10 historic stairways in London – A recap…

1. The Tulip Stairs, The Queen’s House, Greenwich…

2. Queen Mary’s Steps, Whitehall…

3. The Monument stairs…

4. The Nelson Stair…

5. The King’s Staircase, Hampton Court Palace…

6. The Geometric Staircase, St Paul’s Cathedral…

7. Wapping Old Stairs…

8. The King’s Staircase, Kensington Palace… 

9. ‘Two Princes Staircase’, Tower of London… 

10. Nancy’s Steps…

We’ll commence a new special series next week…

10 historic stairways in London – 10. Nancy’s Steps…

PICTURE: Matt Brown (licensed CC-BY-2.0)

We close our series of historic London stairs with a stairway that has raised its share of controversy in recent years, largely due to the plaques associated with it.

The steps, which are located in Southwark at the southern end of London Bridge and which lead down to Montague Close, are a remnant of the John Rennie-designed London Bridge which was completed in 1831 and which was replaced in the mid-20th century (and which was sold off and relocated to Lake Havasu in the US).

The plaque at the base of the steps. PICTURE: Matt Brown (licensed CC-BY-2.0)

The controversy arises through the plaques associated with the steps which state that the steps where the scene of the murder of Nancy in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. There’s a couple of problems with that claim.

The first is that Nancy wasn’t murdered here in the book – it is in their lodgings that Bill Sikes kills Nancy believing she has betrayed him. The confusion probably comes about because the musical Oliver! did set Nancy’s murder on the steps.

The bridge does, however, play a role in the book and have a connection to Nancy and its probably due to this connection that it has its name, Nancy’s Steps.

Because it was on steps located here – “on the Surrey bank, and on the same side of the bridge as Saint Saviour’s Church [now known as Southwark Cathedral]” that Nancy talks to Oliver’s benefactors while Noah Claypole eavesdropped on the conversation (which leads him reporting back to Sikes and eventually to her murder).

The second error made in the plaque is that Rennie’s bridge (and hence the steps) was completed in 1831 and with Oliver Twist published in serial form just a few years later can’t be the “ancient” bridge referred to in the text. The reference can only relate to the medieval bridge which occupied the site for hundreds of years until it was demolished following the completion of Rennie’s bridge.

10 historic stairways in London – 9. ‘Two Princes Staircase’, Tower of London… 

The White Tower with external staircase – they’re not the stairs we’re talking about, a remnant of them is located in the niche you can see about half way up the external staircase. PICTURE: Amy-Leigh Barnard/Unsplash.

A truncated staircase – really just a few steps – located near the entrance to the White Tower is famous – or perhaps infamous is a better word – for its connection with the so-called ‘Princes in the Tower’ – the 12-year-old King Edward V and his nine-year-old brother, Richard, Duke of York, who disappeared after entering the Tower of London in the late 15th century.

While the princes are believed to have been held in the Bloody Tower, their connection with the staircase, which is located in a doorway niche halfway up the main outer stairway into the White Tower, dates to 1674.

King Charles II had ordered the demolition of what was left of the royal palace to the south of the White Tower and during those works a wooden chest containing two skeletons was discovered beneath the foundations of a staircase which had led up to St John’s Chapel.

Many have subsequently believed the skeletons to be those of the two princes.

A plaque located near the staircase remnant at the Tower of London. PICTURE: Ian McKellar (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

The princes had been taken to the tower in April, 1483, following the death of their father, King Edward IV, on the 9th of that month. Their uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester (and the Lord Protector of his nephews), had done so, ostensibly for their protection, while Edward’s coronation was initially scheduled for June.

The last recorded reference to them being in the tower dates from 16th June when they were seen “shooting [arrows] and playing in the garden of the Tower sundry times”.

There has since been much debate over their fate with many believing Richard, who in July of that year was crowned King Richard III, had them murdered to ensure his own ascension to the throne.

The two skeletons found almost 200 years later were put on display for several years following their discovery before King Charles II ordered that they be placed in an urn and reburied in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey. In 1933, they were disinterred and forensically examined by LE Tannery and W Wright who concluded they were the skeletons of two boys, aged 10 and 13. They were subsequently reinterred and have remained buried since. They have never been tested for DNA.

Historic Royal Palaces Chief Curator Lucy Worsley and special guests will look at the question of whether the urn should be opened and the bones tested using modern forensic methods in an online event on 16th March at 7pm. Follow this link to register for this event.

WHERE: Tower of London (nearest Tube station Tower Hill); WHEN: 9am to 4.30pm (last admission), Tuesday to Saturday, 10am to 4.30pm (last admission) Sunday to Monday; COST: £29.90 adults; £14.90 children 5 to 15; £24 concessions (family tickets available; discounts for online purchases/memberships); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/toweroflondon/.

