Skip to content

Wapping Stairs

December 8, 2014
by the gentle author

Wapping Old Stairs

I need to keep reminding myself of the river. Rarely a week goes by without some purpose to go down there but, if no such reason occurs, I often take a walk simply to pay my respects to the Thames. Even as you descend from the Highway into Wapping, you sense a change of atmosphere when you enter the former marshlands that remain susceptible to fog and mist on winter mornings. Yet the river does not declare itself at first, on account of the long wall of old warehouses that line the shore, blocking the view of the water from Wapping High St.

The feeling here is like being offstage in a great theatre and walking in the shadowy wing space while the bright lights and main events take place nearby. Fortunately, there are alleys leading between the tall warehouses which deliver you to the waterfront staircases where you may gaze upon the vast spectacle of the Thames, like an interloper in the backstage peeping round the scenery at the action. There is a compelling magnetism drawing you down these dark passages, without ever knowing precisely what you will find, since the water level rises and falls by seven metres every day – you may equally discover waves lapping at the foot of the stairs or you may descend onto an expansive beach.

These were once Watermen’s Stairs, where passengers might get picked up or dropped off, seeking transport across or along the Thames. Just as taxi drivers of contemporary London learn the Knowledge, Watermen once knew the all the names and order of the hundreds of stairs that lined the banks of the Thames, of which only a handful survive today.

Arriving in Wapping by crossing the bridge in Old Gravel Lane, I come first to the Prospect of Whitby where a narrow passage to the right leads to Pelican Stairs. Centuries ago, the Prospect was known as the Pelican, giving its name to the stairs which have retained their name irrespective of the changing identity of the pub. These worn stone steps connect to a slippery wooden stair leading to wide beach at low tide where you may enjoy impressive views towards the Isle of Dogs.

West of here is New Crane Stairs and then, at the side of Wapping Station, another passage leads you to Wapping Dock Stairs. Further down the High St, opposite the entrance to Brewhouse Lane, is a passageway leading to a fiercely-guarded pier, known as King Henry’s Stairs – though John Roque’s map of 1746 labels this as the notorious Execution Dock Stairs. Continue west and round the side of the river police station, you discover Wapping Police Stairs in a strategic state of disrepair and beyond, in the park, is Wapping New Stairs.

It is a curious pilgrimage, but when you visit each of these stairs you are visiting another time – when these were the main entry and exit points into Wapping. The highlight is undoubtedly Wapping Old Stairs with its magnificently weathered stone staircase abutting the Town of Ramsgate and offering magnificent views to Tower Bridge from the beach. If you are walking further towards the Tower, Aldermans’ Stairs is worth venturing at low tide when a fragment of ancient stone causeway is revealed, permitting passengers to embark and disembark from vessels without wading through Thames mud.

Pelican Stairs

Pelican Stairs at night

View into the Prospect of Whitby from Pelican Stairs

New Crane Stairs

Wapping Dock Stairs

Execution Dock Stairs, now known as King Henry’s Stairs

Entrance to Wapping Police Stairs

Wapping Police Stairs

Metropolitan Police Service Warning: These stairs are unsafe!

Wapping New Stairs with Rotherithe Church in the distance

Light in Wapping High St

Wapping Pier Head

Entrance to Wapping Old Stairs

Wapping Old Stairs

Passageway to Wapping Old Stairs at night

Aldermans’ Stairs, St Katharine’s Way

You may also like to read about

Madge Darby, Historian of Wapping

Whistler in Wapping & Limehouse

The Gentle Author’s Wapping Pub Crawl

Wapping Tavern Tokens

15 Responses leave one →
  1. December 8, 2014

    Wonderful photos. Love the one looking into the Prospect. We used to play around Wapping a lot as kids, and were often chased away from people who said that it wasn’t safe for children. Valerie

  2. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    December 8, 2014

    What wonderful atmospheric places!I am sp pleased the they still exist in modern London.

  3. December 8, 2014

    Very special sights in a magic light…!

    Love & Peace

  4. Ros permalink
    December 8, 2014

    Spectacularly beautiful photos! Just marvellous of the water. Lots of lovely information too.

  5. December 8, 2014

    I wonder how people did embark and disembark when the tide was low? Did the watermen carry them to the stairs? I love the thought of those watermen learning the names and order of all the different stairs.

  6. December 8, 2014

    Evocative photographs. Readers who are intrigued by the spaces might also want read the Anne Perry crime novels set in Victorian London. One protagonist, William Monk, is a Wapping policeman and, later, head of the Thames River Crimes unit.

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    December 8, 2014

    I love these photos of the river and Wapping, thank you so much GA. I know that I have mentioned before that I probably have water from the River Thames mixed with the blood in my veins as I have so many ancestors on my family tree who were watermen, ferrymen and shipwrights not to mention the one who kept the pub in Wapping High Street. My earliest waterman ancestor was William Tero, who appears in a Transcript of the Admiralty muster or census of the Thames watermen 2 Feb 1628/9 at Lambeth. William was then 19 years old.

