The history of one of London’s most historic — and misunderstood — staircases.
Not all of the old London Bridge is in America. When the 19th century span was dismantled and shipped off to Arizona, a large chunk was left in place on the southern approach. Whenever you walk beneath the bridge on Tooley Street, you are passing underneath the very stones known to Dickens.
And it’s here, too, that you’ll find the flight of stairs known as Nancy’s Steps. They lead up from Tooley Street to the west side of the bridge — a narrow, ill-lit flight that still has something of old London in its manner.
A plaque beside the steps gives the reason for the name. It is here that Dickens depicted the horrific murder of Nancy in the novel Oliver Twist. The criminal Bill Sikes bludgeons Nancy to death on the steps of London Bridge after she ‘peaches’ on him.
It’s all a load of Pumblechook
“‘Not here,’ said Nancy hurriedly, ‘I am afraid to speak to you here. Come away—out of the public road—down the steps yonder!’”
The steps of London Bridge certainly play a part in the story. It is here that Nancy talks candidly to Oliver’s benefactors, not knowing that a spy was listening in. Dickens is very precise in the location: “…on the Surrey bank, and on the same side of the bridge as Saint Saviour’s Church [now Southwark Cathedral]”. It matches the position of our steps.
But the plaque has it all wrong to suggest that Dickens set her murder here. Never happened. In chapter 47 of the novel, Bill returns home with ‘savage resolution’ to find Nancy lying on their bed. It is in their shared room, not on the bridge, that he strikes her dead with a heavy club.
And yet the bridge and steps are firmly associated with Nancy’s murder. Why is that? Partly, this is thanks to “Oliver!”, Lionel Bart’s musical version of the tale, which debuted on stage in 1960 and was turned into a very successful movie in 1968. It is, perhaps, the best known version of the Oliver Twist story.
London Bridge plays a much bigger role in this retelling. In the stage version, Bill not only kills Nancy at the bridge, but also meets his own death at the hands of the mob (sorry, should have said “Spoilers!”). Ever since, the bridge and murder have been so intimately linked that they now have the authority of a plaque.
Oliver! may have invented the murder at London Bridge, but the stairs here were known as Nancy’s Steps long before the musical (I’ve found a reference from 1951, but the name is probably much older).
The image of a young Noah Claypole skulking round the bridge and listening in on Nancy and her contacts was implanted in the imagination right from the start, not only from Dickens’s prose, but also in the original illustration of George Cruickshank.
But the murder couldn’t happen until Claypole reported back to Fagin, who passed the exchange on to Sikes. By which time, Nancy was long gone from the bridge.
Not even the right steps
In a further twist on the Twist, the stairs we call Nancy’s Steps did not even exist in the time period of the novel. The scene takes place on what is described as the ‘ancient’ London Bridge. This implies that the action occurs before 1831 when the old bridge — and its steps — were swept away. Nancy’s Steps, then, are in the right place, but were built after the time of the novel. This is further confirmed by a description of the steps, which are in three flights, have a blind corner, and lead down to the river bank — none of which match the present flight of steps.
In conclusion: don’t believe everything you read on plaques.
Aside: It is true, however, that Oliver Twist contains a character called Master Bates. We wonder if he’s special friends with Dick Swiveller from The Old Curiosity Shop?