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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

18 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.|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 😀 .

  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.

  16. Paul Holland permalink
    February 23, 2016

    Alas most of these are now demolished, as are most of the architectural past gems of London. All lost is daily destruction forced upon London in the name of progress, modernisation, big business, too much money sloshing around and of course our dear dear heathen Lord Mayor of London who is hell bent on demolishing every building and replacing it with office sky scrapers and folly flats that noone lives in, just there as a speculative investment for the wealthy overseas bods. Even the streets are disappering in the city and certainly the allys and side passages are all either gone, going or likely to go in the near future. Londons very soul is dying, if not already dead. With it, so much else has of spiritual and cultural value has died or is dying

  17. December 24, 2016

    Wonderful, evocative photos. An especial interest for me in the ones of Cromwell House. Now the High Commission of Ghana, the house was built by Richard Sprignell in 1637, the staircase’s motifs of military trophies alluding to his earlier military career. Looking at these photos it is easy to conjure up the ghosts of Sprignell, his wife Anne DeLaune and their large family living in the house. Easy too to imagine poor Richard Sprignell there, declared a lunatic in 1658 after several episodes of madness, and his father-in-law, Gideon DeLaune, an immensely wealthy one-time Royal Apothecary, who died, aged 94 and blind, here in 1659, just a few months after Richard. Only one of Richard and Anne’s sons married, and when he childless it was only a few years before the house passed out of Sprignell ownership.
    The house was used as Great Ormond Street Hospital’s convalescent home From 1868 until 1924.

  18. tovangar2 permalink
    June 1, 2018

    No offense to the current occupant, the Ghana High Commission, but it is a great pity that Cromwell House (1637-8), Highgate’s only Grade I listed building, is not open to the public.

    BTW, these days, the carved newel post statues are replacements, the originals having been stolen in the 1980s when the house was derelict.

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