Today’s photo from my father’s collection is one I scanned a while ago, but had not investigated until planning my guided walked between Bankside and Tower Bridge. It was taken from the foot of Pickle Herring Stairs. a name that will be familiar to readers as I have written a couple of posts about Pickle Herring Street.
The photo was taken at the bottom of Pickle Herring Stairs, looking towards Tower Bridge, with the travelling cranes that lined the foreshore on the right.
The stairs have disappeared in the considerable redevelopment of the area, and the walkway along the river and embankment have been extended into the river, so it is impossible today to be exactly sure where the stairs were located, however by lining up with features on the opposite side of the Thames, I suspect they were roughly where I took the following photo. The perspective is different as I used a wider lens compared to my father’s photo to show some of the nearby features to help with locating the stairs.
To the right is the old City Hall for the Mayor of London, now closed following the move of the Mayor’s office further east towards the Royal Docks.
The above map shows that by the end of the 19th century, the side of the river was lined by warehouses, however the cranes seen in my father’s photo had not yet arrived.
These would be installed during the early decades of the 20th century when the warehouses were expanded, and large cranes were installed to handle the quantity and range of goods that needed to be moved from river to warehouse.
They were called “travelling cranes” as they moved on rails along the platform on which they were built, so they could easily get to the cargo that needed to be moved.
By the 1952 Ordnance Survey map (just a few years after my father’s photo), the jetties had been built on the foreshore, and the travelling cranes had been installed. The following extract from the map shows the length of the jetty which supported the cranes. Pickle Herring Stairs are circled to the left, and the map confirms that my father’s photo is looking at both Tower Bridge, and the end of the jetty (‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland“).
Looking from across the river, the following photo shows where the stairs were located:
What is not clear is what came first, the name of the stairs or the name of the street, or whether they were named at the same time.
I suspect the name of the stairs came first, and this could support one of the possible sources of the name down to the landing of Pickle Herring at this point on the river. however I have no evidence to support this.
What is certain is that both stairs and street are old names.
Regular readers will know that I find these stairs fascinating. Not only the physical stairs (where they remain), but that they can tell us so much about life in the area.
I looked back at some early newspaper articles that mentioned the stairs, and found the following sample from the 18th century.
The first is a report about a fire, a very common event in the warehouses full of inflammable goods along the river:
“15th January 1740: On Thursday night about 11 o’Clock, a fire broke out at Mr. Brooks’s a Hoop bender near Pickle Herring Stairs, opposite the Tower, that raged with such violence that in three hours time above 20 dwelling houses, besides warehouses were consumed.
A young fellow, a Waterman, who had rescued his wife and child,returning to preserve some of his goods, is missing, and supposed to have perished in the flames.
Last night, Joseph Chitty, one of the Candidates for the Borough of Southwark, sent over a present of 20 Guineas to be distributed among the most necessitous of the sufferers by the said fire.”
There were so many suicides along the Thames, and one of the methods used would be to get a Waterman to row you out into the centre of the river, as this very tragic report of a woman abandoned after becoming pregnant tells:
“26th January 1748: Yesterday a young woman took a boat at Pickle Herring Stairs and desired to be ferried over; when the boat came to the middle of the river, she threw down six pence, and jumped over. The Waterman with great difficulty drew her again into the boat; on which she confessed that being far gone with Child by a Noble Lord, and being refused any assistance, had determined her to put a period to her existence.”
Papers were full of so many strange events across the City. One, where someone was tarred and feathered, also ended with what was probably some of the day to day racism which foreign seamen had to endure:
“18th October 1784: Friday the following singular occurrence took place. A seaman arriving after being discharged from a vessel lying off Pickle Herring Stairs, on account of his having rendered himself extremely obnoxious to the rest of the crew, was imprudent enough to return on board the ship, upon which he was seized by some of the men, stripped, and tarred and feathered, with as much dexterity as ever that discipline was inflicted in the Country where it was invented, and still practiced.
In this situation he walked to the Public-Office in Shadwell, followed by an immense concourse of people, and exhibited his complaint before Peter Green, the presiding magistrate, by whole order of several pounds of butter and some quarts of oil, were administered, to clear the man from the disagreeable covering.
During the above operation, proper persons were dispatched by the Magistrate in search of the delinquents and in something more than an hour they brought to the Office the Mate and five of the seamen belonging to the ship on board of which the act had been committed, against whom a charge for an assault was substantiated. The Captain bailed the Mate and four of the men, but the other, a youth about twenty, a native of Nevis, was committed to New-Prison, Clerkenwell.”
The earliest newspaper report I could find was the one from 1740, however the stairs are certainly much older. They appeared on the 1746 John Rocque map, as can be seen in the following extract:
I suspect these stairs went back to the medieval period, or even earlier. Stairs were such an important way of accessing the river, and naming stairs would have been incredibly important, as:
If you were arriving or departing on a ship, you needed to know where on the river the ship would be moored, and the nearest set of stairs to use for arrival or departure. There are plenty of newspaper references where a name of stairs are quoted for the location of a ship;
If you asked a Waterman to row you across or along the river, you would have needed to tell the Waterman the destination;
For sales of cargo or goods, a location was needed to advertise the sale. There are very many adverts over the centuries using the names of stairs to locate a sale;
For events on the river, the stairs provided a reference point, and newspapers used the stairs to refer to the many accidents, deaths, ships departing and leaving, thefts of goods, crimes against people, where press gangs were operating etc.
The unique naming of each individual stair was also important to avoid confusion, so even when stairs almost had the same name, and were in a very similar location, the name always had something to make them unique, for example Wapping Old Stairs and Wapping New Stairs on Wapping High Street.
The name on the token is that of James Acrigg. The only record I could find of him was his marriage in London in February 1675.
The very last newspaper report I found about an event at Pickle Herring Stairs was dated the 16th of August 1928, when “The body of an unknown man aged about 40 was found today floating in the Thames near Pickle Herring Stairs. It is believed the man has been in the water for several hours.”
Following the above report, the story of Pickle Herring Stairs goes silent. They would still have been in use, however this would be much reduced. Better street and underground transport removed the need for a Waterman to row you along or across the river.
Access to ships on the river was now mainly from piers or when ships were docked alongside the infrastructure on the waters edge (such as the jetty seen in my father’s photo).
They were finally lost under the redevelopment of the area between London and Tower Bridges, when the open space and riverside walkway was built and extended out into the river.
I will leave the final words in today’s post to the London Rivers Association, who were quoted in the Illustrated London News on the 1st of May 1996, which reported on their campaign that “The London Rivers Association believes that the Thames should be made better use of for both public and freight transport. ‘Getting in touch with the Thames’ is endeavouring to open up all access points to the river – steps and stairs which once had such distinctive names as Elephant Stairs, Hoy Steps or Pickle Herring Stairs. Some of the Millennium projects are very glamorous, said a spokeswoman for the association. this scheme is more modest and will benefit everyone.”
Too late for Pickle Herring Stairs – but a scheme that I would fully support.
The following photo was taken by my father in 1947, from the south bank of the River Thames, looking over to the north bank, just to the west of the Tower of London (part of which can be seen on the right hand edge of the photo).
The tall building in the centre of the photo is the former headquarters of the Port of London Authority on Trinity Square. Lower, and to the left can be seen a blackened tower. This is the remains of the church of All Hallows by the Tower after the area was very badly damaged by wartime bombing.
Hard to see, but in the very centre of the photo, along the river edge is a set of stairs. I have enlarged the section of the above photo to shows the stairs below:
This was Tower Stairs – one of the many old stairs leading from the land down to the river, described in an 18th century newspaper as “the greatest plying place in all London”.
I have written about a number of these stairs in previous posts, and I must admit to be fascinated by them. They connect two very different worlds, the land and the water, although they are an integral part of both, and for so many people they have been a point of arrival or departure.
Along with City churches, they have been in the same location for centuries. They are a fixed point where we can trace events in the history and life of everyday Londoners.
The majority of Thames Stairs are not that obvious, and people probably walk by without noticing them.
A wonderful project would be plaques alongside to restore the original name of each of these stairs, and perhaps some of the key events that happened at each stair. An initiative to try and reconnect people with the river.
Tower Stairs were an important set of stairs to the river. They were adjacent to the Tower of London and they were to the east of London Bridge, therefore if you were travelling to places along the east of the river, such as Greenwich, by using Tower Stairs you would avoid having to pass through the narrow arches of London Bridge, where the fast flow of water through a narrow gap was always a risk.
The following photo is my 2021 view of the same photo taken by my father in 1947:
Tower Pier now hides the location of the stairs in the above photo, so to find them, we need to cross the river and look for them under the entrance walkway to Tower Pier:
A wide set of stairs remain, although a considerable width of the stairs has been built on to provide support for the entrance to Tower Pier. Only a narrow section on the left of the stairs runs up to street level.
The following photo is looking at the entrance to Tower Pier. The entrance to the stairs is to the lower right of the pier entrance, at the end of the central light section of paving which runs between the two dark sections.
The entrance to Tower Stairs (unfortunately locked), showing the narrow section which leads down to the wider stairs and to the river.
There are numerous newspaper reports about events happening at these stairs.
In March 1793, it was reported that “one hundred and fifty Frenchmen, chiefly officers, who had fled from Dumourier’s army, landed at Tower Stairs from Holland. They gave the most deplorable accounts of the wants and distresses of Dumourier’s soldiery”.
In May 1750, after reviewing the First Regiment of Foot Guards in Hyde Park, the Duke of Cumberland arrived at Tower Stairs , where he took to the water “to go Pleasuring for a few days in the Caroline Yacht”.
In January 1768, the stairs were described in the words I used in the title to this post as “the greatest plying place in all London” which gives some indication of their importance. The same report stated that old houses adjoining Tower Stairs would be pulled down in the spring to make the “landing more commodious”.
Tower Stairs was also the site of the numerous small tragedies that were almost a daily occurrence on the river. In May 1739 “a young lad, about 18 years of age, servant to a Druggist in Wood Street, washing himself in the river off Tower-stairs, was taken suddenly with the Cramp, and drowned, in sight of numbers of spectators, none of whom could be quick enough to save him”.
And in October 1738, “Captain Collier, Commander of a Norwayman, landing at Tower Stairs, upon stepping on shore, his foot slipped, and he fell into the river and drowned”.
Tower Stairs are very old. Although not named, they are shown on the 19th century reprint of the mid 16th century map known as the Agas map (although the original has not survived, only later, modified copies).
The stairs are not named, but in the following extract, look to the left of the Tower of London, and a wide street runs down to the river, where there is a break in the river wall. A man appears to be driving a couple of animals into the river at the point where the stairs are located.
The stairs are shown and named Tower Stairs on Rocque’s 1746 map of London. They appear right on the edge of the page on my reprint of the map so I have not included an extract.
They are also shown on Smith’s New Plan of London, dating from 1816. I have arrowed the stairs in the following extract:
The importance of the stairs can be judged by their location, adjacent to the Tower of London, and where Great Tower Hill meets the Thames. As can be seen in the above map, there was also a small inlet to the left of the stairs, which probably provided additional mooring space for Watermen, and boats loading and unloading at the stairs.
As you have probably seen from previous posts, I use newspaper archives as one of the historical sources when researching posts.
Being newspapers, they have to be read with some care, to try and see through the way the story has been edited and added to by the journalist, however they do provide an account that was written at the time.
There are numerous references to Tower Stairs, so I decided to take a few from the 18th century to see what was happening at the stairs. I have already recorded some local events, but there were four accounts mentioning Tower Stairs that tell of a wider story of life in London in the eighteenth century, based on people who walked along Tower Stairs, so for the rest of the post, four stories about Press Gangs, the Frozen Thames, the Blackheath Chocolate House and when Cherokee Indians visited London.
