“ ‘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 to which the girl had pointed were those which, on the Surrey bank, and on the same side of the bridge as Saint Saviour’s Church, form a landing-stairs from the river”.
In Charles Dickens’ 1830s novel, Oliver Twist, Nancy – the original tart with a heart – arranges to meet Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie on London Bridge. She guides them down a set of squalid stairs out of sight, where she gives details about Monks, Oliver’s evil half-brother, so that he may be apprehended by the forces of justice, thus protecting Oliver. The meeting is overheard by Noah Claypole, who had been dispatched by dastardly crime-boss Fagin to follow Nancy. Noah duly reports back to Fagin, who gets Noah to repeat the story to Nancy’s lover, Bill Sikes, including the amusing detail that Nancy had drugged Bill with laudanum so that she could meet Rose on a previous occasion. Sikes, despite being asked by the scheming Fagin to not “be – too – violent”, beats Nancy in the head with a pistol then finishes her off with a heavy club in the lodgings they share.
“Of all the bad deeds that, under the cover of darkness, had been committed within wide London’s bounds since night hung over it, that was the worst. Of all the horrors that rose with an ill scent upon the morning air, that was the foulest and most cruel.”
The steps referred to are real and still there on the west side of London Bridge, together with an arch supporting the southern end of it – surviving remains of the London Bridge designed by a Scot, John Rennie, and built by his son, Sir John Rennie, in 1831. I don’t know how many London Bridges there have been, but Rennie’s replaced one that had taken the traffic for about 600 years. The 19th century version was itself sold in 1968 for $2.4 million to American oilman Robert P McCulloch and was reconstructed at Lake Havasu, Arizona, USA. The current bridge opened in 1973.
A plaque, last time I was there stolen or otherwise missing in action, marked the surviving fragments of the London Bridge that Dickens knew so well. It went on to inaccurately say that the steps were the scene of Nancy’s murder in Oliver Twist. Not true – though that is indeed where Sikes, played by Oliver Reed, brutally bludgeons Nancy (played by Shani Wallis) to death in the 1968 musical Oliver! Actually, they probably did it in a studio, but you know what I mean. Whatever – it seems a little ungrateful of him after she sang ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ so nicely.
You may think it odd that a fairly unremarkable stairway has made it out of the pages of fiction (or the reels of a film) and into sightseeing guides. I do – it’s not as though London is short of quirky things to look at; but there you are. In any event, do not confuse Nancy’s Steps with the significantly less fragrant ones on the other side of the road, linking London Bridge station with Tooley Street via a small concrete shopping mall. Nancy’s steps can be the start of an interesting walk west along Bankside taking in, amongst other things, Southwark Cathedral (St Saviour’s), Borough Market, a replica of the Golden Hinde, the remains of Winchester Palace, the Clink Museum, the Globe Theatre, several pubs and the Millennium Bridge. Or head east under the arch (where Noah hid – or didn’t) for HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge.