Thomas Railton in White Horse Street, Ratcliff

A farthing token issued in the name of the Thomas Railton of White Horse Street, Ratcliff in the parish of Stepney

A farthing token issued in the name of the Thomas Railton of White Horse Street, Ratcliff in the parish of Stepney

The above copper farthing token measures 15.3 mm and weighs 0.77 grams. It was issued by Thomas Railton, a baker living in the village of Ratcliff in the parish of Stepney, Middlesex.

The design of the token may be formally described as follows;

Obverse: (mullet) THOMAS. RAILTON. BAKER , around a twisted wire circle, within is the depiction of a wheatsheaf.

Reverse: (mullet) IN. WHITHORS. STREETE, around the depiction of a pair of un-laden pan scales. Either side of the scale’s upper suspension hoop the token issuer’s initials T and R.

The token is undated but on stylistic and historical record grounds is likely to date from the period 1650s or early 1660s. As the token does not carry the usual triad of initials, representing the names of the married couple who issued the token it may be evidence that at the time of this farthing’s issue Thomas Railton was a bachelor.  

White Horse Street, Ratcliff in the parish of Stepney (c.1720)

White Horse Street, Ratcliff in the parish of Stepney (c.1720)

Thomas Railton lived and worked in premises on White Horse Street, a road of ancient origins which ran from Ratcliff to the parish church of St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney. Today the course of this street is represented by White Horse Road and the eastern end of Cable Street. During the mid-17th century the area to the east of the Tower of London was still relatively lightly populated and semirural. It contained a scattering of villages which collectively were to become the borough of Tower Hamlets.

By the early 17th century Ratcliff was one of the largest communities in the parish of Stepney. It had a population of approximately 3,500 inhabitants. Being located on the north bank of the River Thames It had long been associated with ship building, fitting and provisioning and was home to many mariners.

Little is known about Thomas Railton, the issuer of the above token, other than his stated profession as a baker. At least one of the emblems on his token, i.e. a pair of scales and a wheat sheaf, may have been a representation of sign under which he traded. Both of these devices were associated with the baking trade and appeared on the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Bakers of the City of London. 

St. Dunstans and All Saints parish church, Stepney (1755)

St. Dunstan and All Saints parish church, Stepney (1755)

A search of local parish registers has identified the following entries, all of which are from St. Dunstan and All Saints Church (Stepney), which may be of relevance to the token issuer.

1601/02 February – Marriage between Thomas Railton and Judith Linford, both of Poplar

It is probable that the later entry is for that of the token issuer’s parents.

1615, 14th April 1615 – Baptism of Thomas son of Thomas Railton a labourer of Poplar

1641, 8th August – Thomas Railton of Stepney, Mariner and Rose Ward, maid, the daughter of Henry Ward of Lamborne in the County of Essex, yeoman married by Lysence from the Office of Faculties

It is possible that the last entry refers to the token issuer prior to him becoming a baker. While there may be some uncertainty about this particular reference there doesn’t appear to be any with respect to the following entry from the same set of parish registers.

1663, 7th May – Marriage of Thomas Raileton of Ratcliff, baker and Susanna Fredd

No further reference can be found relating to Thomas Railton after this date. Even a review of the Hearth Tax returns for White Horse Street, Stepney for 1666 has failed to identify anyone by the name of Railton. 

It is possible that Thomas either fled the area never to return or perished without record during the devastating outbreak of plague which struck London in 1665.

While outside the city the parish of Stepney was hit hard by the plague both during the outbreaks of both 1625/6 and 1665/6. The large churchyard of St. Dunstan’s owes its size (approximately 7 acres) to extensions brought about as a means of accommodating the increased number of burials resulting from these epidemics.  

Comparative maps showing the growth of the parish burial ground of St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney between c.1615 (right) and c.1720 (left) due to the excessive burial demands brought about by sucessive outbreaks of Plague in 1625 and 1665

Comparative maps showing the growth of the parish burial ground of St. Dunstan and All Saints, Stepney between c.1615 (right) and c.1720 (left) due to the excessive burial demands brought about by successive outbreaks of Plague in 1625 and 1665

The vestry minutes from around these periods refer frequently to the extensions to the grave yard and instructions given to the sexton as to burials not to be within a certain distance of the church. In 1625/6 over 3,960 burials took place and a southern extension was added to the ancient churchyard.  The over powering smell of putrefaction from many of the shallower graves in the old overcrowded section of the churchyard was so bad that additional earth and gravel had to be brought in to raise the ground level. So great was the number of burials that by license granted by the Bishop on 24th January 1625/6, the Parish Clerk was empowered to bury parishioners, because there was more work than the Curate could cope with on his own.  

A contemporary wood cut illustrating the mass burial of London plague victims in 1665. Such scenes were almost certainly played out in the parish church yard in Stepney.

A contemporary wood cut illustrating the mass burial of London plague victims in 1665. Such scenes were almost certainly played out in the parish church yard in Stepney.

During the outbreak of plague of 1665/6 a further 6,500 victims were buried in the churchyard. At this time the population of the parish was largely comprised of sailors. The plague so devastated the area time that the Lord Chancellor of the time (Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon) later recorded the following in his memoirs (1).

Plague in Stepney

References:

1)      Hyde, E. – The Life of Edward Earl of Clarendon, Lord High Chancellor of England. Oxford. 1760.

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