The Press Gangs
The danger of being taken by a Press Gang and tricked into service in the Navy was more often a risk for those living and working in the streets to the east of the City, however those sleeping in their beds in the City were at risk, but the City of London would always protect their citizens, as this report from the12th of September 1755 records:
“Monday at the Sessions at Guildhall, Robert Alsop, a Midshipman of one of her Majesty’s men of War, was convicted, upon his own confession, of riotously entering the Dwelling-House of Mr. William Godfrey at Billingsgate, a reputable Citizen, and Livery Man of London, at the Head of a Press-Gang, on the 25th of June last, in the Night-time; and for seizing him by the collar, knocking him down, forcibly dragging him through the Streets of London to the Tower-Stairs (with only one Slipper on), carrying him on board a Tender on the River Thames, and confining him in the Hold for twelve hours, without any Warrant of lawful Authority, to the great peril of his Life; when the Court were pleased to fine him £5, and to order him to be imprisoned one Year in Newgate. This Prosecution was carried on by the Directions of the Court of Alderman, at the Expense of the City, in order to vindicate the Rights and privileges of its Citizens, and to prevent such Insolences for the future.”
The City of London was always ready to defend the “Rights and Privileges” of their citizens. I suspect a fine of £5 and one year of imprisonment was a reasonably hard sentence, which also acted as a deterrent to others.
During the 18th century, the Navy was in almost constant need of men to man the ships. The Derby Mercury on the 17th March 1743 described another event at Tower Stairs, when “They press so strong upon the River Thames for Seamen, that not a Day passes but they get a great many Hands, and last Saturday, a Waterman, belonging to Tower Stairs, who had a Protection, was pressed five different times”.
Protection was mainly issued by the Admiralty or Trinity House for specific types of employment, and the bearer had to prove their protection if they were caught by a press gang. This would normally stop a person being taken, however in times of war, even protections were abandoned and almost anyone could be taken.
The 1828 edition of City Scenes by William Darton shows a press gang in operation at Tower Hill. I assume the man at the front is pointing towards Tower Stairs where the unfortunate man is being dragged. A Royal Nay ship can be seen in the background.
Having avoided the Press Gangs, there is another danger in the Thames off Tower Stairs:
The Frozen Thames
Up until the mid 19th century, a period known as the Little Ice Age had been causing very cold winters and periods when warm summers were not always dependable. This period of colder weather began around the 14th century, but the impact on London is well documented in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
Whilst the popular image is of ice fairs held on the Thames, for those who had to work or travel on the river, ice would also present a danger. For those without the sanctuary of shelter and warmth, very low temperatures would also be a risk to life.
News reports referencing Tower Stairs show the dangers of the frozen River Thames. On the 12th January 1740, the Ipswich Journal reported: “On Tuesday Night an adventurous Waterman undertook to carry his Fare, a Woman and a Child, from Tower-stairs to Battle-Bridge, as the tide was coming in; but the Islands of Ice floating down upon them they were drove to the Bridge, where they lay in sight, perishing with the Cold, but out of reach of Relief from any of the Inhabitants of the Bridge, but at last were fortunately carried through to St Mary Overy’s Stairs, and taken up almost to Death. Tis thought neither the Woman nor Child can recover.”
The Bridge was London Bridge when it still had houses and businesses running along the bridge over the river. The relatively narrow arches for water to flow under the bridge caused a fast flow and it was a very dangerous place to get trapped.
In the same report was an indication of the amount of ice on the river “Yesterday morning at Low Water, the Thames was so covered with Ice above Bridge, that several Men walked over from Old Swan to Pepper-Alley Stairs”.
Although prints such as the one above show a scene of celebration on the frozen river, there was a very dark side as the Kentish Weekly Post reported on the 9th January 1740 where “Several dead Bodies float up and down with the Tide and Ice, but none of them can be taken up”.
The winter of early 1740 seems to have been a particularly bad winter for those on and off the river. On the 5th of January “Above 30 boats, twas judged lost between Tower-stairs and Woolwich, most of which were stav’d, but some sunk under the Ice and were not seen afterwards”.
The above paragraph referencing Tower Stairs was at the end of a longer description of the January weather in London: “On Saturday Night, by the Violence of the Wind, several boats were drove from their Fastenings above Bridge near Shore and stav’d to Pieces by the large Flakes of Ice that were brought down by the Tide. The same day in the morning, a Hoy laden with Malt was sunk in Chelsea Reach by the Violence of the Wind.
Two Coasters were drove from their Anchors at Horselydown upon the Sterlings at London bridge, where they lay for some time being beaten against the Houses, to the great Terror of the Inhabitants; but by the turn of the Tide they were luckily carried off, tho’ not without having sustained very great Damage.
Besides the two Vessels above-mentioned, there have been five more since cut from their Anchors by the Ice and drove down against the Bridge, where their Bowsprits have broke into several of the houses of the Eastern side and done great Damages to the Inhabitants.
On Sunday three Boys in a Boat off Rotherhithe were drove away by the great Flakes of Ice and perished thro’ the Severity of the Frost.“
As ever, what is a danger to some is an opportunity for others, although in this instance, without the hoped for outcome:
“Yesterday great Numbers of London Gunners assembled at the several Stairs leading to the Thames, to shoot Ducks, Gulls and Road Geese, which appeared in great Plenty; and many of them were killed, tho’ none could be brought off, the Frost not yet having prevented the Currency of the Tide. Dogs were of no use to bringing them off, the Edges of the Ice on which the birds settled being too weak for the Dogs to get up by.“
As well as freezing much of the Thames, the cold winter of 1740 was a danger to those without the benefit of shelter and warmth:
“A poor man without either Money or Friends, on Friday night last was obliged to take up his Lodging on a Laystall in Tyburn Road, and was on Saturday Morning found dead thereon; although he had covered himself over with Dung and loose Litter.
On Sunday Night last, about nine o’clock, a Man about 60 years was found dead in Pensioners Alley in King-street, Westminster, supposed to have perished for Want; as were also two aged Men by the Waterside at White-friars, and two Women in Old Street, all through excessive Cold and for Want of Nourishment.”
A laystall, referred to in the article was a place where “waste and dung” was deposited.
Now off to a warmer place, as my next stop from Tower Stairs is:
Blackheath Chocolate House
Tower Stairs appear to have been one of the main routes for Royalty when they headed to Greenwich. From the Newcastle Courant on the 8th September 1722:
“This day the young princesses, with a Guard, came through the City, took water at Tower Stairs for Greenwich; dined at Sir John Jennings, and after seeing the Hospital of Greenwich and other Rarities of the place, returned in the evening to Kensington”.
On the 30th June 1736, the Kentish Weekly Post was reporting another Royal visit to Greenwich, which included a visit to a place of entertainment at Blackheath:
“On Saturday evening their Royal Highnesses the Prince and Princess of Wales came through the City from Kensington, and taking Water at the Tower Stairs, went down the River in a Barge, attended by two others, in one of which was a fine Band of Music. Their Royal Highnesses landed at Greenwich, and went to the Chocolate House on Blackheath, where they had an elegant Collation, and about twelve returned back to Kensington.”
The Prince and Princess of Wales were the future King George II and his wife Caroline of Ansbach.
The Chocolate House was a popular place for people to meet, drink chocolate, scheme and plot in the 17th and 18th centuries. The chocolate drink was very different to the type we would drink today. It was heavily sweetened, and would be flavoured with spices and fruits.
There were several Chocolate Houses in London, but I was not aware of one at Blackheath, which if not already a popular place, would be the place to be seen after the Prince and Princess of Wales visit.
The article referenced Blackheath rather than Greenwich, so it was not close to the river or in the park, and luckily a series of articles in the Kentish Mercury in 1902 located the site of the Chocolate House, starting with the following article on the 22nd August 1902:
“THE CHOCOLATE HOUSE ON BLACKHEATH: A glimpse of the ‘manners and customs’ of some 130 years ago is obtained in the following paragraphs taken from the Kentish Express of July 4th, 1774 – ‘Friday, the Kentish Society held their annual feast at the Chocolate House in Blackheath, where there was a most elegant entertainment, and it was unanimously agreed to support the Hon. Mr Marsham and Mr Sawbridge to be the Members of the County of Kent at the General Election, being gentlemen of very considerable property in the said county, and independently to support the interest of the same. Lord North’s name was mentioned, that he is tended to offer, but they all declared to oppose him’.
Perhaps some of our readers can identify the site of the Chocolate house on Blackheath.”
The challenge of finding the location of the Blackheath Chocolate House was one that the readers of the Kentish Mercury rose to, and a series of articles followed based on reader feedback. On the 29th August 1902:
“A correspondent says that while he is unable to identify the site of the Chocolate House on Blackheath, he remembers that twenty years ago there was a pond at the top of Hyde-vale known as Chocolate Pond. He suggests that this may offer some clues.”
On September 5th, 1902: “Mr Alderman Dyer appears to put the matter to rest with the interesting statement that it was in The Grove between Nos. 4 and 5, and was a fashionable resort of the period. The beaux and belles of Blackheath much resorted thereto in the days when George the Third was King, for the purpose of drinking chocolate and discussing the scandal of the neighbourhood. The house was subsequently used as a ladies’ school, but was pulled down some years ago.”
The Kentish Mercury declared success in finding the location of the Chocolate House on the 26th September 1902, when “The question of the site of the Chocolate House on Blackheath, with a view to the definite fixing of which we some time solicited information, can now, we opine, assumed to be settled. documentary evidence in our possession goes to show that the site is now occupied by the houses 4 and 5, The Grove, Blackheath.
By the kindness of a gentleman living on Blackheath-hill we have been afforded the opportunity of inspecting a lease dated from 1776, from Mr. John Wilkinson to Mr. Charles Walker, of the property which stood upon the site in question., described in the document, which is mutilated, as in ‘Chocolate-row’.
Mr Charles Walker, aforementioned, is described as of ‘Chocolate House’. That this Chocolate House was a place of fashionable resort and entertainment we have previously mentioned. Proof is afforded by the fact that on the lease there are clauses relating to the use of the assembly rooms for ‘dancing, music and other diversions’. Our informant himself remembers the premises referred to, before the building was pulled down for the erection of those at present standing.”
The article also mentions an “Olde House” in Hyde Vale where the footmen and attendants would wait whilst their “masters and mistress were disporting themselves in the Chocolate House” – which gives a good impression of the atmosphere in the Chocolate House.
There were a number of Chocolate Houses in eighteenth century London, with Blackheath being described as one of the five most important. They were:
Blackheath Chocolate House – was much favoured by officers from Woolwich
The Cocoa Tree in Pall Mall, on what is now 87, St James’s, Pall Mall, gave its name to the Cocoa Tree Club, the oldest of existing London clubs. It was famous as a resort for Tory politicians.
Lindhart’s was in King Street, Bloomsbury
The Spread Eagle in Bridge Street, Covent Garden
White’s the most famous of any, was started in 1698, and was at the southern end of St James’s Street.
Having found the location of the Blackheath Chocolate House, there is one more story of those who had at one time passed along Tower Stairs, a delegation from the US, when:
Cherokee Indians Visit London
Reading through newspaper reports mentioning Tower Stairs, I found the following from the Oxford Journal on the 24th July 1762 – a report I was not expecting to find of some rather unusual visitors to Tower Stairs:
“This day the Cherokee King, and his two Chiefs, went in their Coach to the Tower-stairs, and about half an hour after Ten o’Clock, went on board the Admiralty Barge, in which they proceeded down the River to Deptford, Greenwich &c.”
The British had established an alliance with the Cherokee nation early in the 18th century, with both a trading and military alliance. This was important as the Cherokee were one of the major native American tribes and controlled land across what is now the states of Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia.
An earlier Cherokee delegation had visited London in 1730 when a group of seven Cherokee, led by chief Oukanaekah spent time in London and had several meetings with King George II at Windsor Castle. This led to a treaty where the British supplied military equipment and the Cherokee agreed to trade only with, and fight alongside, the British.
The relationship between the Cherokee and British was tense at times, and the British did occasionally attack and burn Cherokee villages.
The Cherokee fought with the British against France and during the American War of Independence.
A member of the British Virginia Militia was instrumental in arranging the visit to London. Henry Timberlake had lived with the Cherokee for a number of months and was asked by Chief Osteneco for an opportunity to visit England and to meet with the King.
