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Knockfergus: An Irish District in Seventeenth-Century London
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Knockfergus was a nickname given to an area of housing near the Tower of London, just by Cable Street. It was named after a place in Ireland because of the large number of Irish people living there. In the early seventeenth century eighty families lived in Knockfergus. We know a lot about them because of sessions or court records kept at London Metropolitan Archives. This is your chance to meet the Irish community in Knockfergus.

Author: Gillian Spraggs

Faithorne and Newcourt's map of London, showing the Knockfergus area east of the Tower of London, 1658.

Elma's TIP!
See what life was like in the past...
Click on the pictures to see more about Knockfergus and the people who lived and worked there.

'There is at the end of a new built lane called Hog Lane, towards the fields leading to Ratcliffe , a cluster of base tenements termed Knockfergus, peopled with Irish of very base sort, who live only by begging.'

- Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower of London , in a letter to
Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, 7 October 1605

Ratcliffe was a village in Stepney, on the east side of the City of London . The poor Irish immigrants who lived in the buildings Londoners nicknamed Knockfergus were the near neighbours of rich Sir William Waad in the Tower.

Tower of London, c1650.
View of the Tower of London

Slum housing

These people lived in tenements: housing designed for more than one family to live in. This was nearly always badly built, put up quickly and cheaply by landlords who rented it out one room at a time to the very poor. When Sir William calls these tenements 'base', he means that they are slums.

The Front Attic.
A crowded living space

When he describes the people who live in them as 'of very base sort' he is saying that they are people of the worst sort: very poor people, problem people.

For Sir William, the worthlessness of these people is summed up in their poverty. He says: 'Of 80 households lately erected the dwellers in them and all the stuff in their houses is not worth 40'.

All beggars and thieves

He has already called these people beggars. Now he calls them thieves: 'mere rogues ... that live by stealth, pilfering and shifting'. 'Pilfering' is stealing. In seventeenth-century England , 'shifting' meant getting up to things that were felt to be fairly dodgy, like cheating or conning people.

View of London, c 1800.

Was this true?

Is Sir William Waad being fair in what he says about the people of Knockfergus? Can we check what he says against any other source of information? As it happens, we can.

The parish of Stepney was part of the County of Middlesex. Among the records in London Metropolitan Archives are the Middlesex Sessions Records, a huge collection of early legal records. These records contain many references to Knockfergus.

Let's meet some of the people who lived in Knockfergus. We can use the Sessions Records to find out

  • what they did for a living
  • which of them found themselves in trouble with the law, and why
  • who was friends with who
  • who was always quarrelling with their neighbours

The Chronicles of Knockfergus

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