10 historic stairways in London – 7. Wapping Old Stairs…

This Thames-side set of stairs gives access to the River Thames from Wapping High Street and is one of few survivors of what was once numerous “watermen’s stairs”.

PICTURE: Fin Fahey (licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5)

The Grade II-listed stairs, which are accessed from the top via a narrow passage bearing their names which runs down the side of the Town of Ramsgate pub, were once used to reach boats to carry passengers across the Thames or offload cargo.

The worn stone stairs at Wapping Old Stairs, which the Historic England says may be of earlier origin than the 18th century, are unusual in that there’s two sets of stairs – one set back behind the other.

The stairs have made numerous appearances in pop culture including in an episode of Dr Who and in a rhyme published in the early 19th century.

Many believe the stairs were the location of Execution Dock, where pirates, smugglers and mutineers were executed by hanging including the notorious Captain William Kidd (but there are alternate theories about where the stairs were located).

Other surviving watermen’s stairs go by the names of Alderman Stairs, Pelican Stairs and King Henry’s Stairs (also known as Execution Dock Stairs, thanks to its being another site posited as the location of Execution Dock.)

London Pub Signs – The Captain Kidd…

Captain-Kidd2

Located on the north bank of the River Thames in Wapping, East London, this pub owes its name to the infamous mariner who met his end at nearby Execution Dock.

Located in what was originally a warehouse, the pub – one of several riverside pubs in Wapping – only apparently dates from the 1980s but the historic location – and the ample views it provides over the river from its garden area – ensures it still has plenty of atmosphere.

Captain-KiddCaptain William Kidd himself was a Scot, born in 1645, who took to the seas in the Caribbean where he operated as a privateer. It was during a voyage in the Indian Ocean – he had set off from London in 1696 – that he undertook actions which led him to being accused of murder and piracy, something he discovered upon his return to the Caribbean soon after.

He traveled to the North American city of Boston to plead his case with the governor but was instead arrested and eventually sent to England where he stood trial for piracy and murder. He was found guilty on all charges and was hanged on 23rd May, 1701, at Execution Dock –  believed to have been located just to the west of the pub – in Wapping.

It was apparently a messy affair – the hangman’s rope broke on the first attempt and he was only successfully hanged on the second. Kidd’s tar-covered body was later displayed in a gibbet hung over the Thames at Tilbury Point as a warning to other pirates for three years.

Kidd’s fame grew after his death, thanks in large part to rumours he’d left buried treasure someone in the US, and his name has become somewhat synonymous with piracy ever since.

The pub, at 108 Wapping High Street, is operated by Samuel Smith’s.