After sailing across the Atlantic (during their voyage their interpreter died which caused problems until a new interpreter could be found), they arrived in Plymouth and then traveled across country to reach London, where newspapers described their appearance:
“The Cherokee Indians lately arrived in Town, are tall men, six feet high, dressed in a shirt, trousers and mantel round them and their heads adorned with Shells’ Feather and Ear-Rings, unfortunately their interpreter died in his passage and they can now only express their wants by signs. They are shy of company, especially a crowd. This King’s business here is to pay his respects to our Monarch, with whom he has lately entered into alliance. In his own country, he can raise 10,000 fighting men.”
The following print shows the Cherokee leader, Osteneco (centre) with his two chiefs:
So what would a Cherokee delegation to London do in 1762. It appears they did much the same as a delegation from a country would do in London today. They were wined and dined, taken to shows, met key people such as the Lord Mayor and visited displays of military power.
I have been able to trace some of their itinerary as follows:
11th June 1762 – An Indian King and two Chiefs belonging to the Cherokee Indians arrived in London after landing in Plymouth from America
12th June 1762 – Cherokee Indians met the Earl of Egremont at his House in Piccadilly
28th June 1762 – King of the Cherokees, with his attendants, dressed in the English fashion, walked for some time in Kensington Gardens, and seemed highly delighted with the place. They dined with Governor Ellis.
3rd July 1762 – The Cherokee Chiefs were at Sadler’s Wells, and expressed great satisfaction at the entertainments of the place
7th July 1762 – At Vauxhall where they had a very sumptuous entertainment. The wines first set before them were Burgundy and Claret, which however they did not greatly relish. Others were then placed on the table, when they fixed upon Frontenac, the sweetness of which highly hit their palate and they drank of it very freely
11th July 1762 – Dined with the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House. They seemed greatly pleased with the numerous concourse of ladies and gentlemen who crowded the windows &c. to see them pass
23rd July 1762 – Mr. Montague conducted the Cherokee Chiefs to the Parade in St James’s-Park; they happened to enter the Guard Room just as the Grenadiers were fixing their bayonets in order to Troop the Colour. The formidable appearance of the men and the business that accidently were engaged in threw them into such agitation that it was with the utmost difficulty they were persuaded to advance a step on the parade. They had a suspicion of treachery, were extremely impatient to be gone, and when they got home defined to see no more of those warriors with caps.
24th July 1762 – This day, the Cherokee King and his two chiefs, went in their coach to the Tower Stairs, and about half an hour after ten o’clock, went on board the Admiralty Barge, in which they proceeded down the river to Deptford, Greenwich, Woolwich &c. They were much delighted with the hospital. An entertainment was laid on for them at the Greyhound, and after dinner they saw the park and the Observatory
28th August 1762 – The Cherokee Indians, in a Landau with six horses, visited Winchester Camp; at its appearance they seemed greatly surprised
30th August 1762 – Arrive in Portsmouth and visit the Theatre.
31st August 1762 – They went on board the Epreuve Frigate, and the wind being fair, sailed directly back to America
Whilst in London, Joshua Reynolds painted Chief Osteneco:
Soon after the Cherokee visitors had returned to America, the War of Independence started. The Cherokee nation allied with the British, but in reality this was more against the settlers who were continually moving closer to, and taking parts of Cherokee land.
As part of the War of Independence, in 1776 Osteneco led his forces against the Province of Georgia, however this resulted in the destruction of the towns occupied by Osteneco’s Cherokee tribes. He would then lead his people to the west and he eventually settled in the town that is today Chattanooga in Tennessee.
He died in 1780 at the house of his grandson Richard Timberlake. Henry Timberlake, who had lived with the Cherokee and was instrumental in bringing the delegation to London in 1762 was the father of Richard with one of Osteneco’s daughters being the mother.
After American independence, the British had no interest in the Cherokee nation. The following decades saw frequent skirmishes and battles with the forces of the independent state of America, and they would gradually loose their land and freedoms.
Today, Tower Stairs are hidden beneath the walkway to Tower Pier, however they were one of the key river stairs. Many thousands of people would have walked along these stairs, either passing to or from the river.
Of those thousands, four tell us a wider story of Press Gangs, the Frozen Thames, London’s Chocolate Houses, and when a delegation of Cherokee Indians visited London.
I just wish there was a conspicuous plaque naming these river stairs and providing some information on their history.
For today’s post, I am returning to one of my favourite subjects, the old stairs that lined the river and provided such an important connection between the Thames and the streets of London on both the north and south banks of the river. The stairs for today’s post are Old Barge House Stairs:
In the above photo, there are some modern steps descending from the river wall, just to the left of the large OXO sign. The remains of a wood and stone causeway can be seen to the left of the base of the steps towards the river.
The causeway is all that is left of Old Barge House Stairs. The following view shows the stairs from the opposite direction to the above photo:
The name Old Barge House Stairs comes from their proximity to the King’s Barge House, along with accommodation for the Royal Barge Master. It was here in the time of Henry VIII that the King’s Barge was stored.
The stairs appeared on maps as early as 1720, as shown in this extract from “A Plan of the City’s of London, Westminster and Borough of Southwark”, where Old Barge House Stairs are shown in the centre of the map:
I do like the way that the map shows the boats that were probably used by the watermen associated with the stairs, clustered around the stairs.
If you visit Old Barge House Stairs when the tide is high, you will find just the top of a modern set of metal stairs that run down from the walkway in front of the north western corner of the Oxo building. Visit at low tide, and the causeway that would have once led from the original stairs is visible:
I doubt that the causeway we see today dates back to the time of the above 1720 map. These stairs and their causeways were remade several times over the centuries due to continual erosion by the river, as well their changing importance relative to other river stairs.
What I find so fascinating about these river stairs is that they provide a fixed point between two very different worlds – the land and the river. They are where people moved between the two, and they provided a fixed point of reference to understand what was happening in these two very different worlds.
On the land around the stairs, they would be used as a reference to events happening near-by. This would help people find a location, or the best way to travel. For example, the following advert from the Morning Chronicle on the 5th September 1806 is the equivalent of today using an underground station as a point of reference:
“Oak Scantlings, Mahogany Plank and Boards, and Two Thousand Deals &c. By Mr Farebrother at Mr Gresham’s Wharf (late Gales) near the Old Barge-house-stairs, Narrow Wall, Lambeth, on Monday next at 12.”
Newspapers mainly report bad news, and the River Thames has been the scene of so many tragic events over the centuries. A quick scan of old newspapers reveals an almost daily report of accidents and deaths on the river. It was a very dangerous place, as well as the scene of tragedies such as that reported in the Morning Chronicle on the 8th April 1831:
“On Tuesday evening, about five o’clock, a middle aged French lady, elegantly attired, hired a waterman, named Oxley, belonging to Waterloo-bridge stairs, to row her to the Old Barge House stairs. On the man being about to land her, she desired to return back and proceed to Westminster-bridge. He instantly pulled round, but previous to his arriving near the bridge, he asked the lady which stairs she would like to be landed at? To which she replied the lower one. When nearing them the lady placed her muff and purse in the boat and taking a portrait out of her bosom, and her bonnet off, she precipitated herself into the river before the waterman could prevent her. By great exertion, however, he succeeded in catching hold of her after she floated through the second arch, and by prompt assistance, she was rescued from the death she meditated. She was conveyed into the Swan tap, where every attention was paid her, but she would neither give any explanation of her rash conduct, nor her name or place of residence. her friends, however, by some means, became acquainted with the circumstance and they sent a coach for her, the coachman being desired to drive to Thornhaugh-street.”
And this very sad report from the Kentish Mercury on the 16th February 1847:
“On Wednesday an inquest was held by Mr. W. Carter at the Mitre, Broadwall, Blackfriars-road, relative to the death of a newly-born male child, found under very remarkable circumstances. Mark Marten, a lighterman, deposed that he was proceeding down the river on Friday morning last, and whilst passing Raymond’s-roads on the upper side of Blackfriars-bridge, he saw a market basket floating down with the tide.
He pulled it into his boat, and rowed ashore at Old Barge House Stairs, where he opened it, and found the body of a child wrapt in a piece of flannel, and covered with meadow hay. On the top of the basket was a label, to the following effect ‘to be opened with care, from an old friend’. Witness gave the body to the police, and inadvertently destroyed the label, which in a moment of excitement, threw into a fire. Mr. E. Doubleday, surgeon, said that he had examined the body, which was that of a male child, fully developed. There was sufficient evidence of the child having breathed, but he was unable to say to what extent. The deceased from the appearance of the body, had clearly received the necessary attention at his birth.
The coroner remarked that the fact of the paper being destroyed by the first witness was an unfortunate occurrence as all chance of tracing the guilty party was lost. He left the case in the hands of the jury, who returned an open verdict of Found Dead in the River Thames.”
The above two reports cover some of the more unusual events where the stairs were involved. There were also very many more tragedies at the river in the vicinity of each of the stairs, for example in August 1880 at old Barge House Stairs, 16 year old John Thomas Glue, who drowned after simply going for a swim during his dinner hour. Ten or eleven yards from the bank, he suddenly had cramp, was swept by the tide under a barge near the steps where he drowned.
What would not have been reported in the newspapers are the thousands of people who have used these stairs, using the services of the watermen who gathered around the stairs like taxis in a taxi rank, waiting to take their fare to their destination of choice.
Today, Old Barge House Stairs are found between the Oxo building and Bernie Spain Gardens. The gardens are one of the few places of grassed, open space in the immediate area as this is a very built up area.
The old ITV Studios buildings, IBM Offices and the National Theatre are found to the west. Housing, offices and streets inland. In terms of London’s development, building around Old Barge House Stairs has been relatively recent, with the majority taking place during the 19th century.
For centuries the land around Old Barge House Stairs was part of Lambeth Marsh, an area of land roughly between Lambeth and Blackfriars Bridges and inland to St George’s Circus.
In the following extract from Rocque’s 1746 map of London, Old Barge House Stairs is marked in the centre of the map:
The map shows that by 1746, the land along the river had been built on, however inland it was mainly fields and agriculture. The Tenter Ground was an area used for the drying of newly manufactured cloth. Frames were set up across the field and the cloth was stretched across the frame to dry. If you look on the left side of the map, there is a building marked Dye House, so it is possible that cloth dyed in this building would be dried on the Tenter Ground.
The street running from the left is called Narrow Wall. This street ran from the current location of Westminster Bridge, running along the length of the south bank. The first written mentions of Narrow Wall date back to 1443, and it seems to have been a raised causeway or walkway with the sandy foreshore to the north. The name describes its original appearance as a Narrow Wall which would have helped prevent high tides coming too far inland.
Today, Narrow Wall is better known as Belevdere Road and Upper Ground. This later street name can be seen continuing to the right of the map, with the name again describing the physical characteristics of the street, when so much of the surrounding land was low lying, marshy, and would have been regularly threatened with flooding.
A long street called Broad Wall runs south from Old Barge House Stairs for the length of the map.
The name Broad Wall again defines how this street originally formed. It was also along the line of the western boundary of an area of land known as Paris Garden. The boundary was formed by one of the branches of the River Neckinger, which also seems to have gone by the name of Widefleet.
There was a syndicated article about Paris Garden in a number of newspapers in March 1890, which mention the boundary, and how the stream eventually became a sewer which entered the Thames at Old Barge House Stairs:
“Paris Garden, known as the King’s manor as appertaining to its lord and copyholders, formerly lay in St. Saviour’s Parish, and was famed for its mill, water-courses, pastures and wild plants. In 1670 nearly all of it was taken for the new parish of Christchurch, as constituted under the will of John Marshall, who had died 40 years before. Comprising the ancient hide of Wideflete, and covering nearly 100 acres, it had been given in 1113 by one Robert Marmion to the Cluniac Monastery of Bermondsey, whence, almost fifty years later, it passed to the Knights Templar, who set up a chapelry there, and from them to the Knights Hospitaler of St. John.
In the early years of the fifteenth century it became a sanctuary for offenders. Ultimately passing to Henry VIII, it was granted as dowry for Jane Seymour. Lord Hundens and others, who got the manor from Queen Elizabeth, conveyed the land and manor house to Thomas Cure, a benefactor to the parish. The manor house has been identified with the Holland’s Leaguer, or Nob’s Island, one of the many houses of ill-fame that formerly flourished on Bankside. The moated and castellated ‘Leaguer’ which was kept by one Susan Holland, in 1630, stood south-westwards of the present Falcon drawing dock. Latterly known as Beggars Hall, it was pulled down in making the southern approach to Blackfriars Bridge; yet some authorities question the survival of the original building to that time. The Widefleet was converted into a sewer, having its outlet by Barge House-stairs.”