  8. December 8, 2014

    I was born in London in 1925 and though I’ve lived abroad and now live in Shropshire, I am increasingly homesick for the city as I haven’t been for 3 years. I love to linger over your superb photos, and although I came from Chelsea (fire watching for incendiaries on Battersea Power Station), I sometimes wish for a sight of old Chelsea before it became the posh place it’s become.
    However a glimpse of the Prospect of Whitby, where we used to go sometimes, cheered me up.
    Thank you.

  9. Jane B permalink
    December 8, 2014

    “And as the notes drifted from the boy’s mouth, so they entered his mother’s heart and took her back to her Past, back down to Wapping High Street and those mossy old steps that glistened with the slap of waves, where she stood, intoxicated, awaiting the shadow of the row boat and the grin of her man and the rough hand that led her up the steep incline, past the laughing singing voices from the Town of Ramsgate, over the cobbled road to the ancient wall of St John’s graveyard, where, giggling through the sacred dark they stumbled towards the broad trunk of a chestnut tree, and there, under the eyes of the Dead, they created life.”
    — “this haunting vignette by Sarah Winman author of When God Was A Rabbit”

  10. Jane B permalink
    December 8, 2014

    “mossy old steps that glistened with the slap of waves” 🙂

    And before that a modern love story…

    “When Helen Mirren lost her ring throwing her grass clippings over the river wall from her Wapping garden, it was Steve [the Mud God] who found it for her in the river…”

    Truly, it’s a stairway to another world 🙂

    The Sands of Time shift, but what is lost at The Tower in terms of foreshore playground is still daily revealed at Wapping.

    Wapping beach — accessed via New Crane Stairs — discovered by the lucky few 🙂 — “Difficult to believe that this lovely little deserted beach is only one and a half miles from Tower Bridge”

    Below, the PLA’s Thames tide-tables, just in case any Londoners want some winter sea, sand and ‘frothy wave’ closer to home

    And if anyone need a particular excuse to go there, or is wondering what to do with any photos once they have…

    ‘The Watermen’s Bus-stop Project’
    — headed up by the UCL Institute or Archaeology’s Gustav Milne
    on behalf of the Thames Discovery Programme [from 0:33]

    And for inspiration [for He is our source of many images and words that are to stay inside our heads forever 🙂 ] …

    Peta Bridle’s dry-point etching, Wapping Old Stairs
    “To reach the stairs you have a to go along a tiny passage to the side of the Town of Ramsgate. Originally, the stairs were a ferry point for people wishing to catch a boat along the river. I think they are quite beautiful and I like to see the marks of the masons’ tools, still left on the stones after all this time.”

  11. Gary Arber permalink
    December 8, 2014

    Probably the last remaining part of Dickensian London.

  12. December 9, 2014

    I saw that Jane had mentioned our crowdfunding project with UCL above – please do get in touch with us if you are interested in the history and archaeology of the watermans stairs! There’s more information about the project here:

  13. January 24, 2015

    I have only just come across ‘Spitalfields Life’ and find it very interesting as I was born in Bethnal Green and brought up in the East End.
    The item on Wapping was particularly of interest as my Adams family were in Wapping for over 100 years from about 1780. Jonathan Adams ,my Gt.Grandfather [x3] ,was born in Hackney and was apprenticed to a Wapping waterman. After finishing his apprenticeship he plied his trade from Wapping New Stairs and lived in Knights Court a short walk away behind St.John’s church. He was also a retained fireman for London Assurance.
    His brother John was also known to another Wapping resident, Captain William Bligh and sailed with him on the notorious Breadfruit Voyage to Tahiti and after the mutiny never returned but established, as the last remaining Englishman, the community which still exists on Pitcairn Island.
    More details are available on the website

  14. Edward BAGLIN permalink
    February 8, 2017

    I was intrigued by Wapping Stairs as my grandfather,Sidney Skeat ,who was in the Home Guard had to watch over” the stairs” in WW2.
    Looking at these pictures, guarding this location must of been pretty frightening especially during the height of the Blitz.

  15. March 21, 2023

    My ancestor (b. est 1670) Thomas Trumball’s first children were born in Queens Head Alley, Wapping (gone from maps since abt. 1870), which led into Meeting House Alley which still exists.

    On my pursuit to find out more about this long-gone alley I find from old maps that it probably led onto Wapping New Stairs.

    I read on Wikipedia that stairs were often built adjacent to a public house and it would seem that the pub on New Stairs then could have been a Queens Head, although I can find no reference to it.

    Thanks for the pic of Wapping New Stairs. It’s wonderful to see it, and yours is the only pic I can find, so your recording of it is so worthwhile.

Leave a Reply

Note: Comments may be edited. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS