‘A low music-hall in Ratcliffe Highway’

Carruthers has become so bored by London that, some time before September 23, he takes a nocturnal trip to an awful place:

A passing thirst, which I dare say many have shared, for adventures of the fascinating kind described in the New Arabian Nights led me on a few evenings into some shady haunts in Soho and farther eastward; but was finally quenched one sultry Saturday night after an hour’s immersion in the reeking atmosphere of a low music-hall in Ratcliffe Highway, where I sat next a portly female who suffered from the heat, and at frequent intervals refreshed herself and an infant from a bottle of tepid stout.

I fixated on the words ‘Ratcliffe Highway’ when I reread the novel, as this place seems to follow me around. I wrote my first novel, The English Monster, about the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, mainly because I was fascinated with the reputation of this ribbon of street which we now call ‘the Highway’, as if by removing the word Ratcliffe we could rid it of its fearsome reputation. Ratcliffe itself is still there, but it’s an almost forgotten neighbourhood between Shadwell and Limehouse, so much that the best way I can describe its location to you is to put it ‘at the north end of the Rotherhithe Tunnel.’

ratcliffe_highwayIn 1903, the street had recently been named ‘St George’s Street East’ in an earlier attempt to change its dirty reputation. But the fact that Childers calls it ‘Ratcliffe Highway’, not ‘the Ratcliffe Highway’, shows the futility of this effort. The name had become synonymous with the neighbourhood, not the street, and the neighbourhood was not a pleasant one. Here’s Donald Shaw describing his memory of it in the 1860s, though he wrote this in 1908:

The Ratcliff Highway, now St. George’s Street East, alongside the Docks, was a place where crime stalked unmolested, and to thread its deadly length was a foolhardy act that might quail the stoutest heart.

Every square yard was occupied by motley groups; drunken sailors of every nationality in long sea-boots, and deadly knives at every girdle; drunken women with bloated faces, caressing their unsavoury admirers, and here and there constables in pairs by way of moral effect, but powerless – as they well know – if outrage and free fights commenced in real earnest. Behind these outworks of lawlessness were dens of infamy beyond the power of description – sing-song caves and dancing-booths, wine bars and opium dens, where all day and all night Chinamen might be seen in every degree of insensibility from the noxious fumes.

The fact that Carruthers visits this place (after some shady nocturnes in Soho) shows, I think, the extent of his boredom. It’s almost a descent into Hell, and it will be for Davies to offer him a path back up to redemption.

As to which music hall Carruthers visits, it’s almost impossible to say, as there were so very many of them in the neighbourhood of the Highway at this time. Most were pubs with a separate music hall licence; these places would open a room at the back and call it a ‘music hall’, and they came and they went every few years. There were a few Variety Theatres – big, standalone places for music hall entertainment – the most notable of which, to us, is probably Wilton’s, which still stands on Wellclose Square. There is an extraordinary list of all these London theatres at arthurlloyd.co.uk, which is well worth a browse.

So, where did Carruthers go? Well, there are so many possibilities that I have chosen to be fanciful. One of those pubs with a music hall licence was The Jolly Sailor, which was at 182 St George’s Street but is no longer there. In fact, according to pubhistory.com, the last licensee for the Jolly Sailor was listed in 1901 – more grist to the mill for Tim’s theory that the action of Riddle of the Sands takes place in 1898, not 1903, the year in which it was written.

So, why the Jolly Sailor? First, it had a music hall licence about this time. Second, it is actually on Ratcliffe Highway; all the other candidates are in the surrounding streets. Third, and most fancifully, it was upstairs at the Jolly Sailor that the coroner’s inquest into the Ratcliffe Highway murders was held in 1811.

And those are the kind of circular links we cannot resist.


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