The outline of streams can be seen in the 1746 map, however these can be more clearly seen in the Agas map which shows London in the mid 16th century. The map does not show Old Barge House Stairs, however the land of Paris Garden is shown as the built and cultivated area in the centre of the map, with Paris Garden stairs to the right of the line of buildings along the river. In the following extract of the Agas map, I have marked the location of Old Barge House Stairs (red circle):
The map does illustrate the number of streams in this part of the south bank, and running south from the future location of the stairs is a street (Broad Wall), with a stream running along the west side of the street, one of the branches of the Neckinger, or the Widefleet, which drained into the Thames at the location of the stairs.
The Neckinger / Widefleet is not visible today and does not drain into the river next to the stairs. Presumably any running water from the stream is now part of the sewer system.
The river walls here are high, protecting the low lying land from the waters of the Thames:
The causeway will gradually erode over the years as the daily tides cover and roll back from the structure. It would be interesting to know if the causeway extends further towards the river wall, under the sand of the foreshore.
Thames stairs are so much more than the physical remains we see today. They are a reference point between the land and river, which help tell a story of the area, and the many thousands of people who have in some way come into contact with them.
The problem with researching these posts, is finding a reference to the subject of a post which raises a whole set of new questions, which I frequently do not have time to follow up. One example concerns a potential bridge across the River Thames which would have landed at Old Barge House Stairs.
In 1862 the London Gazette reported on the incorporation of a new compnay, for the making of new bridges over the River Thames. Application was being made by the new company for a new Act that the company was intending to bring before Parliament. The Act proposed a range of new bridges, including:
A bridge, to be called the Tower Bridge, for horses, animals, trucks and passengers across the River Thames. Works to commence at Irongate Stairs near the Tower of London, and to terminate at Horseleydown Old Stairs.
A bridge, to be called St Paul’s Bridge, for horses, animals, trucks and passengers across the River Thames, commencing from the foot of St Paul’s Steam-boat Pier and terminating at Mason’s Stairs, Bankside.
A bridge, to be called the Temple Bridge, for horses, animals, trucks and passengers across the River Thames, commencing on the north side at a point distant 100 yards or thereabouts in a south-easterly direction from the commencement of the Temple Steam-boat Pier near Essex Street, and terminating at certain Stairs called Old Barge-house Stairs at the end of Old Barge-house Alley
As well as the above, the Act also proposed the New Chelsea and Battersea Bridge and the Wandsworth Bridge.
Tower Bridge would be built, however construction was not started for a further 24 years after the above Act.
St Paul’s Bridge continued to be a proposed solution in the early decades of the 20th century, but was never built.
As well as the 1862 Act, a Temple Bridge was proposed in the 1943, Abercrombie County of London Plan, published by the London County Council, but would also not be built.
Today, there is a short stretch of Barge House Street from Upper Ground to behind the Oxo building, and there is a stretch of Broadwall from Upper Ground to Stamford Street, so some of these old street names, and reminders of the history of the area can still be found when walking today.
The subject of this week’s post is one of the earliest of my father’s photos as it dates from 1946. The negative is 75 years old and is not in that good a condition. The scanned image needed some processing to get it to the state you see below, and it is still rather grey with poor contrast.
The photo is from Cherry Garden Stairs, Bermondsey, looking along the river towards the City, with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral visible through Tower Bridge.
The same view today, with the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in exactly the same place, however a very different river scene (the perspective looks different due to the very different camera and lens combinations used).
In 1946, the river bank was lined by warehouses, wharves and docks, with cranes along the river. A large number of lighters and barges are moored in the river, and directly in front of the camera, which would have been on the foreshore of the river.
In the 2021 photo the towers of the City are visible to the right, along with the Shard on the left. There are no more working warehouses, wharves or docks, and traffic on the river is today very different.
The river is though still used to transport construction equipment to a major construction site. In the 2021 there is a large shed on the left bank of the river, with the metal work of a travelling crane extending from the shed to over the river.
This is Chambers Wharf, one of the main construction sites for the Thames Tideway Tunnel. Chambers Wharf is one of the project’s main drive sites, with boring machines transported to the site via the river, and lowered by crane down to the point where the machines drive out, creating the tunnel.
Chambers Wharf was one of the many wharves between Tower Bridge and Cherry Garden Stairs. The following map is from the 1953 edition of London Wharves and Docks, and the left of the river covers the area from Tower Bridge to Cherry Garden Stairs seen in my father’s photo.
The type of goods that these wharves dealt with are (from the top of the left bank of the river):
Coles Upper Wharf: Bulk grain, flour, cereals
Butler’s Wharf: Tea, rubber, colonial produce, bulk grain, fresh fruit
A pier at the site seems to date from the later half of the 19th century, and Cherry Garden Pier is still there today, although used by a private company with no public access.
One interesting point in the above map, is to the right of the map is the Millpond Estate, a 1930s housing development which can still be seen today. The location of the estate had been the site of a flour mill, mill pond and terrace housing. The mill pond was once part of an extensive irrigation system that ran inland to much larger ponds – lots more to discover around this part of Bermondsey.
Cherry Garden Stairs are one of the many old stairs that provided access to the river. The earliest newspaper reference I can find to the stairs dates from the 25th May 1738 when “Yesterday morning an eminent Shoemaker at Cherry Garden Stairs, Rotherhith, was found drowned in the River Thames”.
The stairs are probably much older than the 1738 reference. Leading back from the location of the stairs (see above map) is a street called Cherry Garden Street. The street is named after a pleasure garden that was here called Cherry Garden.
In volume four of the 1912 edition of the History of the County of Surrey in the Victoria County History series, there is reference to a Jacobean style house called Jamaica House which could still be found in Cherry Garden Street until 1860.
This house appears to have been part of the gardens as in the same volume, there is a quote from Pepys which reads “To Jamaica House, where I never was before, together with my wife, and the Mercers and our two maids, and there the girls did run wagers upon the bowling green: a pleasant day and spent but little”.
Pepys visit is referenced in an article in the Westminster Gazette on the 7th October 1910, which also recalls an inn that was located by the stairs: “Cherry Garden-street, the scene of yesterday’s big riverside fire, occupies the site and preserves the name of the old Bermondsey ‘Cherry Garden’, once a well-known place of public resort. The Cherry Garden was favourably known to Pepys, who recorded his visit there in his famous diary. At Cherry Garden Stairs there was formerly a celebrated inn known as the Lion and Castle, a name supposed to have been derived from the marriage which took place between the Royal House of Stuart and that of Spain. Close by was the even more famous Jamaica, traditionally supposed to have been the residence of Cromwell”.
Edward Walford in Old and New London (1878) doubts the Lion and Castle name originating from a Stuart / Spanish name and prefers the source to be “the brand of Spanish arms on the sherry casks, and have been put up by the landlord to indicate the sale of genuine Spanish wines, such as sack, canary and mountain”.
The Lion and Castle pub seems to have been at Cherry Garden Stairs from the late 18th century to some point around the 1860s. It was not shown on the 1895 OS map.
It may have been that the stairs were used for river access to the pleasure gardens and that was why they took the name of the gardens. Rocque’s map of London in 1746 shows Cherry Garden Stairs (right on the corner edge of my copy of the map):
Thames stairs were so very important for centuries in the life of the river, and for all those who had some connection with the activities carried out on, or alongside the Thames.
As well as providing access to and from the river, Thames stairs were a key landmark. There are hundreds of newspaper references to Cherry Garden Stairs during the 18th and 19th centuries. The majority of these are adverts of ships for sale, for lease, or that were about to set out and were advertising for cargo or passengers.
For example, the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser on the 8th May 1818 has the following advert: “Has only room for a few Tons of Goods, and will be dispatched immediately. For Gibraltar direct. The fine, fast-sailing Brig PRINCE REGENT, Henry Stammers, Commander. lying at Cherry Garden Stairs. burthen 118 tons. For Freight or Passage”.
Other reports concern accidents, collisions, drowning and bodies pulled from the river near the stairs. Such an incident is recorded in the last newspaper reference to the stairs that I can find, when on the 29th November 1936, Reynold’s Newspaper recorded that a ten year old Bermondsey boy had fallen into the Thames from Cherry Garden Stairs and had drowned.
Thames stairs and pubs also seem to be a magnet for crime. For example, there are reports of passengers being rowed across the Thames and then robbed in, or close by the pubs that were often located near the landside of the stairs.
The tide was in when I arrived at Cherry Garden Stairs to taken the comparison photo. Access to the foreshore is now via a modern set of metal stairs that run over the embankment wall that was built as part of the walkway / tree lined open space that runs along the river. Difficult to photograph without being on the foreshore, but the stairs can be seen at the end of the wall in the following photo:
The walkway to the pier can be seen in the background.
I am sure that my father took the original photo from the 1946 version of the stairs, as it was by standing on the stairs that I could get the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in exactly the same position. At this distance from Tower Bridge and the cathedral, even a small change in position changed the orientation of bridge and dome.
There is much more to discover in this part of Bermondsey, so it is an area I will be returning to again.
The alley that leads to the stairs, opposite Brewhouse Lane:
The alley is between two of the few remaining undeveloped buildings alongside Wapping High Street. Looking towards the river, the Phoenix Wharf building is on the right and on the left is King Henry’s Wharf. Not yet developed into the standard apartment building which has been the fate of the majority of old warehouses that line the river. I am sure their time will come, indeed Phoenix Wharf has had a number of planning submissions and ownership changes, but nothing yet seems firm as yet.
King Henry’s Stairs are unusual for a number of reasons. Their current name is not the original name, they have a rather macabre history, and alongside the location of the stairs is the Wapping Pier, with an elevated walkway leading alongside the stairs out to the pier.
The following photo shows the entrance to the stairs down to the river foreshore, with the walkway to the pier on the right:
However looking over the edge, where one would expect to see a series of stone steps leading down to the foreshore, there is nothing but a sheer drop down to the sand and mud below.
On the right, a metal ladder, a couple of feet out from the edge of the stairs, is hooked over the pier, and provides the only access to the foreshore below:
I stood there for a few moments trying to decide whether the ladder was safe. It looked straight out of a TV hospital drama, where you know what will happen next and anyone risking the ladder would find themselves flat on the ground below.
Swinging one foot out to the ladder, it swung on where it was hooked to the pier, the ladder not being fixed to the ground. Other foot on the ladder, and despite swinging I made it to the ground.
The foot prints in the above photo are mine as I took the photo after getting back up. On arrival the sand and mud was perfectly smooth.
Looking back at the ladder from the foreshore. It may have been fixed at the base at some point, but today is just hooked over the rail alongside the walkway out to the pier. Apart from a couple of steps at the top, there is no evidence of any steps having ever been in place.
The view back to the entrance. When I arrived, the blue gate was wide open which seems somewhat risky given the lack of stone steps and the abrupt fall to the foreshore.
Sticking out from the ground, a short distance away from the wall, are two lengths of wood with a metal pole between, They are angled towards the top of the stairs, and give a clue to what was here.
The following photo from the LMA Collage archive shows King Henry’s Stairs in 1971, and explains the wooden remains. There were once a full set of wooden steps leading from the top of the wall down to the foreshore.
There is no indication of the age of the steps in the 1971 photo, however they look in reasonably good condition, and provide a safe route down to the foreshore. There is just under 50 years between the above photo and my photos, which shows the power of the Thames to erode and decay wooden structures. Daily tides, the continual immersion in water followed by exposure to the air and sunlight has reduced these steps to the two wooden stumps we see today.
The view from the foreshore is always worth it. A smooth layer of sand / mud covered in the tide worn remains of London brick, stone, and the lumps of chalk used to provide a smooth base for barges and lighters.
The algae covered walls show the height of the tide, and the old warehouses stare out on a very different Thames to when they were built.
