Old Stairs of the Thames at Wapping and Shadwell

shadwell stairs

Onto the No.339 bus down to Shadwell in search of the locations of a series of old photos in Wonderful London (circa 1926) of two sets of the old Watermen’s Stairs on the Thames. This beguiling picture above is of the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs. The caption reads: “.. an ancient and much used landing place and point of departure of a ferry. There is a tradition that Sir Martin Frobisher took boat here for his ship when starting on his voyage to find the North-West Passage.”

ratcliffe cross stairs

Ratcliffe Cross Stairs

This is the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs today (or at least that is what I’ve deduced from old maps and descriptions of the location, at the junction of Broad Street, Shadwell and Narrow Street, Limehouse) protruding out from the bottom of a block of flats as the lunchtime City joggers pound across the wooden bridge above. The Watermen of the 21st Century cruising past in their City Clipper tour boats.

shadwell stairs

Wonderful London also offers this view of the Thames from the muddy foreshore at Shadwell at Low Tide looking eastwards.

IMG_3837-View from Shadwell

No barges marooned on the shore the day I was there – the Towers of Mammon rising around the river bend on the Isle of Dogs.

Pelican Stairs

Pelican Stairs Prospect of Whitby

Pelican Stairs

Running down from the historic Prospect of Whitby pub (dating from 1520) are the Pelican Stairs, where on the shore some wag has erected a noose in honour of the ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffries who was a regular at the Prospect.

King Henry's Stairs Wapping

King Henry’s Stairs

Heading West along Wapping High Street you encounter King Henry’s Stairs. Although these historic riverside rights of way have been preserved, some have been allowed to slowly decay.

wapping old stairs

Wonderful London describes Wapping Old Stairs as “one of liveliest spots in the country” in the great days of the maritime Thames.

Wapping Old Stairs

Wapping Old Stairs today

“but the swaggering sailormen and the loathly crew of bullies and harridans who prey on these Jack Juncks and Bill Bobstays during their few days ashore have, happily, gone as completely as the foul dens that harboured them” – Wonderful London

Wapping Old Stairs video with the sound of the Thames lapping against the stone steps


  1. Pingback: The top 5 most relaxing areas in London

  2. Mark   •  

    :This is the Ratcliffe Cross Stairs today photo”, what is the google location for this for a visitor from the USA as I found Broad street does not exist today?

    • JohnR   •     Author

      Hi Mark – not sure what the google location is but if you walk east from Tower Bridge on the north side of the Thames you’ll find all the stairs

    • Stephen Liddell   •  

      Mark, it is at 14 Narrow St
      London E14 8DQ
      51.509982, -0.041604

      Broad Street changed its name decades ago. I just went there on Tuessday whilst researching a new walking tour for Ye Olde England Tours. Lots to see around there if you like less-visited parts of London.

  3. John   •  

    I came across your most interesting article when trying to research a longcase clock that I have inherited. The brass chapter ring is signed ‘Charles Bayley, Wapping New Stairs London. It will date to between 1720 and certainly no later than 1735.
    What confuses me is the address on my clock is engraved ‘New’ Stairs?

    • JohnR   •     Author

      Oh they’re as old as the hills, there would have been stairs there in Roman times at least. Fascinating reference- thanks for sharing

  4. Pingback: Walking Wapping Waterfront - the lost byway

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.