Above: Wapping Old Stairs, leading to the river from Wapping High Street. They are on the west side of Oliver’s Wharf. The stairs and causeway are a good example of water stairs beside the Thames.
This is one of the Categories listed with a ‘4-‘ on the Know Your London Website, meaning that it is one of the many ‘Subjects’ that are cross-referenced in the blogs.
Until the 19th century, water stairs were a common sight on the banks of the Thames. In fact, they were vital to the way that the river was used. They were once to be found, spaced about 100 yards apart, along the entire length of the Thames in what is now Inner London. Most of the sides of the Thames were embanked – making it impossible to get access to the river at high tide or to access the beach when the tide was out. Cut into the embankments were flights of stone stairs (or sometimes wooden ones) so that those working beside the Thames could easily access boats moored on the Thames at high tide or to the beach when the tide was out.
In addition, members of the public who wished to be rowed across the Thames or ferried to another location on the river would use the stairs to board a rowing boat (usually called a wherry). If the tide was out, the beach was often muddy and stone causeways led from the foot of the stairs for passengers to walk out to the waiting boats. The use of ferries for passengers died out in Victorian times. Due to the strong tides on the Thames, the causeways have gradually been eroded. Many are now in a very poor state of repair and only a small number are to be seen at low tide today.
Above: Part of John Rocque’s map of 1746 showing water stairs to the east of the Tower of London. Few of the stairs exist today but those that do act as a ‘marker’ on the Thames to the past.
The thing that makes these water stairs so important in the 21st century is that they exist at all. When so many of the buildings that once stood beside the Thames have been demolished, little remains to enable those interested in its history to know where the buildings once stood. Because the water stairs are still in existence (even if they are now in a very poor state) they provide points of reference on an otherwise featureless riverfront. The stairs can be found on old maps of the Thames, like John Rocque’s map, for example.
During the 1980s and 1990s, large stretches of the river bank were ‘improved’ by renewing the river-wall. It was the time when the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was working to develop the Docklands area of London. Warehouses were demolished and large featureless blocks of modern apartments or rows of houses were erected. The obliteration of the history of the riverside continued on a similarly large scale in Greenwich in the 2010s. With the 19th and 20th century way of life almost completely ‘air-brushed’ out of existence. One of the features that have been retained are the water stairs. Although no longer needed for practical purposes, the stairs are not part of the land on which the apartments stand and so they cannot be removed. They now form a useful link to the past – as well as marking some of the once well-known features on the river.