Tag Archives: Thames Stairs

Shadwell Dock Stairs

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.

The red circle in the following map extract shows the location of the stairs, between King Edward Memorial Park and the entrance to Shadwell Basin  (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

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.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

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.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

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.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

The LMA Collage archive has a similar view of the stairs from 1978, when much of the land behind was still derelict.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0639_78_120_100_2

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

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 placed one 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.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

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.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0639_71_35_513_23

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

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.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

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:

Shadwell Dock Stairs

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

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.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

The section of the basin entrance between bridge and river is now occupied by the Outdoor Activity Centre.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

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.

Shadwell Dock Stairs

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.

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New Crane Stairs and the Anchor and Hope Pub

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.

New Crane Stairs

The view along the passageway leading to the stairs:

New Crane Stairs

At the end of the passageway, New Crane Stairs lead down to the river foreshore:

New Crane Stairs

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:

New Crane Stairs

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:

New Crane Stairs

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.

New Crane Stairs

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.

New Crane Stairs

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:

New Crane Stairs

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.

New Crane Stairs

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.

New Crane Stairs

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:

New Crane Stairs

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: SC_PHL_02_0639_71_35_518_11

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.

New Crane Stairs

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

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.

New Crane Stairs

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

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

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:

New Crane Stairs

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.

New Crane Stairs

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: p540958x

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.

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Emerson Stairs, Bankside

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:

Emerson Stairs

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:

Emerson Stairs

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:

Emerson Stairs

And in the photo below I have added the location of the original buildings to the 2019 photo:

Emerson Stairs

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):

Emerson Stairs

The map below is an extract from the 1951 edition of the Ordnance Survey map for the same area as in the photo.

Emerson Stairs

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

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.

Emerson Stairs

Image credit: London Metropolitan Archives, City of London: catalogue ref: COL_CCS_PL_01_205_26

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.

Emerson 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.

Emerson Stairs

Credit: ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’ 

And comparing with the street layout of today, this looks the same, however Emerson Street has undergone yet another name change. The section north from Park Street to Bankside is now called New Globe Walk – a relatively recent name change to go with the build of the Globe Theatre on what was Emerson Wharf (Map © OpenStreetMap contributors).

Emerson Stairs

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.

Emerson Stairs

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.

Emerson Stairs

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.

Emerson Stairs

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.

Emerson Stairs

From the foreshore by the stairs we can look back at Bankside Pier, the location of Emerson / Thames Street Stairs.

Emerson 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.

Emerson Stairs

The history of the stairs that line the River Thames is fascinating. I have written about a number before including Alderman Stairs, Old Swan Stairs and Horselydown Old Stairs.

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).

Emerson Stairs

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.

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