If you wanted to visit somewhere in London on a very cold January morning, a bright day, but with ice having formed overnight on standing water, the last place you may think of is the Thames foreshore, however, on such a day, I went to one of my favourite places on the river – Horn Stairs and Cuckold’s Point:
Horn Stairs and Cuckold’s Point are in Rotherhithe, opposite Limehouse and the north-eastern part of the Isle of Dogs, on the inside of a bend in the river where it curves past Rotherhithe.
I have marked the location with the red arrow in the following map (© OpenStreetMap contributors):
Cuckold’s Point is the area of the river / foreshore slightly to left and right of the arrow head in the above map, and where, when the tide is low, there is a broad beach of sand and mud running down to the water.
I was walking from the west, and there were some stunning views across the river, and as I reached the stairs, the outline of the causeway running from Horn Stairs could be seen, with a pole towards the end of the causeway:
The steps over the river wall that lead to Horn Stairs:
From the top of these steps, we get a view of the remains of the causeway leading off across the foreshore from the foot of the stairs:
The upper part of the stairs, where they run over the river wall, are off concrete, with the main part leading down to the foreshore being a set of wooden stairs:
The upper part of the stairs look rather dodgy. From the top of the stairs it is difficult to tell how thick each of the steps is, and whether it will hold your weight if you walk down the stairs.
In the following photo of the top steps, you can see from the bolts on either side of each step, just how much appears to have eroded, or perhaps the wood has shrunk, also on the day I was at the stairs, there was ice in the hollows in each of the steps:
At the bottom of the stairs, we can see the remains of the causeway leading out towards the water:
The Port of London Authority (PLA) has very little information on the stairs in their listing of all the Steps, Stairs and Landing Places on the Tidal Thames (published around 1995), there is just a remark that the stairs are in “Reasonable” condition and that they were still in use.
The PLA does not record any early dates for when Horn Stairs were in use, and there are not that many references to the stairs, with Cuckold’s Point being the name used for any reference to the location.
In Rocque’s map of 1746, the stairs are not shown, but Cuckold’s Point is marked:
The earliest written reference I have found was in a newspaper article on the 25th of October, 1832 when the name Horn’s Stairs were used in a legal action against the owners of the Eclipse, a steam packet which ran between London and Margate, and was accused of running down a barge off Horn’s Stairs.
The name of the stairs did often appear as Horn’s or Horns rather than the singular Horn, and one of the possible sources of the name could be a Horns Tavern which was to be found near the stairs – although an unresolved question is what came first, the tavern or the stairs.
The name Horn is used in the majority of references from the late 19th century onwards, as shown in the following extract from the 1896 revision of the OS map, where Horn Stairs can be seen bottom left (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland“):
In the above map, the causeway leading out from the stairs is labelled “Hard”, and would have provided a hard surface above the sand and mud of the foreshore, to walk to and from a boat at nearly all states of the tide.
Also in the above map a dotted line leading across the river to Limehouse Pier can be seen, and labelled as Limehouse Hole Ferry. This was a regular ferry that had run for a good few centuries between the two sides of the river. I wrote about the ferry in my post on Limehouse Hole Stairs and the Breach.
The fact that Horn Stairs does not appear in the 1746 map, and I can find no written references to the stairs earlier than 1832 does not mean that the stairs and a causeway have not been here for much longer.
The City of London Archaeological Society has a fascinating post on surveying stairs, which included a section on Horn Stairs, and in the post, 16th or 17th century hand made bricks were identified which may have formed an early hard standing on the foreshore.
Although I could not find the bricks exactly as shown in the photo in the City of London Archaeological Society’s post, (the foreshore is a constantly changing environment), I did find a number of this type of red brick, which can be seen in the photo below, to the right side of the causeway:
At the end of the causeway, and at the point just before where the Thames will recede to at low tide, is a pole labelled as a navigation marker on the PLA chart for this section of the river. The marker has a light at the top of the pole to ensure the marker can be seen in the dark:
At the end of the causeway:
Looking back to the river wall and the stairs down to the foreshore, which is a distance of some 50 metres, and the dark colouring along the river wall shows how high the water is when the tide comes in along Cuckold’s Point:
The naming of Cuckold’s Point is interesting, and the true source of the name cannot really be confirmed given the centuries that the name has been in use.