The view looking to the west, towards central London:
The view to the east, with the towers of the Isle of Dogs behind the Wapping Pier:
The building on the eastern side of King Henry’s Stairs is King Henry’s Wharf:
The building probably looks much as it did when barges would be lined up on the foreshore, with the crane moving goods between barge and warehouse.
London Wharves and Docks was a directory of all the wharves and docks along the River Thames. Published by Commercial Motor. The directory provided key details for the hundreds of wharves and docks that lined the river from Teddington to Tilbury. According to the 1954 edition, King Henry’s Wharf was known as St. John’s and King Henry’s Wharves. The occupier was R.G. Hall and the building was owned by W.H.J Alexander Ltd of Leadenhall Street. The facilities included;
General, dry goods, specifically dealing with cocoa, coffee, sugar, spices, dried and canned fruit, gums and cheeses. The cranage was 60 cwt and the building provided 1,900,000 square feet of storage space. The building included customs facilities and bonding, an examination floor and sufferance. The river facing side of the building had space for barge berths and the depth of water at high tide was 10 feet.
A closer view of the crane on the side of the building:
On the western side of the stairs is Phoenix Wharf. The Commercial Motor book does not have a listing for a Phoenix Wharf on Wapping High Street so I wonder if this was a name given to the building relatively recently. The small space between Phoenix Wharf and King Henry’s Stairs was Swan Wharf (the 1894 OS map does show a Phoenix Wharf, mainly as open space just to the left).
Looking back from the water’s edge. Phoenix Wharf on the left, then the open space of Swan Wharf. The walkway to Wapping Pier above. King Henry’s Stairs to the right of the walkway followed by the corner of King Henry’s Wharf.
I was puzzled by the name of the stairs and the adjacent building – why King Henry?
The earliest use of the name I could find was from 1823 when on the 8th November the London Sun reported: “SINGULAR SUICIDE – on Thursday morning, about two o-clock, a Gentleman went to a waterman plying at King Henry’s Stairs, and asked him to take him across the river in his boat, which he instantly got into, and the waterman proceeded with his passenger. When they had nearly reached the middle of the river, the stranger took off his hat, and in a moment threw himself overboard, after which he was never seen. There is no name in the hat, nor anything that can lead to a discovery of this unfortunate man”.
Newspapers of the later 19th century offered a clue as to the source of the name when they referred to the stairs, for example in the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette on the 7th July 1840, there is an article about a new pier being erected here, and the article states “King Henry’s Stairs, where in ancient times, the monarchs of England landed and embarked”.
What I do not understand is why monarchs of England would have embarked using these stairs in Wapping, in whenever “ancient times” were. As far as I know, there was no establishment or activities such as hunting on this side of the river that would have attracted a monarch, and there were far safer places towards the City for boarding boats.
The same newspaper article also provides an alternate name for the stairs by stating that they were: “commonly called Execution Dock”. I found this to be a recurring reference in 19th century newspaper reports that King Henry’s Stairs were formerly known as Execution Dock.
I checked Rocque’s map of 1746 for help, and in the location of King Henry’s Stairs was the name Execution Dock Stairs (in the middle of the map with the name extending out between ships on the river).
To confirm that this was the same location, comparing 2020 and 1746 maps confirms some streets in exactly the right location.
The stairs are off the road Wapping High Street (2020) and Wapping Dock (1746), but opposite where these stairs join this road, is a street with the same name and shape on both 1746 and 2020 – Brewhouse Lane. Compare Rocque’s map above with the 2020 map below:
Execution Dock is used for the name of the stairs in all early maps, always at the same location as King Henry’s Stairs.
The following maps all show Execution Dock at the same location: C. and J. Green (1828), R. Harwood (1799), William Morgan (1682). See the Layers of London site to layer these maps on a contemporary map.
Another example is the following 1755 Parish Map. Although not named, Brewhouse Lane can be seen with the same shape as in the other maps to confirm the location. What I like about this map is that three boats are shown clustered around Execution Dock. This was to show (as confirmed by the earlier newspaper article) that these were stairs where watermen were stationed ready to take a passenger along the river.
Execution Dock probably needs no introduction – it was the place where those found guilty of crimes at sea when the death sentence was imposed, were taken to be hung.
There was a considerable number of executions here, I have been trawling through records compiling a spreadsheet of dates, names and convictions (yes seriously) but ran out of time to complete for this post, however some example are worth examining to get an idea of the crimes and how the convictions were carried out.
Being executed at Execution Dock was a major spectacle. The authorities probably encouraged this so that “justice was seen to be done”, and it would also act as a major deterrent to those considering similar crimes.
Most references to Execution Dock refer to the crime of Piracy, however you could also be executed there for many other crimes, including Insurance Fraud, such was the fate of one Captain William Codling in 1802.
Captain Codling was on trial for “sinking a ship and cargo with intent to defraud the Underwriters”. It appears that his ship, the Adventure, should have been carrying a quantity of silver, however he had hidden this onshore, and when off Brighton, made holes in the hull of the ship causing her to sink. He and a couple of accomplices could then keep the silver and claim on the insurance – a crime that in 1802 was “an Offence most justly rendered Capital by Statute”.
Captain Codling was found guilt and handed the death sentence. The London Star on the 29th November 1802 carried a detailed account of the execution at Execution Dock:
He was executed on Saturday 27th November and between trial and execution was held at Newgate where since the Friday evening he had been “in solemn devotion and prayer, preparatory to his fatal exit”. His main regret was separation from his wife Jane and his son aged nine.
His wife Jane had traveled to Windsor to try and obtain a pardon from the King, but was not successful, arriving back at Newgate early on Saturday morning, without any success. He had a nephew who assured him that he would look after his wife and son. He appears to have been resigned to his fate, and his main concern was consoling his wife when she returned to the prison:
“The tender scene which now followed would require the pen of the most pathetic writer. The prisoner conducted himself with manly fortitude, and used every argument to console his wife, begging that she would suppress her grief, for that it affected him much more than his own unhappy fate. After some mutual endearments, she became more tranquil, and when they passed about an hour together, Dr Ford, the Ordinary of Newgate, entered, and advised Mrs. Codling to take her last farewell of her husband; Captain Codling himself joined in the request. Any description of their parting scene would appear a mockery of such real woe”.
The article also provided details on the procession that assembled to take Captain Codling from Newgate to Execution Dock. When reading this, consider that this was to guard someone convicted of insurance fraud and was accepting of their fate. The procession was as it was to show the power of the state, the law and judiciary and to act as a very strong deterrent:
“The cart was drawn up by two horses, a board nailed across for a seat, and another as a back to it. The Deputy Marshal was on horseback arranging the constables. Messrs Canner and Holdsworth (the two City Marshals) were likewise on horseback, with their staffs in their hands. A few minutes before nine o’clock the Marshal of the Admiralty arrived in his carriage, with two footmen behind, and the two Sheriffs were next in their carriages. The Rev. Dr. Ford, the Ordinary, followed in his carriage. There were about fourteen of the Sheriffs’ men on horseback to guard the prisoner, whilst the number of constables, all on foot, was about two hundred. Just as St Sepulchre’s clock struck nine, the executioner and his men came out with a pair of steps, which placing them in the back of the cart, they were both ascended. The Under Sheriff, came out with the death warrant in his hand, which he delivered to the Deputy Marshal. he then returned to the prison, and again appeared. conducting the unhappy Captain Codling to the cart and assisting him up the steps.
The mob, which had been collecting for some hours was now immense. the street, lamp-posts, windows and the roofs of the houses, were wonderfully crowded“.
The route taken from Newgate prison was along Ludgate Steet, passing St Paul’s Churchyard, , Cheapside, Leadenhall Street, High Street, Whitechapel, then down Gravel Lane and along to Execution Dock, where the procession arrived at half past ten. The cart was backed up the alley to the stairs.
The crowds in the City were recorded as being larger than for a Lord Mayor’s show. It was market day in Whitechapel, which caused problems getting through the crowds, and along Gravel Lane “the crowd was so great, and the street so narrow, that they were obliged to move very slowly and with great precaution”.
The gallows had been erected about ten to twelve paces from low water mark. Planks had been placed on the mud on which the officials could stand. Then at twenty minutes before eleven, on a signal from the Sheriff “the board was knocked from under his feet, and he was launched into eternity”.
Unfortunately with this method of execution, the end was not so quick. Although he was a weighty man, Captain Codling “struggled hard for three or four minutes”. After being left for a further fifteen minutes, he was taken down, covered with a black cloth, and his body was put into a boat to be taken away.
Captain Codling was described as “a stout well-made man, about 45 years of age – the complexion of a man used to the sea – very pleasing and affable in his manner; and prior to this, bore an extreme good character. he was dressed in double breasted blue coat, with guilt buttons and black collar”.
A print of an execution at Execution Dock in 1795, seven years before Captain William Codling, so probably very similar.
To the rear of the above print is a church tower. This is the tower of St Mary, Rotherhithe.
Unfortunately, Wapping Pier obscures the view of the church today from King Henry’s Stairs:
I took the following photo a little to the west of King Henry’s Stairs, the location of the stairs is marked by the red arrow. The church tower can be seen on the opposite bank.
Executions at Execution Dock covered many different crimes, the common factor being that the crimes happened at sea:
May 1701, Captain William Kidd was hung for piracy and murder and his body hung in chains off Tilbury
March 1734, the pirate Williams was executed and his body left to hang in chains
March 1737, four unnamed pirates were hung on the same day and left in chains
For the worst offences, the bodies of those executed would be left hanging from the gallows, or their bodies would be left in a cage for the tide to pass over them. Penalties were severe for anyone removing a body. In January 1739, a reward of £100 was being offered for information on who cut down and removed the body of James Buchanan
in January 1743, Thomas Rounce, who had been convicted for high treason by fighting against his King and country in a Spanish privateer was hung, drawn and quartered at Execution Dock
December 1781, William Payne, Matthew Knight and James Sweetman were hung after being convicted of Felony and piracy on the high seas. The bodies of Knight and Sweetman were hung in chains at Execution Dock, however the town of Yarmouth had applied to the Admiralty for the body of Payne, so it could be hung in chains on the coast at Yarmouth as a deterrent
In July 1800, James Wilson was executed after being convicted of fighting against his country, on board a French privateer
In July 1806, Akow ” a tartar” was executed for the willful murder of one of his countrymen on board the Travers, an East indiaman, on the high seas
In June 1809, Captain J. Sutherland was executed after being convicted of murdering his cabin boy – a crime of which he was protesting his innocence all the way to the gallows
Some of the crimes which carried a sentence of death seem relatively trivial. In December 1769, six “pirates” were hung in one day at Execution Dock. Edward Pinnel was hung for sinking and destroying a merchant ship, the five others; Thomas Ailsbre, Samuel Ailsbre, William Grearey, William Wenham and Rchard Hide were sentenced to death for entering a Dutch ship two leagues from Beachy Head and stealing sixty hats.
Newspaper reports of the execution of the six men provide an account from the time of how these events proceeded “They appeared very hardened and seemed totally ignorant and careless about the sudden transition they were going to make. the principal of them even wore a blue cockade in his hat, and when they arrived at the place of execution, he bow’d his neck to the halter and threw his hat among the populace. It is thought that more hardened wretches were scarce ever seen. From the great number of people that pressed to see the punishment of the above unhappy men, the great rails along a wharf near Execution-dock gave way, and above 60 people fell over the wharf; by which accident several of them were much bruised and one man killed”.
Executions at Execution Dock would decline in the first decades of the 19th century. The execution of George Davies and William Watts in December 1830 for the crime of piracy was recorded as being the first at Execution Dock for ten years. They would also be the last people executed on the foreshore of the River Thames.
From the 1830s onward, references to Execution Dock were for the normal occurrences at any of the Thames Stairs – accidents on boats close to the stairs, theft, boats for sale, bodies being found, problems experienced by the waterman with difficult passengers, fires and floods etc.
In the latter decades of the 19th century, references to Execution Dock turned from day to day events to historic tales of those who had been executed. I suspect that the new name of King Henry’s Stairs was gradually taking over, but it took some time as a name with the resonance of Execution Dock would take many years to be replaced in the conversations and memory of those who lived and worked in Wapping.
