Londonist's Back Passage: #54 Wapping Old Stairs

By M@ Last edited 93 months ago
Londonist's Back Passage: #54 Wapping Old Stairs
The narrow passage beside the Town of Ramsgate pub.
The narrow passage beside the Town of Ramsgate pub.
View of the steps from the pub terrace.
View of the steps from the pub terrace.
The narrow alley leading to the Old Stairs.
The narrow alley leading to the Old Stairs.
The Town of Ramsgate pub.
The Town of Ramsgate pub.
One of the first riverside warehouses to be converted into modern apartments overlooks the site.
One of the first riverside warehouses to be converted into modern apartments overlooks the site.

Time to resurrect our long-absent column on the city's alleys, ginnels and snickleways.

All the passageways we've covered in this series so far have led somewhere. Wapping Old Stairs is a little different. The modern explorer will find that this tight passage and time-warn steps debouch only onto the Thames foreshore, and then only at low tide. In days of yore, however, this ancient alley would serve as the start of a much longer journey to distant lands, and even to the very gates of hell.

You'll find Wapping Old Stairs on the western side of the Town of Ramsgate pub, named after the Kentish fisherfolk who once sold their wares here. This friendly boozer traces its beery origins back to the 16th century, but the current pub is probably Victorian. Out back is a diminutive beer terrace with a limited view of the river. The terrace looks down onto one of the countless inlets formerly servicing pre-war trading vessels. At low tide, it's possible to get down onto the foreshore at this point via a flight of dilapidated steps. You'll be surprised how readily you'll come across clay pipes, potsherds and other remnants of previous centuries.

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There are no relics, however, from the foreshore's former use as a site of execution for pirates, smugglers and other nautical ne'er-do-wells. Until as late as 1830, malefactors were hanged or gibbeted in the Wapping waters until, famously, three tides had passed over their swollen bodies. The exact site of 'Execution Dock', as it was known, is uncertain, but the waters around Wapping Old Stairs are a good contender. Certainly, the neighbouring pub's cellars were used to house prisoners before transportation to the colonies.

Regardless, the timeless atmosphere around this maritime staircase has led to it featuring in a number of TV series and films. Dr Who fans may remember the Stairs from Tom Baker classic The Talons of Weng-Chan. Further back, and this same flight of steps inspired a folk song and a Victorian drama.

Our visit coincided with high tide, so we couldn't get down to the shore. However, the BBC have this panoramic tour of the area.

Last Updated 20 July 2010

Robert McEachern

You may know this already but, William Makepeace Thackeray wrote a poem, Wapping Old Stairs, that was enclosed within another poem, The Knightly Guerdon.

The Knightly Guerdon *
William Makepeace Thackeray

Untrue to my Ulric I never could be,
I vow by the saints and the blessed Marie,
Since the desolate hour when we stood by the shore,
And your dark galley waited to carry you o'er:
My faith then I plighted, my love I confess'd,
As I gave you the BATTLE-AXE marked with your crest!

When the bold barons met in my father's old hall,
Was not Edith the flower of the banquet and ball?
In the festival hour, on the lips of your bride,
Was there ever a smile save with THEE at my side?
Alone in my turret I loved to sit best,
To blazon your BANNER and broider your crest.

The knights were assembled, the tourney was gay!
Sir Ulric rode first in the warrior-melee.
In the dire battle-hour, when the tourney was done,
And you gave to another the wreath you had won!
Though I never reproached thee, cold, cold was my breast,
As I thought of that BATTLE-AXE, ah! and that crest!

But away with remembrance, no more will I pine
That others usurped for a time what was mine!
There's a FESTIVAL HOUR for my Ulric and me:
Once more, as of old, shall he bend at my knee;
Once more by the side of the knight I love best
Shall I blazon his BANNER and broider his crest.

* Wapping Old Stairs
Your Molly has never been false, she declares,
Since last time we parted at Wapping Old Stairs,
When I swore that I still would continue the same,
And gave you the 'bacco box, marked with your name.

When I pass'd a whole fortnight between decks with you,
Did I e'er give a kiss, Tom, to one of the crew?
To be useful and kind, with my Thomas I stay'd,
For his trousers I wash'd, and his grog too I made.

Though you threaten'd, last Sunday, to walk in the Mall
With Susan from Deptford, and likewise with Sal,
In silence I stood your unkindness to hear,
And only upbraided my Tom, with a tear.

Why should Sal, or should Susan, than me be more priz'd?
For the heart that is true, Tom, should ne'er be despis'd;
Then be constant and kind, nor your Molly forsake,
Still your trousers I'll wash, and your grog too I'll make.