The word Cuckold means, according to the online Cambridge Dictionary “If a man is cuckolded, his wife has a sexual relationship with another man”, and the most repeated story about the use of the word Cuckold for the foreshore in Rotherhithe goes back to King John, who was on the throne between 1199 and 1216.
There are a number of variations to the story, but it generally goes that King John was hunting around Shooters Hill, Blackheath and Greenwich. He seems to have found himself in Charlton, and entered the house of a Miller, where he found the Miller’s wife alone.
The Miller soon returned home, but found his wife “in flagrante” with the King.
The Miller attacked the King intending to kill him, and to defend himself the King revealed who he was, and came to an agreement with the Miller that he could have all the land to the west that he could see from his house, which extended all the way to what is now Cuckold’s Point, where, at the time, there was a pole with a pair of horns mounted on the top.
The Miller, in some stories, also had to walk to Cuckold’s Point once a year, with horns on his head.
So the name Cuckold’s Point came from the position that the Miller had been put in by King John.
The King also gave the Miller the right to have a fair on the 18th of October, and this fair became known as the Horn Fair and was held in Charlton.
An early view of Cuckold’s Point can be seen in a painting by Samuel Scott in his work “A Morning View of Cuckold’s Point“, painted between 1750 and 1760:
The challenge with confirming that this is Cuckold’s Point is that there are no features which can be found today, however there is a set of wooden stairs leading down to the foreshore, and the slope and shape of the foreshore is very similar to that of today.
The painting does though give a very good impression of what Cuckold’s Point probably did look like. There are two Waterman’s boats where the water meets the foreshore, and there is a third approaching the same point.
There are people on the foreshore walking down to the boats from the stairs, presumably either to meet the people arriving on the boats, or to take one of the boats along the river.
The ships on the foreshore are in the location of Mr. Taylor’s Yard, as shown in Rocque’s 1746 map.
The river appears to bend to the right, which indeed it does, as it heads along the eastern side of Rotherhithe towards Deptford.
The painting does provide some support to an alternative theory as to the name Cuckold’s Point. Just to the left of the stairs can be seen a wooden frame, and this is believed to show a ducking, or cucking stool, which was use to punish and humiliate women, who were labelled as a scold, or had committed some form of sexual offence, such as cheating on a husband.
As was usual, there was no similar punishment or humiliation for the man involved.
As the site of a cucking stool, where the wife of a cuckold would have been punished, this may also be the source of the name, however this story does not seem to have gained much support over the years.
The broad sweep of the foreshore at Cuckold’s Point, looking west along the river in the direction of the City of London:
Standing at Cuckold’s Point on a cold January morning is a lonely experience. There is no one else around, and the river is also very quiet, with just the regular Thames Clippers causing a run of waves up to the foreshore.
These places were once busy, both along the rivers edge, the foreshore, and along the river, and it is fascinating to stand at these places, thinking of all the people that have stood in the same place, and the events that have taken place here.
I searched newspaper records for reports mentioning Cuckold’s Point for three decades in the first half of the 18th century, the 1720s, 30s and 40s and there are many references. The following is a sample of what went on around Cuckold’s Point in these years:
- 17th June 1721 – On Thursday last in the Afternoon Mr. Bailey, a Coasting officer, and Mr. Purser, a Custom-House waterman, made a seizure in the River near Cuckold’s Point of 1900 Weight of Tea, artfully wrought up in the sides of a Mackerel Boat filled with Fish, and supposed to come of Ostend.
- 11th of May 1726 – The Execution of Capt. Jeane, condemned at the late Sessions of Admiralty for the Murder of his Cabin Boy, is appointed for next Friday, he will be hanged in Chains over against Cuckold’s Point.