The name change was possibly down to the growth in Victorian trade and industry along the river’s edge at Wapping. To the Victorian businessman, the area was a place to be celebrated for trade and industry, rather than looking back at the barbaric practices of the past.
There is much speculation regarding the exact location of Execution Dock. Maps dating back to 1682 show what are now King Henry’s Stairs as Execution Dock, and the location in respect to Brewhouse Lane is the same. The change in name occurs in the first half of the 19th century, with the earliest use of King Henry’s Stairs being in 1823, with the name growing in use throughout the 19th century, as use of the name Execution Dock declines.
Many sites along the Thames at Wapping have claimed to be the location of Execution Dock, for example the Prospect of Whitby pub has a noose hanging from a gallows over the foreshore at the rear of the pub:
I suspect that King Henry’s Stairs / Execution Dock was the central location for executions, but in the hundreds of years that the practice was carried out, the location shifted along the foreshore to east and west of the stairs as the mud and foreshore shifted, to move around obstructions such as moored boats, building work facing on to the river, perhaps for the more notorious executions, the need to ensure good visibility of the execution from the shore and from boats on the river also dictated the location.
It is a very different place today – the view looking east from Execution Dock. hard to image the scenes that occurred here and where poor Captain William Codling was hung for the crime of insurance fraud.
I have not been able to find out why King Henry’s Stairs was used as the name for the stairs. Were the stairs named after the adjacent King Henry Wharf, or was the wharf named after the stairs – what was here first? I need to find some detailed maps of the area around the 1820s when the name appears to have been first used.
After leaving the foreshore, I climbed back up the ladder and stepped across to the top of the river wall, where the missing stairs should be leading down to the foreshore. I closed the gate as I headed back to Wapping High Street as if you were not too careful, and were expecting stairs, a nasty fall into the river or the foreshore could be the result – and there have been far too many deaths here over the centuries.
Six week’s ago, I walked along the north bank of the Thames from Tower Bridge to the Isle of Dogs, hunting some of the stairs down to the river. I am trying to trace all those that have been lost, and visit all those that remain. I have already covered a number of these fascinating places, and for this post I am at one of the probably lesser known stairs, Shadwell Dock Stairs.
Shadwell Dock Stairs are shown on the 1894 Ordnance Survey map, but in a rather unusual location as they are almost hard up against the entrance to the Shadwell New Basin. This was the eastern entrance to the London Docks, so must have been a busy place with ships entering and departing from the London Dock complex.
The reason they are there is explained by looking at an earlier map, the 1746 Rocque map of London which shows the stairs in place, long before the build of the Shadwell Basin. They are highlighted by the red oval in the following map.
The above map also explains the source of the name. If you look to the left of the stairs, there is a narrow channel leading a short distance inland to the street Lower Shadwell. This channel of water is named Shadwell Dock. There is a Timber Yard across the street, so perhaps Shadwell Dock was the route by which timber was landed to be moved to and from the Timber Yard.
So, I suspect it is safe to assume that Shadwell Dock Stairs are earlier than 1746, and were named after the nearby dock.
The Faithorne and Newcourt map of 1658 shows a continuous line of buildings along the river at this point, without the stairs or Shadwell Dock, so they must have been built in the years between 1658 and 1746.
UPDATE: Reader David Crowther highlighted in the comments a key point regarding the location of the stairs which I completely missed. In the 1746 map, Shadwell Dock Stairs are to the west of Labour In Vain Street, however in the 1894 map the stairs are just to the east of the same street. To check that this was not a mapping error in the 1746 map, I checked Horwood’s map of 1799 and that also shows the stairs to the west of Labour In Vain Street, the same position as the 1746 map.
The Shadwell Basin entrance was constructed in the 19th century, and aligning Horwood’s map with the position of the basin entrance shows that the original position of the stairs was where the new entrance would be constructed, so the stairs were re-built just to the east of the basin entrance, to the new position shown in the 1894 map.
This perhaps demonstrates the importance of the stairs, in that they were not simply lost when the Shadwell Basin was constructed, but were rebuilt just to the east of the new basin entrance.
The following maps (1746 on left and 1894 on right) clearly show the change in location between Labour in Vain Street (red oval) and Shadwell Dock Stairs (yellow circle).
My thanks to David for finding this.
Shadwell Dock Stairs today are fenced off and show evidence of an alternative use of providing access to the river. They are located on the pathway that leads from Glamis Road to the southern end of the King Edward Memorial Park, where the northern ventilation / old pedestrian access building for the Rotherhithe Tunnel is located.
This is the view looking towards the top of the stairs. The walkway is behind the fence at the top of the photo.
The LMA Collage archive has a similar view of the stairs from 1978, when much of the land behind was still derelict.
The clue as to the most recent use of the Shadwell Dock Stairs is found in the space between the stairs and the entrance to Shadwell Basin. This space is now occupied by Shadwell Basin Outdoor Activity Centre which provides water sport activities, and the Tower Hamlets Canoe Club.
The steps provided a launching route into the river for the adjacent organisations, however there now appears to be a much larger slipway built directly into the entrance to Shadwell Basin so I assume the stairs are now redundant, hence the current condition.
Boats would have been run down and up the metals runners which have been installed over the steps.
Shadwell Dock Stairs feature in numerous newspaper reports over the years. All the usual accidents, drowned bodies being found, crime, ships for sale etc. There are three reports that I want to cover, as they reveal some of the more unusual aspects of life on the river, centred around these river stairs.
From the Morning Chronicle on the 16th January 1841, a report which shows that it was not just the Thames around the area of the City that froze in winter:
“NARROW ESCAPE OF THREE WATERMEN ON THE RIVER – On Thursday night, at about six o’clock, three Greenwich watermen, who had been into the London Dock with a vessel they had brought up the river, were returning from the upper entrance at Wapping, when their progress was stopped by a large field of ice, which nearly broke their boat in two, and drove them towards Shadwell Dock-stairs. Here they were completely hemmed in among the ice, which extended from one side of the river to the other, and completely blocked up the navigation.
The boatmen endeavoured in vain to extricate themselves, and were at length driven nearly into the middle of the river. Here they remained stationary for some time, exposed to the sleet and snow.
Soon afterwards the ebb tide drove the ice a little further down the river, and again the poor watermen tried to get out, but with no better success than before, and the field of ice was again stopped by the barges and shipping.
The watermen continually hailed the people ashore to render them some assistance, but none could be afforded, and the masses of ice were not sufficiently consolidated together for any one to venture in safety.
The men at last began to complain of the wet and cold, and said they could not hold out much longer. They had been four hours among the ice and their situation became very critical.
Some watermen and lightermen ashore threw lines towards them, but they fell very far short of the boat. At ten o’clock, when they appeared quite exhausted, Judge, an Inspector of Thames police, and three river constables came to the spot at Shadwell and determined to make some effort to save them.
They borrowed two hurdles and some ropes. Constable Jones ventured as far upon the ice as was consistent with safety, and threw a line towards the boat, but the men were unable to catch it. The Thames Police, finding no time to be lost, and that the men were benumbed with cold, and incapable of any exertion, resolved upon a bolder attempt to save them.
A rope was fastened around Jones, the youngest and most expert of the party, and he placedone of the hurdles across the blocks of ice in advance of the one he was standing on.
After much difficulty, Jones got back with a second line he had made fast to the boat. On reaching the shore, the Thames police, with the assistance of five other men, pulled the boat right over the ice, with the three men in it, and brought it close alongside one of Mr Charrington’s coal barges.
The watermen were taken out and were conveyed to the nearest public house.
Their exposure to the snow storm had affected them so much that it was some time before they recovered; and had not the greatest attention been paid them one or more would have perished.”
Very descriptive, and looking across the river at this point, it is hard to imagine that it could have frozen, being much wider than in the City, but in reality the sheer number of moored ships and barges would have provided plenty of spaces where ice could aggregate, and tides would have broken free large sheets of ice which would have drifted around the river as described in the report.
There are a number or reports which mention a ferry running from Shadwell Dock Stairs, but so far I have not been able to find any detail of the type of ferry, the destination and for how long it operated. There was consideration of starting a large steam powered ferry service from Shadwell, similar to the Woolwich ferry, and in Lloyd’s List on the 15th February 1893, there is a report that the London County Council is proposing a ferry between Rotherhithe and Shadwell.
The article reports on the considerable differences in opinion of the effect on navigation of a two ferry-boat service running across the river at intervals of every 15 minutes throughout the day. The proximity to the entrance to the London Docks was identified as a risk, with a ferry being a serious danger to ships entering or leaving the docks.
The Rotherhithe to Shadwell ferry was part of a bill put before Parliamentary Committee, but the ferry proposals did not make any progress, the proposal for a road tunnel underneath the Thames was a much better option, able to move far greater volumes of traffic and with no impact on river traffic. The Rotherhithe Tunnel opened in 1908, and now runs underneath the river, very close to Shadwell Dock Stairs.
I have often wondered whether these Thames stairs were administered or overseen in any way, or whether they provided open access to the river. In the days when there was so much traffic on the river, with people and goods of all types being stored on ships and barges. Given the right tide, the river was probably the fastest method of moving across London. The Thames stairs were important gateways between the river and land.
An article in the London Sun on the 10th March 1868 mentions a Watchbox at Shadwell Dock Stairs.
The article reports on the trial of Thomas Deacon, a 19 year old lighterman who was charged with violently assaulting Edward Dove, a Waterman at Shadwell Dock Stairs. The report states that:
“The complainant said that the prisoner was a perfect nuisance at the place and was in the watchbox at Shadwell Dock-stairs last night with another man. They had no right there, and were requested to turn out, which they refused to do, and the prisoner, who is a strong and powerful fellow, struck the complainant a tremondous blow on the mouth with his clenched fist, and completely wounding the upper lip.”
Thomas Deacon was sentenced to two months of hard labour for the assault.
Watermen were higher in the river hierarchy than lightermen, and watermen had a range of rights covering their work on the river, and perhaps were involved in some form of policing, or watching over the river and stairs.
The Watchbox at Shadwell Dock Stairs possibly being part of this approach – a problem with writing this blog, researching any topic always opens up lots of additional subjects to investigate.
Looking down Shadwell Dock Stairs and the following photo provides a better view of the stones forming the causeway leading out into the river.
The LMA Collage archive has a better photo of this part of the stairs at low tide in 1971. Interesting in comparing the above and below photos, the 1971 photo did not have what looks to be some form of concrete / stone platform either side of the causeway. This must have helped with preserving the state of the causeway. The concrete appears to have replaced the wooden posts that once held the side of the causeway in place.
Looking west along the river with Shadwell Dock Stairs in the lower left corner. To the right, between the marker post and the opposite river wall is the entrance to the Shadwell Basin, showing how close the entrance is to the stairs.
Shadwell Dock Stairs are Grade II listed, and they were included in the impact assessments for the construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel and close by is one of the construction sites for the tunnel, where part of the river facing walkway has been closed off. The following view is from the location of the Shadwell Dock Stairs, looking east, with the old Rotherhithe Tunnel pedestrian entrance, now ventilation point on the left, and the construction site on the right.
A small part of King Edward Memorial Park is now part of the construction site, but the major part of this park is unaffected. It is a park with a fascinating story, including competition for Billingsgate Fish Market. I wrote about the history of the park here.
Large, black, storage tanks form an interesting view along the southern edge of the park:
A longer view of the Tideway Tunnel construction site. Shadwell Dock Stairs can just been on the left edge of the photo.
Shadwell Dock Stairs were in existence before the London Docks, and the construction of the entrance to Shadwell Basin must have demolished the Shadwell Dock seen in the 1746 map, that the stairs must have been named after.
Shadwell Basin is the only remaining expanse of water from the London Docks, with the entrance to the basin being adjacent to the stairs.
A large lifting bridge remains over the entrance to the basin, carrying Glamis Road from Wapping Wall up to The Highway.
The section of the basin entrance between bridge and river is now occupied by the Outdoor Activity Centre.
Looking from the bridge in the opposite direction with the basin entrance leading into the larger Shadwell Basin. The towers of the City in the distance.
At the risk of sounding repetitive as I have mentioned this in my previous posts on Thames Stairs, I do find them fascinating. Shadwell Dock Stairs today is fenced off, but as with all the stairs I have looked at, they are a focal point for discovering the human history of the river and shore.
