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.
View of the Tower of London
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.
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.
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,
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