> Martin Carthy > Songs > Ratcliffe Highway

Ratcliffe Highway

[ Roud 598 ; Ballad Index Doe114 ; Wiltshire 785 ; trad.]

Jim Baldry of Woodbridge, Suffolk, sang Ratcliffe Highway for the BBC in 1953. This track was included on the anthology Sailormen and Servingmaids (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 6; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1970).

Frank Purslow sang Ratcliffe Highway on a recording made by Peter Kennedy at Cecil Sharp House. It was released in 1960 on the HMV anthology A Jug of Punch.

Steve Gardham sang Ratcliffe Highway in 1969 at the Folk Union One club at the Blue Bell in Hull. This recording appeared in the same year on the privately issued album Blue Bell Folk.

Jimmy ‘Holy Jim’ Knights sang Ratcliffe Highway to Keith Summers at home in Little Glenham, Suffolk, on 3 April 1975. This recording was included in 1978 on the Topic anthology Sing, Say and Play and in 2006 on the Veteran anthology of traditional folk songs, music hall songs, and tunes from Suffolk, Good Hearted Fellows. Mike Yates commented:

Ratcliffe Highway, in Stepney, was one of the most notorious thoroughfares of early 19th century London. It was an area of sailors' lodgings (and of the young, and not so young, ladies who preyed on the sailors' earnings) and today is lost beneath more modern buildings. According to the Victorian writer Henry Mayhew it was, “a reservoir of dirt, drunkenness and drabs”. At least three London printers—Pitts, Catnach and Edwards—issued broadsides of the song prior to 1830, under the title Rolling Down Wapping. Several English Edwardian collectors noted the song and Jimmy Knights had his version from Charlie ‘Didles’ Baldry, an uncle of Jim Baldry who recorded the song for the BBC in 1953.

Roy Harris sang Ratcliffe Highway accompanied by John Bowden, concertina; Jez Lowe, cittern; and Martin Carthy, guitar, on the Fellside anthology A Selection from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. The record's sleeve notes said:

From Mrs Howard, Kings' Lynn, Norfolk; noted in 1905 by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Mrs Howard's text is supplemented from an unpublished version collected in Sussex in 1954 (communicated by R. Copper) and from a broadside by Catnach.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Ratcliffe Highway, Stepney, was the toughest thoroughfare in the East End of London. It was a place of sailors' lodging houses, sailors' pubs, sailors' ladies. This song may have been made for performances in ships fo'c'sles or it may have been made to impress the patrons of the Eastern Music Hall. In any case it now has some of the ring of tradition.

Gavin Davenport sang Ratcliffe Highway in 2010 on his Hallamshire Traditions CD Brief Lives.

Danny Spooner sang Ratcliffe Highway on his 2014 CD Sailor's Consolation. He noted:

In the nineteenth century Ratcliffe Highway was one of the toughest and [most] dangerous streets in East London. Running along the Lower and Upper Pool it was a place where sailor Jack could find all the excitement he required. Dives, dens, pimps and whores were ready to supply his needs and help him forget his last trip. Then, when his money was all gone, crimps (shanghai merchants) could always find him a ship and get him to sea again.

Kate Locksley sang Ratcliffe Highway in 2016 on Night Fall's EP Night Fall. They noted on their website:

Ratcliffe Highway (Roud 598) was both printed on broadsides and collected from several source singers, and details an area of London famous for its sailors and their drinking and debauchery which is sadly no longer there. It is one of very few songs Kate learned from her Dad. If you look up Ratcliffe Highway on the internet, you'll also find an unsolved Victorian murder story, which provided the basis for the first episode of the ITV crime drama ‘Whitechapel’. We've put it together with The Baltimore Beginners, a fantastic tune written by Mike McGoldrick.


Roy Harris sings Ratcliffe Highway

As I was a-walking down London,
From Wapping to Ratcliffe Highway,
I chanced to pop into a gin-shop,
To spend a long night and a day.

A young doxy came rolling up to me,
And asked if I'd money to sport.
For a bottle of wine changed a guinea,
And she quickly replied: “That's the sort.”

When the bottle was put on the table,
There was glasses for everyone.
When I asked for the change of my guinea,
She tipped me the verse of her song.

This lady flew into a passion,
And she placed both her hands on her hip,
Saying: “Sailor, don't you know our fashion?
Do you think you're on board of your ship?”

“If this is your fashion to rob me,
Such a fashion I'll never abide.
So launch out the change of my guinea,
Or else I'll give you a broadside.”

A gold watch hung over the mantel,
So the change of my guinea I take,
And it's down the old stairs I run nimbly,
Saying: “Darn my old boots, I'm well paid.”

The night being dark in my favour,
To the river I quickly did creep,
And I jumped in a boat bound for Deptford,
And I got safe on board of my ship.

So come all of you bold young sailors,
That ramble down Ratcliffe Highway,
If you chance to pop into a gin-shop,
Beware, lads, how long you do stay.

For the songs and the liquors invite you,
And your heart will be all in a rage;
If you give them a guinea for a bottle,
You can go to the devil for change.


The words are from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, eds Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd, Penguin, 1959. Roy Harris' variations transcribed by Reinhard Zierke. Thanks to Garry Gillard.