- 6th of October 1736 – On Monday last a Fisherman caught in his Common Net, near Cuckold’s Point, a Salmon 38 inches long and about 17 inches round, and sold the same to Capt. Bond, who was in sight when the fish was caught, and was going on board the East-India Man at Gravesend. The Fisherman being unable to hold his net, begged assistance of a man in the Captain’s Boat, who accordingly went; but as he was helping he fell accidentally into the Thames, from whence it being low water, he took the Fish in his Arms and threw it into the boat. The Fish was sold for 36 shillings out of which the Fisherman gave the Waterman 6 shillings for his Trouble.
- 23rd April 1737 – On Tuesday last, the Wind being very high, and the Tide rough, two boats, overladen with Passengers, were cast away between Cuckold’s Point and Deptford, and 17 persons drowned. Two other boats, near the same place, with 16 persons in them, and another at the Isle of Dogs, with six and a Waterman, overset, and seven of the former and all the layer were drowned,
- 23rd October 1742 – Yesterday a new ship, of 220 Tons and 20 Guns, intended for the West India Trade, was launched at Mr. Taylor’s Dock at Cuckold’s Point, and named the Anna Maria (see earlier extract from Rocque’s map of 1746 for location of Taylor’s Dock)
- 10th December 1743 – Last Tuesday upwards of 1000 Pairs of French Gloves with some Skins, were brought to the custom House. They were seized by Mess. Smith and Harris, Customhouse officers, as they were attempting to land them at Cuckold’s Point.
- 4th February 1744 – On Tuesday 200lb of Cocoa Nuts, 200 Weight of Tea and 20 Pieces of Cambrick, with some Lace, were seized at Cuckold’s Point, and brought to the Custom House; This seizure is valued at £300. (Cambric is a finely woven, plain cloth that came from France)
- 7th of March 1747 – Tuesday in the Afternoon as a Boat was going to Greenwich with six Passengers, it was overset near Cuckold’s Point by running foul of a Ships Anchor, by which accident Mrs. Sims and her Daughter, of St. Catherine’s Lane, were unfortunately drowned.
- 27th of March 1749 – On Monday last thirteen prisoners were tried at Kingston in Surrey, three of whom were capitally convicted, viz. John Rayner, for Robbery on the Highway, Thomas Pattin and William Walker, two Watermen, for knocking down Mr. Alison, in a Boat on the River Thames, near Cuckold’s Point, and robbing him of a Silver Coffee Pot, a Watch, and a Guinea and Half in Money.
These quiet places along the Thames were once full of life, and also unfortunately, death.
Looking along Cuckold’s Point to the east and there is a pier that reaches out over the foreshore. This is where you can catch the Thames Clipper RB4 service that runs between this pier at the Doubletree Docklands Hotel, across the river to the pier at Canary Wharf – a brilliant way of crossing the river.
A rather good example of historical continuity in London, the Thames Clipper RB4 service has almost exactly the same route as the old Limehouse Hole ferry that ran from Horn Stairs.
Some of the long length of the causeway still has a layer of stones that would have provided the hard surface to walk down to catch your boat:
I visited Horn Stairs and Cuckold’s Point in January, and this was probably the left over of some New Year’s Eve celebrations:
Returning to the story of the Miller and King John, one of the rights allegedly granted to the Miller was the right to hold a fair in Charlton.
Whatever the truth in the story of the Miller and King, a fair was held each year, on St. Luke’s Day, the 18th of October, and the following article from The Sun on the 20th of October, 1846 hints at the antiquity of the fair, and also provides a good overview of the event.
There is also a reference to Cuckold’s Point towards the end of the article, which I have highlighted in bold:
“HORN FAIR – This scene of popular amusement was held yesterday, according to ancient custom, in the healthful and pleasant village of Charlton.
In former times it was generally distinguished by riot and obscenity. Some of the worst class in London made parties to carry out the vulgar joke of cornuted husbands and wives (cornuted means to bear or have horns).
Horn Fair (the common name) is now changed to Charlton Fair, and the visitors, more enlightened that their ancestors, seldom indulge in those disorderly transactions which bore the stigma of indecency. It was formerly a mart for various forms of utensils made of horn, and tradition ascribes the origin to King John. An armour carried out by that licentious and infamous Prince with the wife of an honest miller was the foundation for the fair. John, surprised by the enraged husband, would have perished under the uplifted dirk of the miller, had he not saved his life by promising to redress the injury. The compensation was a grant of land the miller could see westward from the top of his mill. Agreeable to the royal donation, a fair was to be held annually, on St.-Luke’s-day, for ever.
