, a Master of Trinity House and second-in-command to Sir Francis Drake, was a resident of Limehouse and was buried at St.Dunstan’s church. Martin Frobisher departed from Ratcliff in 1576 in search of a north-west passage. On the eastern side of the Isle of Dogs was Blackwall, where the River Lea flows into the Thames, providing a sheltered anchorage for ships. In 1606 three ships set sail from there for Virginia, establishing Jamestown as the first English colony in North America and many links were established between East London and the American colonies. The Hudson’s Bay Company received a royal charter in 1670 to begin trading in furs in what is now the eastern part of Canada. An early deputy-governor was Captain Samuel Jones of Stepney and thereafter the Company had strong links with Ratcliff and Shadwell.
In 1600 Queen Elizabeth granted a group of London merchants a charter to establish trade with the Far East as the East India Company. Seven years later the Company established a shipyard close to the royal dockyards at Deptford. As business rapidly increased they needed to expand and decided to acquire space on the north bank at Blackwall where land was still cheap and plentiful due to its isolation. The yard, with all the necessary services for building, repairing, docking and victualing ships was created over two years from 1614. East India Company ships thereafter loaded and unloaded at Blackwall, with goods transported by lighter to and from the Company’s secure warehouses in the City. Workers needed accommodation so construction of local housing began in 1620 around Blackwall and the nearby hamlet of Poplar. Within a few years the Blackwall yard was the largest employer in the London area. Workers had a long distance to travel to St.Dunstan’s parish church at Stepney and petitioned the Company to provide a chapel. Delayed by the Civil War, it was finally completed in Poplar High Street in the 1650s and later consecrated as St Matthias church, with many associated with the Company buried there. The East India Company sold the shipyard in 1653 to Henry Johnson and it continued to prosper as an independent venture after his death, by then managed by his sons Henry and William.
The riverside communities were connected by a country lane, which in the time of Elizabethan historian John Stow developed into the road known as Ratcliff Highway, north of which lay open countryside. “Of late years shipwrights and, for the most part, other marine men, have built many large and strong houses for themselves, and smaller for sailors, from thence also to Poplar, and so to Blackwall” Stow recalled.
At the start of the 17th century riverside Shadwell was primarily pastureland. A dock was established on the riverside in that period, perhaps initially dealing in timber but certainly later occupied by shipwrights. In 1664 the property businessman and courtier Thomas Neale, famous for creating the district of Seven Dials at Covent Garden, married a wealthy widow and thereby acquired the lease on much of Shadwell. The village was developed, with housing, a church, market place, ropeworks, breweries, sugar refineries and support business for mariners. Numerous taverns supported the growing population. At the end of the century Shadwell was almost fully-developed with four docks, thirty-two wharves, and a population of ten thousand.
Along the Ratcliff Highway, from St Katharine’s, through the communities of Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse, Poplar and Blackwall, residences and workshops were created by shipwrights, timber merchants, and others involved in work on the river. Numerous carpenters and blacksmiths set up shop in the villages. Craftsmen and tradesmen provided vessels on the river and the Admiralty with much of their supplies, everything from ropes, guns, masts, sails and anchors to ships’ victuals. There were stevedores and lumpers who loaded and unloaded cargoes, ship-owners, sea captains, pilots, colliers, coopers, ballastmen, lightermen and watermen, nautical-instrument makers, women who took in sailors’ washing and the men who went on board to catch the rats. Ninety percent of the community of Shadwell, Ratcliff and Limehouse during the 17th century was employed in maritime trades. Some residents became relatively wealthy and larger houses were built along Wapping High Street. Directors and senior staff of the East India Company and Hudson’s Bay Company built large houses in the area, notably around Stepney Green and Poplar.