Barge House Stairs

Above: The old street name plate on the old Dewhurst building (now better known as the OXO building), photographed in 1977. The building stands on the east side of the original alleyway that led to Barge House Stairs.

On the western boundary of the London Borough of Southwark are to be found Barge House Stairs. The stairs are still there but there are no other clues as to why they were so-named. Some time around 1530, on a site just west of today’s Blackfriars Bridge, stood the dwellings of the Royal Barge Master and sheds for the State Barges which were on the river bank at this location from the time of Henry VIII. There was a long, gently sloping beach at this point on the Thames which was the ideal place for building and storing the large impressive London barges and boats.

The barge house stood near a branch of the river Neckinger which formed the western boundary of Paris Garden. According to Lillywhite [n9556 p318], in the 1660s a tavern by the name of ‘Kings Barge Hovse’ stood nearby.

Above: The stairs and causeway, seen from the river at low tide in 1981. The warehouse to the left was then owned by Dewhurst, a company well-known for their butcher’s shops.

Very little documentation remains describing the building but the large ceremonial barges are recorded in several paintings made during the 18th and 19th centuries of the Thames. They show state occasions taking place on the river and a procession of the splendid vessels.

Barge House Street recalls the name today. The narrow passageway called Old Barge Alley used to lead to Barge House Stairs. The location has been ‘tidied up’ since the river view was taken. There is now a pedestrian walkway beside the Thames and the old warehouses have all been demolished, apart from the OXO building which has been ‘smartened up’ beyond belief compared to how it used to look in the 1970s. The old stairs are still there. The long stone causeway, once used as a landing place for a ferry crossing, is gradually being eroded by the powerful tides.

See also – Searle’s Boatyard, Lambeth


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