Standing by the stairs, we can imagine the thousands of people who have used the stairs to get to and from the river. The coming of the Shadwell Basin must have had a huge impact on the stairs. The times when ice from the frozen river broke up against the stairs, and the watchbox that must have been a scary place to sit on a dark winter’s night – all part of London’s centuries old relationship with the River Thames.
In the week before the lock down was implemented, I walked from London Bridge to the isle of Dogs. One of my favourite walks as the views of the river are wonderful in the gaps between old warehouse buildings. I am gradually working through as many Thames Stairs as I can find, and for this week’s post, let me take you to New Crane Stairs and a lost pub.
New Crane Stairs can be found at the corner where Wapping High Street turns away from the river towards Garnet Street. the entrance is tucked away between the old New Crane Wharf building and a recent new apartment building, with the entrance to the River View Chinese restaurant at the entrance to the stairs.
The view along the passageway leading to the stairs:
At the end of the passageway, New Crane Stairs lead down to the river foreshore:
Despite the name, New Crane Stairs are an old set of stairs down to the river. They appear in Morgan’s 1682 map of the whole of London. The word “New” at the start of the name is interesting as it implies there may have been an earlier set of stairs with the Crane name. There are other examples of this, for example Horselydown Old and New Stairs on the south bank of the river, east of Tower Bridge.
The London Borough of Tower Hamlets Wapping Wall Conservation Area document states that: “Great Jubilee Wharf and New Crane Wharf (following the post medieval river wall line) form a continuous ‘wall’ of buildings between the street and the Thames.” Intriguing to wonder if New Crane Stairs could possibly date back to a route over the medieval river wall to the river.
The following photo shows the view of New Crane Wharf from the river, with the stairs to the left:
I cannot find a source for the name, whether there was an earlier set of stairs with the Crane name, or whether the name was in reference to the nearby installation of a “new crane” which perhaps in the 17th century or even earlier would have been worthy of note.
Rocque’s 1746 map clearly shows New Crane Stairs at the point where the road turns north, in the centre of the following map:
The first written reference I can find to the stairs, in addition to the above maps is a rather touching newspaper report from the 4th August 1758:
“Thursday, the Wife of John Newcomb, a Waterman, belonging to New Crane Stairs, Wapping, was delivered of three fine boys, and all are like to do well.”
That this was newsworthy probably indicates how rare it was in the mid 18th century for three babies to be born, presumably without any complication – although typical for the time, the wife’s name is not given, or her health following the birth.
Five years later, in July 1763 there was one of the disastrous events that were relatively common in the wooden, close built houses and warehouses crammed with combustible materials:
“Sunday morning, about One o’Clock, a most dreadful Fire broke out at the New Crane Stairs, Wapping, which burnt with great Fury for 4 Hours before it could be stopped, and consumed all the Houses from New Crane Stairs to King James’s Stairs, and from the River-side back to the Garden Ground which includes both sides of the Street called Wapping Wall, and Part of Gravel Lane; it ended in consuming Mr Wilson’s large and fine Cooperage: The Number of Houses burnt are computed around 170, besides Shops, Warehouses and Docks, &c. and it is reckoned 1500 Persons, Housekeepers, Lodgers, &c. are burnt out. The loss is immensely great.
In the Dock by New Crane Stairs was the Mary Gally, captain Clarke, a fine Ship in the West-India Trade, almost ready to come out, which was entirely consumed to the keel, with all materials about the Dock.
It is said the Fire broke out in a Small-Beer Brewery, which immediately communicated itself to the Ship Alehouse; and the Wind blowing strong from the South carried the Flames to the Dock-Yard and other Houses adjoining; and the street being narrow, greatly impeded the working of the Engines. Two men are said to be buried in the Ruins and a Fireman had his skull fractured by the falling of a Wall.”
The damage caused by the fire can be judged by Sun Fire Office alone paying out £40,000 to those who had suffered losses in the fire.
It was a sunny and peaceful day when I walked down New Crane Stairs. The following photo is looking back up the stairs, the green algae demonstrating the height of high water on the stairs and surrounding buildings.
Part of the foreshore at the base of the stairs is covered in large concrete blocks, possibly the remains bombed buildings, river wall of structures that once ran into the river.
The foreshore at the base of many of the Thames stairs are remarkable places. I very rarely see anyone else, they are very peaceful, but have the full view of the river and adjoining buildings.
To the east (the above photo), the foreshore is almost beach like with a fine silt covering much of the surface. To the west as shown in the photo below there are more of the large concrete blocks:
The foreshore is covered with the tide worn remains of bricks and the chalk blocks that were used to provide flat and firm bases on the foreshore for barges and lighters.
When the tide is low it is possible walk some distance along the foreshore, but not today – and always with care to watch the tide and access to and from the river.
A rather tragic event at New Crane Stairs in 1911 demonstrated the lack of care for people really struggling and probably with mental health problems. The following article was titled “A Lucky Escape”:
“James Rick, 48, a meat porter of Angle-street, Walworth, was charged with attempting to commit suicide by jumping into the River Thames at New Crane Stairs, Wapping.
Police-Sargent Anderson, stated that early on Saturday morning he saw the accused struggling in the water. He rowed to his assistance, and succeeded in getting him into the boat. When questioned at the station, the accused replied ‘I have lost my wife, and everything has gone wrong. Everything seems to have gone wrong with me’.
Prisoner was remanded for a week.”
That someone who had attempted suicide, and had been driven to that fate by who knows what tragedy had been treated as a criminal seems incredible, but was a standard approach at the time.
A different example, but which also shows how people were treated comes from 1832 when Hugh Elliot of the coal ship Flora from Sunderland was charged with assaulting John Morrison, a boy belonging to another collier.
The boy had been assaulted at midnight at New Crane Stairs where he was waiting for his master, when the prisoner and several other ‘north country seamen’ came down and asked the boy to row them to their ships. He refused as he was waiting for his Captain, and Hugh Elliot assaulted him with several blows about the face and body.
This was bad enough, but the boy had been waiting since 10 pm and was “almost perished with cold”. It was apparently common practice for the masters of colliers to get their apprentices to row them to shore, then wait in the cold whilst they got drunk in the pubs. The report adds that a few winters ago, two lads were found by their officers frozen to death while waiting for their captains.
New Crane Wharf, to the east of the stairs is one of the pre-war warehouses, however the building to the west of the stairs is a new apartment building replacing a smaller building seen on the left of the following photo of New Crane Stairs in 1971:
We can get an idea of the industry in the immediate vicinity of New Crane Stairs by looking at maps of the area. The following extract from the 1894 Ordinance Survey Map shows New Crane Stairs in the centre of the map, with a causeway extending out into the river.
There is a jetty extending into the river, and to the upper left of New Crane Stairs are a “Commercial Gas Company’s Works”. More detail can be seen in the 1948 Ordnance Survey Map below, where New Crane Stairs is shown with a “Hard” extending into the river, the pier is still there with a conveyor which I suspect was used for taking coal to the Gas Works, which by 1948 are now shown as disused.
There is a 1929 Britain from Above photo which shows the area covered by the above two maps. Ignore the large white ship, rather look to the right and there is a smaller ship with two square holds which I suspect carried coal which would then be transported via conveyor to the Gas Works, the area to the right of the gas holders.
New Crane Stairs are to the upper right of the smaller ship, between the large warehouse (New Crane Wharf) and the smaller building.
Coal for the Gas Works was at continual risk of theft. An article in the East London Observer on the 29th May 1920 reported on two boys, John Vincent and John Bullman, both of Whitehorn-place, Wapping who were charged with the theft of 84lbs of coal, the property of the Commercial Gas Company. They had been seen by Constable 393 H who was on duty at New Crane Stairs coming from the barge Spaniard with a large sack.
They were up before the magistrate at Old Street Police Court and were given some “good advice” and bound over to be of good behaviour for twelve months.
I suspect the large amount of broken concrete blocks on the foreshore to the west of New Crane Stairs could be the remains of the jetty, or other infrastructure which was part of transporting coal from moored ships to the gas works.
The two maps also show a causeway or hard extending from the stairs into the river. There was no sign of that on the day of my visit, however on a visit a couple of years ago when the tide was lower, remains of this feature were visible existing out from the silt of the foreshore into the river, as shown in the following photo:
The following drawing from the LMA Collage archive, dated c1870, shows the New Crane Stairs on the far right, along with the smaller warehouse building shown in the maps, Britain from Above photo and the 1971 photo.
In the centre of the drawing is a pub. This is the Anchor and Hope public house, the building labeled P.H. just to the west of the stairs in the 1894 Ordnance Survey map.
I cannot find any photos of the pub, or much written about the pub, although there are plenty of newspaper references to the pub, either as a reference point for some event, or to activities using the pub. These references are always useful in understanding more about life in London as they record the day to day events that were important at time.
The unhealthy state of the River Thames is clear from an article in The Sportsman on the 14th January 1889 when the capture of a fish justifies an article:
” Perhaps the most startling incident in the world of sport during the last few days is the catch of a large carp in the Thames at Wapping. On Tuesday afternoon, opposite Mr Bat Murphy’s well-known hostelry, the Anchor and Hope, Wapping, a lighterman caught a very fine specimen of an English carp in the river, weighing more than 7lb. Mr Murphy has given instructions that this ‘below-bridge novelty’ should be stuffed and placed in a glass case.”
So perhaps the carp in its glass case was on display in the Anchor and Hope. The article goes on to mention a previous capture of a carp in the Thames, which was cooked for a special dinner to commemorate the capture of such a fish in the river, however after one bite, the taste was so bad that the diners had to reach for the brandy – a possible indicator of how bad the pollution of the river was in the 19th century.
Pigeon racing was a popular sport in East London and in August 1883, Mr Murphy, representing the Anchor and Hope came 3rd and won £3 in a race that started from the Derby Arms, Charlton.
In August 1880, the City of London, Tower Hamlets, Middlesex, Shadwell, Wapping and Ratcliffe Annual Regatta took place and all watermen and lightermen’s apprentices of the River Thames from Teddington to Gravesend were invited to enter their names at the Anchor and Hope, New Crane, Wapping for their annual coat and silver badge, and freedoms of the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Company.
Pubs were used as a meeting point, both for activities at the pub and also as a reference point for unrelated activities. An event in 1806 is a reminder of how General Elections were very restricted and the appointment of MPs controlled by the MPs, who often held seats for very long periods of time.
In the November 1806 General Election, George Byng was returned to Parliament for Middlesex. He had already been an MP since 1790 and would remain an MP for Middlesex until his death in 1847.
Voting was limited to Freeholders, and one way to get Freeholders to vote was to arrange their transport, and George Byng was advertising in newspapers that on election day:
“the Friends of Mr Byng are respectively informed that Carriages are provided for the conveyance of Freeholders in that Gentleman’s interest, and stationed at the following places, viz. Near the Anchor and Hope, New Crane, Wapping.”
As well as the Anchor and Hope, the advert then lists an additional 8 locations across East London and the City where coaches would be provided to transport his supporters to the election at Brentford.
I can identify exactly how and when the Anchor and Hope pub closed. The following is from an article titled “Exciting Scenes At Wapping” in the Daily News on the 5th July 1904:
“The East-end was the scene of an exciting fire in the early hours of yesterday morning, at which two persons were injured and three had very narrow escapes.
Shortly before two o’clock a fierce fire burst out in the spirit stores on the first floor of the Anchor and Hope public-house, Wapping High-street. In a short time the entire floor was blazing.
When the Shadwell firemen arrived they were informed that there were people in the burning building. Dashing up the staircase, and beating back the flames with a hydrant as they went, the crew of the escape brought down a man and a woman – the latter, Mrs Margaret Allen, 68, being in a condition of semi-unconsciousness. Meanwhile a third person had leaped out of the second floor window to the foreshore of the Thames. Her name is Ann Donovan, 43, and when she was picked up and removed to hospital it was found that she had broken her leg in two places, and was otherwise injured.
The fire was not extinguished until the public-house and it contents had been practically destroyed.”
