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The Staircases of Old London

October 21, 2012
by the gentle author

Mercers’ Hall, c.1910

It gives me vertigo just to contemplate the staircases of old London – portrayed in these glass slides once used for magic lantern shows by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Bishopsgate Institute. Yet I cannot resist the foolish desire to climb every one to discover where it leads, scaling each creaking step and experiencing the sinister chill of the landing where the apparition materialises on moonless nights.

In the Mercers’ Hall and the Cutlers’ Hall, the half-light of a century ago glimmers at the top of the stairs eternally. Is someone standing there at the head of the staircase in the shadows? Did everyone that went up come down again? Or are they all still waiting at the top? These depopulated photographs are charged with the presence of those who ascended and descended through the centuries.

While it is tempting to follow on up, there is a certain grandeur to many of these staircases which presents an unspoken challenge – even a threat – to an interloper such as myself, inviting second thoughts. The question is, do you have the right? Not everybody enjoys the privilege of ascending the wide staircase of power to look down upon the rest of us. I suspect many of these places had a narrow stairway round the back, more suitable for the likes of you and I.

But since there is no-one around to stop us, why should we not walk right up the staircase to the top and take a look to see what is there?  It cannot do any harm. You go first, I am right behind you.

Cutlers’ Hall, c.1920.

Buckingham Palace, Grand Staircase, c.1910.

4 Catherine Court, Shadwell c.1900.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Dean’s staircase, c.1920.

House of Lords, staircase and corridor, c.1920.

Fishmongers’ Hall, marble staircase, c.1920.

Girdlers’ Hall, c.1920.

Goldsmiths’ Hall, c.1920.

Merchant Taylors’ Hall,  c.1920.

Cromwell House Hospital, Highgate Hill, c.1930.

Ironmongers’ Hall, c.1910.

Cromwell House Hospital, Highgate Hill, c.1930.

Stairs at Wapping, c.1910.

Cromwell House Hospital, Highgate Hill, c.1930.

Staircase at the Tower of London, Traitors’ Gate, c.1910.

Hogarth’s “Christ at the Pool of Bethesda” on the staircase at Bart’s Hospital, c.1910.

Lancaster House, c.1910.

2 Arlington St, c.1915.

73 Cheapside, c.1910.

Dowgate stairs, c.1910.

Crutched Friars, 1912.

Grocers’ Hall, c.1910.

Cromwell House Hospital, Highgate Hill, c.1930.

Salters’ Hall, Entrance Hall and Staircase, c.1910.

Holy Trinity Hospital, Greenwich, c.1910.

Salter’s Hall, c.1910.

Skinners’ Hall, c.1910.

1 Horse Guards Avenue, 1932.

Ashburnham House, Westminster, c.1910.

Buckingham Palace, c.1910.

Home House, Portman Sq, c.1910.

St Paul’s Cathedral, Dean’s Staircase, c.1920.

Glass slides copyright © Bishopsgate Institute

You may also like to take a look at

The Nights of Old London

The Ghosts of Old London

The Dogs of Old London

The Signs of Old London

The Markets of Old London

The Pubs of Old London

The Doors of Old London

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Jansos permalink
    October 21, 2012

    Great photos of old staircases – the original oak staircase from the Foundling Hospital in Coram’s Fields can still be seen in the Foundling Museum. http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=foundling+museum+staircase&hl=en&client=safari&tbo=d&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=sNuDUOfHI4LB0gXV-YD4BA&ved=0CAkQ_AUoAQ&biw=768&bih=900#biv=i|22;d|i_rojXzMMJUuLM:

  2. SophieM permalink
    October 21, 2012

    So strange; I was dreaming interiors and staircases just like this last night. i woke up just as i was watching a key slowly turning in the lock, and then found these photos in my inbox. Really lovely blog, as ever. Thanks, Gentle Author.

  3. Chris F permalink
    October 21, 2012

    More brilliant photos. I’m like you in as much as that I would also like to climb those stairs and have a good look around. When ever we visit grand houses, I always want to look in the rooms where the doors are locked. I don’t care if the room in undecorated, dilapidated or full of junk… That just makes it more interesting for me. Mrs F says that I am nosey… I reply that I am simply curious… Nosey? Curious? Its a fine line…

  4. Kim permalink
    October 21, 2012

    No such things as handicap entrances in those days, even at the two hospitals.

  5. October 21, 2012

    Another beautiful selection of images, love ‘St Paul’s Cathedral, Dean’s Staircase, c.1920′ – looks like an etching!
    They don’t build stairs like this anymore.

  6. Paula permalink
    October 21, 2012

    Hauntingly beautiful. Are these available in print or book form?

  7. October 21, 2012

    Wonderful. They even make Grand Designs look ordinary.

  8. October 22, 2012

    Beautiful, just lovely………….

    thank you

  9. andrea permalink
    October 22, 2012

    Staircases! Years ago I had to write an art history exam, in which we were asked to “Discuss the development of the neoclassical staircase, using examples.” Fortunately there were other questions to choose from, but that one haunts me still.

  10. October 22, 2012

    OK, I could also become a lover of staircases – I love these old photos.

  11. Judy permalink
    October 23, 2012

    Wonderful photos, full of the character of their times (some of them rather sinister….).
    Thank you once again GA! Really enjoyed them.

  12. Peter Banting permalink
    October 25, 2012

    Wonderful….They take one to a higher level, literally and aesthetically.

  13. May 26, 2013

    I just keep expecting to see a glimpse of ectoplasma on some of them :D .

  14. gioconda permalink
    October 27, 2013

    Long staircases and closed doors form a mystery in a single photograph. Haunting and intriguing–an unusual subject done tastefully in your style. Thank you for this novel perspective.

  15. Mikki permalink
    March 9, 2014

    These places should be noted in tour guide books – what a lovely part of history – would have loved to have seen the stair cases in most of these places – hard to find any of these in the USA – unless you go back east to the time of the industrial age of the late 1800′s and early 1900′s when there were the wealthiest families of New York City and Newport R.I.

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