10 historic stairways in London – 8. The King’s Staircase, Kensington Palace… 

PICTURE: Tuomo Lindfors (licensed under CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

This staircase, a grand entrance to the King’s State Apartments at Kensington Palace, are famous for the paintings on the walls and ceiling which depict an 18th century court looking down on those who ascend.

The work of William Kent, the staircase paintings were complete in 1724 and replaced earlier wooden panelling.

The stairs were originally constructed as part of Sir Christopher Wren’s remodelling Nottingham House into Kensington Palace for King William III and Queen Mary II. Following a fire in 1691, they were rebuilt in marble.

There are 45 people in Kent’s painting and only about a dozen have been identified. As well as members of the Yeomen of the Guard, the images depict King George I’s Polish page Ulric, his Turkish servants Mahomet and Mustapha, Peter the ‘wild boy’, a child found in the woods in Germany, and Dr John Arbuthnot, a medical doctor and satirist who tried to teach Peter to speak.

Interestingly, Kent included a selfie on the ceiling – a depiction of himself, wearing a brown turban and carrying an artist’s palette, standing with his mistress by his side.

The trompe l’oeil (a technique which creates the optical illusion of 3D) work features architecture inspired by Rome where Kent had trained while there’s also a painted figure of Diana on the top landing which is based on an antique statue at Holkham Hall in Norfolk.

In 1734, Queen Caroline commissioned Kent to rework the stairs to the Queen’s State Apartments. His work there features a Roman-inspired scene again created as a trompe l’oeil. There is also a homage to Queen who is compared to Britannia. The staircase’s balustrade was another by Huguenot ironworker Jean Tijou.

WHERE: The Broad Walk, Kensington Gardens, Kensington (nearest tube stations are High Street Kensington or Queensway); WHEN: Daily 10am to 6pm (last admission 5pm); COST: £16 adult/£12.80 concession/£8 child (Historic Royal Palaces members free); WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/KensingtonPalace.

10 historic stairways in London – 3. The Monument stairs…

PICTURE: thtstudios (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Running up the centre of the tallest free-standing stone column in the world, this 311 step stairway takes the visitor straight to the top of the Monument erected to commemorate the Great Fire of 1666.

The Monument

The Monument – actually a Doric column – was built close to Pudding Lane in the City – where the fire is believed to have started – between 1671 and 1677. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in collaboration with City Surveyor Sir Robert Hooke.

The cantilevered stairway – each step of which measures exactly six inches high – leads up to a viewing platform which provides panoramic views of the City. Above the platform stands is a large sculpture featuring a stone drum topped with a gilt copper urn from which flames emerge as a symbol of the fire (King Charles II apparently squashed the idea of an equestrian statue of himself lest people think he was responsible for the fire).

Interestingly, the circular space in the centre of the stairway was designed for use as a zenith telescope (a telescope which points straight up). There is a small hatch right at the top which can be opened up to reveal the sky beyond and a subterranean lab below (reached through a hatch in the floor of the ticket both) where it was envisaged the scientist could take measurements using a special eyepiece (two lenses would be set into the actual telescope). But it wasn’t successful (reasons for this could have been vibrations caused by passing traffic or the movement of the column in the wind).

Hooke also apparently attempted to use the staircase drop for some other experiences – including measuring differences in air pressure.

Among those who have climbed the stairs was writer James Boswell who visited the Monument and climbed the stairs in 1763. He suffered a panic attack halfway up but was able to complete the climb.

WHERE: The Monument, junction of Fish Street Hill and Monument Street (nearest Tube station is Monument); WHEN: Check website; COST: £5.40 adults/£2.70 children (aged five to 15)/£4.10 seniors (joint tickets with Tower Bridge available); WEBSITE: www.themonument.org.uk

10 historic stairways in London – 2. Queen Mary’s Steps, Whitehall…

PICTURE: Paul Farmer (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0).

This small stone stairway which now sits in the midst of a grassy expanse at the back of the Ministry of Defence was once part of the Palace of Whitehall.

Named for Queen Mary II, wife of King William III, for whom they were designed, the stairs were part of a terrace built in 1691 abutting the Thames in front of an old river wall constructed for King Henry VIII.

Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the stairs were one of a pair located at either end of the terrace which gave direct access to the river – and state barges – from the Royal Apartments.

Excavations in 1939 during construction of the MoD revealed the Tudor river wall, the terrace and the northern-most of the two flights of steps. The upper part of the steps have been repaired and the terrace and wall reconstructed.

The steps and palace fragments are now a Grade I listed monument.