Such is the oral account of the fair from year to year, and there is, we believe, at the present day, an aquatic custom at Cuckold’s-point, where it is said the mill stood, which bears out the story. The waterman, as he passes the stairs, or landing place, frequently tells his fare that a spider is crawling on his hat. The person naturally takes it off his head, and then Old Charon, with a laugh, requests he will put it on again, having properly paid his respects to the Horns at Cuckold’s Point.”
Note in the above article that the mill is described as being at Cuckold’s Point, however the majority of references refer to the location being in Charlton, and that Cuckold’s Point, where horns were mounted on a pole, was the place furthest west that the Miller could see from his place in Charlton.
The article also mentions that Horn Fair was held on St. Luke’s Day. The connection with St. Luke comes from ecclesiastical art, where St. Luke is often painted with an Ox, an example being this early 18th century print which shows St. Luke seated at a desk, with a winged ox with horns, behind him.
There are very many references to Horn Fare, including some which describe events such as the following from 1742:
“Monday being St. Luke’s Day, a large Body of Cuckolds, both real and reputed, attended the King, the Miller, and his Wife, from the Sun Yard in Bishopsgate-street, to Horn Fair, held at Charlton in Kent, according to annual Custom.”.
In the 18th century, the Press Gang took advantage of Horn Fair, as this report from the 27th of October, 1746 explains:
“Last Saturday Night a large Press Gang, with Horns on, and Music playing before them, came through Greenwich, Deptford and Rotherhithe, &c. from Horn Fair, which drew a great many Sailors out of their Retreats to see the Procession, several of whom were pressed for his Majesty’s Service, and sent directly on board the Tenders in the River.”
The stairs today look almost like archaeological remains, washed from under layers of mud and sand by a strong tide, a bit like Seahenge, discovered in Norfolk in 1998. I checked on the Historic England directory, and the stairs are not listed, and it is unclear who, if anyone, is responsible for these features. Sadly, they will probably continue to erode away. A great loss for future generations.
Temporary structures were erected for Horn Fair, and we can get a glimpse of these from reports about the fair, including one from 1819 where there was an unexpected heavy snow fall, which caused much damage to the fair, including temporary structures for “The Freemasons Tavern” and “The Crown and Anchor”, which had apparently been “fitted up with great splendor , and the proprietor had omitted to take down his lamps and lustres” – which along with bottles, crockery, furniture etc. were all badly damaged by the snow.
The Horn Fair was abolished in 1872. By then Charlton had ceased to be the “healthful and pleasant village of Charlton“, and was being rapidly developed.
Horn Fair did not fit in with the Victorian narrative of improvement, and riotous assemblies such as fairs, were seen as a threat to those living nearby, to law and order, and to the social structures of the time.
In the Morning Advertiser on the 27th of February, 1872, in between lists of the prices of coal, hops, potatoes, the cattle market, and an article listing the days of the arrivals of the mail from Australia, New Zealand, the Falkland Islands, Mexico, Egypt (all symbols of a new Victorian London), there was a brief article reporting on the official abolition of the Horn Fair at Charlton and the Blackheath Fair, both of which had “survived all other suburban pleasure fairs”.
Chalk on the foreshore at Cuckold’s Point, left over from a time when chalk was used to build a flat platform on which barges could be grounded:
The wooden steps of Horn Stairs. The condition of the individual steps seems to get worse with height, with those at the very top appearing to be in very poor condition. I assume this is because those at the top are much more open to the atmosphere, are washed by the river rather than being covered, and suffer more wave action.
Horn Stairs and Cuckold’s Point are wonderful places to take in the river, views across to Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs (but walk down the stairs at your own risk !!).
It is a place with a long history, shared with the history of the river, and a connection with a Miller and King in Charlton, and a historic fair held in the “pleasant village of Charlton“, which does still have a Hornfair Road near the original location of the fair
What ever the truth of the story of the Miller, his Wife and King John, it is a fascinating part of London’s long history, and tells much about life in London over the centuries.