It may be that fires were at the start and end of the Anchor and Hope, probably built after the destruction of the 1763 fire, and destroyed in the 1904 fire. After the 1904 fire, the area once occupied by the pub seems to have been included in the space occupied between river and gas works, probably used for the movement of coal from river to gas works.
I continue to be fascinated by Thames Stairs. They are some of the oldest features to be found along the river and almost certainly date back many hundreds of years.
Most times when I walk down stairs and on to the foreshore, even on a glorious sunny day, they are quiet. It is not often I find someone else on the foreshore.
A perfect place to watch the river and consider the considerable human history centred around these places that form the boundary between land and river.
The south bank of the River Thames has changed dramatically over the years, from an industrial environment, to one of leisure, culture and expensive housing. For much of the south bank, from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge, there is very little evidence of these pre-war industries, and their close relationship with the river.
As with much of the Thames as it if flows through the city, this stretch of the river was lined with numerous stairs, providing access to the river from the streets and buildings that ran alongside. It is still possible to find many of these, but there is one lost set of stairs that are the subject of this week’s post – searching for Emerson Stairs in Bankside.
This is one of my father’s post war photos of the south bank:
At first glance, there is not much in the above photo to identify the location today, but there are many pointers which I will explain as I work through the post, but as a starter, this is the same scene today:
The perspective is slightly different between the two photos, as my father was in a boat on the Thames, and I was standing on Southwark Bridge, but the area covered is much the same in the two photos.
The main clue to the location in the original photo is on the sign on the large building in the centre of the photo, which in fading lettering identifies the name as Emerson Wharf.
This building is on the site that would become the Globe Theatre, and in the following photo I have added some of the key landmarks and features visible in the photo:
And in the photo below I have added the location of the original buildings to the 2019 photo:
The only features that remain today are the old houses at 49 Bankside and on the opposite side of Cardinal Cap Alley, although these are behind the trees in the 2019 photo.
The original Bankside Power Station, which was a longer, but thinner building to the 1950s replacement (now Tate Modern) is behind Emerson Wharf, and all the infrastructure between power station and river, including the coal conveyor belt which can be seen in the original photo, have long gone.
One of my many side projects is tracing all the Thames stairs, and in the centre of the photo there is a new one for me to add to the list.
Just visible are a set of stairs leading down from the river, from a small cut into the embankment, and there appears to be a couple of people sitting on the stairs looking out over the river. I have labelled the stairs in the original photo above.
The following photo is an enlarged extract from the original photo showing the stairs (the best quality image I could get from a 72 year old 35 mm negative):
The map below is an extract from the 1951 edition of the Ordnance Survey map for the same area as in the photo.
The river and “mud and shingle” of the foreshore runs along the top of the map.
Bankside Power Station is the large block towards the left of the map running from top to bottom. The words “overhead conveyor” on the map between power station and river refer to the conveyor partly visible in my father’s photo.
Bankside runs along the river’s edge from left to right.
To the right of centre of the photo there is a street running from Bankside down to the bottom of the map – this is Emerson Street. Look where Emerson Street meets Bankside, then just above, to the left, there is a small cut into the embankment, and the symbol of some stairs reaching down to the river.
These are the same stairs as seen in my father’s photo – Emerson Stairs, leading from the junction of Emerson Street and Bankside, down into the river.
The 1950 edition of the Survey of London – Volume XXII Bankside – provides a source for the name Emerson Street and the associated stairs:
“During the reign of Elizabeth, part of Axe Yard was the property of the Emerson family, William Emerson, died in 1575. His monument in Southwark Cathedral has the succinct epitaph ‘he lived and died an honest man’. His son, Thomas (died 1595) founded one of the parish charities and gave his name to Emerson Street.”
There is a plan of Bankside, dating from 1618, drawn to support a lawsuit over access to Bankside, and in the left of this plan there is a rectangular plot of land labelled ‘Mr Emmerson’s’. The River Thames in the plan is on the right, with Bankside running from top to bottom of the map alongside the river.
There is though a bit of a mystery concerning the location and name of the stairs.
I could not find too many mentions of Emerson Stairs. The following newspaper report (London Evening Standard, 6th August 1880) is typical of the few references I could find, where the stairs are used as a reference point on the river:
CORONERS’ INQUESTS – Mr W. Carter, Coroner for the eastern Division of Surrey, held an inquest at the Woolpack, Gravel-lane, yesterday, on the body of John Thomas Glue, 16 years of age. who was drowned in the Thames on Friday last while bathing off Old Barge House Stairs, Upper ground-street, Blackfriars. Thomas Style, who accompanied the deceased for the purpose of bathing, said the deceased swam out some ten or eleven yards, and suddenly called out that he had the cramp, and cried for help. he tried to turn, but was carried down by the rapidity of the current, and sunk under a barge that was moored close at hand. There were a number of others in the water, but at too great a distance to render him any help. Witness packed up the deceased’s clothing and handed them to the police – G.J. Jeffery, Fireman No. 91. picked up the body between Southwark bridge and Emerson Stairs and gave it into the charge of Police-constable 103 M. who had it conveyed to the mortuary.”
Stairs leading down to the River Thames have often been in existence for many centuries, so I checked John Rocque’s map of London from 1746. The map extract below shows roughly the same area, but where Emerson Street was located in the 1951 map, there is a street named Thames Street, with a set of stairs at the end of the street called New Thames Street Stairs.
So was this the original name of the street and stairs?
Emerson Street is the name on the 1895 Ordnance Survey map, however earlier than this, there seems to be a dual use of Emerson and Thames Street back to around 1880, with Thames Street being the name used prior to 1880.
An example of the use of Thames Street is from multiple reports on the 13th December 1845 about a very high tide that caused significant damage all along the Thames:
“LAMENTABLE EFFECTS OF THE HIGH TIDE – The publicans in Thames Street, Bankside, and so on to Westminster and Lambeth, had their cellars filled with water. The Commercial Road, Lambeth and Belvidere-road, were all under water, and in the later road the cellars were filled. Searle’s the boat builders premises, the glass house and wharfs between the latter place and Bishop’s-walk were flooded to a depth of several feet. the road to Lambeth Church was impassable. The tide rushed under the gates of the Archbishop’s Palace, filling the gardens and approaches to the house. In Fore-street, High-street, and Ferry street, the licences victuallers and other have sustained great losses, and the landlady of the Duke’s Head, in Fore-street estimates her loss at £200.”
So, my assumption was that during the 1880s, Thames Street was renamed to Emerson Street, with the stairs also taking on the Emerson name.
I then checked the Layers of London website to overlay the Rocque map on the 1950s Ordnance Survey map to confirm, but here it got confusing.
The overlay of these maps appeared to show that Thames Street and New Thames Street Stairs were a short distance to the west of Emerson Street and Stairs. Indeed, the road at the south of Emerson Street, Park Street also looks to be in a slightly different position when comparing the two maps.
Returning to a slightly wider view of the Ordnance Survey map, and comparing with the Rocque map, the position of Emerson Street and Thames Street appear the same. The alignment of Maid Lane, and its future name of Park Street look roughly the same, leading down to what would become the junction with Sumner Street.
So I suspect that Thames Street and New Thames Street Stairs changed name to Emerson Street and Emerson Stairs at some point in the 1880s. They were the same streets, and the mapping between the Rocque and Ordnance Survey maps on the Layers of London site is slightly out at this point – which is only to be expected given the lack of precise mapping and recording techniques available to Roqcue in the mid 18th century.
The name Emerson Street is retained on the southern section from Park Street to Sumner Street, so a reference to the 16th century Thomas Emerson can still be found in Bankside.
There is a report of an inspection by the St. Saviours Board of Works into the condition of Thames stairs and landing places in November 1866. This report includes Thames Street Stairs, but also lists all those within their responsibility and provides names of some that remain, and some lost:
“The committee had made an inspection of the following water-side passages or ways in the district through which the board possessed a right of way – viz: Primrose-alley, St. Mary Overie’s Dock, St. Mary Overie’s Stairs, Horse-shoe-alley Stairs, Rose-alley, Bankside, Thames-street Stairs, Mason’s Stairs, Love-lane Stairs, Clark’s-alley, Rennie’s gateway, Marygold Passage and Stairs, Bull-alley Passage and Barge-house Alley and Stairs, in most of which obstructions, nuisances, &c, existed, which required to be attended to. Referred back to the committee.”
The list of names gives an indication of the number of stairs and alleys there were leading to the river, and there are some intriguing names, Obstructions and nuisances also lets the imagination roam over what river side life was like, and the activities that went on at these stairs and passages, on the border between land and river.
The references I have found name the stairs Thames Street Stairs, rather than New Thames Street Stairs as referenced in Rocque’s map. The use of the word “New” in 1746 is either an error, or implies these stairs replaced a previous set of stairs with the same name – one for my endless list of things I still want to research.
So what does the area look like today?
The following photo is from Bankside, looking down New Globe Walk / Emerson Street / Thames Street.
Part of the street now has restricted vehicle access and the Globe Theatre now occupies the space on the western corner.
This is the view looking up towards the river at the junction of New Globe Walk / Emerson Street / Thames Street with Bankside. The stairs would have been roughly in front of where the red life buoy can be seen.
The stairs were located where Bankside Pier now stands. The pier is directly opposite New Globe Walk and provides access to the passenger ferries that run along the Thames, so although the stairs have disappeared, the same location continues to be used as a means of accessing craft on the river.
Although Emerson Stairs have gone, there are still stairs down to the river at Bankside. A short distance to the west from Bankside Pier are these stairs leading down to the foreshore.
These are new stairs, built as part of the re-development of Bankside, however there is perhaps a historical reference for these stairs.
Looking back at the Rocque map, and just to the west of New Thames Street Stairs are Goat Stairs. Align these with Maid Lane in 1746 and Park Street in 2019 and they are in a similar position (although perhaps a bit too far to the west, depending on the accuracy of the 1746 map).
Goat Stairs are not found on the Ordnance Survey maps, so these were lost much earlier, however the new stairs are a good reminder of the old stairs that once connected Bankside with the river.
From the foreshore by the stairs we can look back at Bankside Pier, the location of Emerson / Thames Street Stairs.
Invisible from the walkway along the river, but visible down on the foreshore, the word BANKSIDE calls out to those on the river and on the opposite shore.
I can now add Emerson Stairs / Thames Street Stairs to the list, and I have many more to go.
Stairs are simple structures, but it is their role as a reference point on the river, and a route crossing the boundary between land and river that is so fascinating.
There are numerous stories about events at these stairs, a couple of which I have already mentioned. Many stories highlight a tragedy and the challenges of life in London – such is the nature of news reporting. One particular report from the 29th May 1842 demonstrated the impact on women of the daily struggle to support a family, and how this came to a tragic conclusion at Thames Street Stairs:
” SUICIDE – On Friday a suicide was committed at the Thames Street Stairs, Bankside, by a respectable married woman, named Firmin, the wife of a lighterman, residing in the Commercial road, Lambeth. Her husband, having occasion to go to work about three o’clock in the morning, left the deceased in bed, and soon afterwards she got up, and having dressed herself, went to the above stairs, and getting on to some barges alongside threw herself into the river. A watchman on the opposite side immediately gave an alarm, and the body was got out of the water, but life was quite extinct. The deceased had been married about twenty two years, and was the mother of eighteen children. Not the slightest reason can be assigned for the committal of the rash act.”
I suspect the reason for the so called ‘rash act’, may have been the challenge of providing for and supporting the family mentioned in the second to last sentence – the stress of supporting a family with eighteen children on a lighterman’s wages must have been enormous.
One final point before finishing this post, the 1950’s Ordnance Survey map shows a number of circles marked “hoppers” in the space between the Emerson Wharf building and Emerson Street.
These are not visible in my father’s photo which was taken in 1947, but they were installed a couple of years later as shown in the photo below taken by my father in 1949 from the north bank of the river, which also provides a good view of the river facing side of Emerson Wharf (the hoppers are slightly left of centre).
I suspect that when the hoppers were added, there was an expectation that industrial life would continue as it had done, however changes in river usage, and the closure of industry along the river in the decades following my father’s photo would end with the scene we see today with the Globe Theatre occupying Emerson Wharf, and the Bankside Pier providing access to the river, in place of Emerson Stairs.