The Streets Of London – Part Forty Five
August 25, 2016
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Cockpit Steps, SW1
Connecting Birdcage Walk with Old Queen Street are a set of steps and a narrow passageway which although unprepossessing to the modern eye have an intriguing history to go along with their grade II listing. It doesn’t take a genius to work out their connection with the once popular pastime of cock fighting.
To modern tastes it was a brutal form of entertainment where two cocks were placed into a cockpit and they fought each other until one was killed or critically injured. The gruesome spectacle also offered an opportunity for the onlookers to wager money on the outcome. As a result some fairly complex rules were developed governing the conduct of a fight and geared at ensuring a fair bout between two evenly matched birds. Books were written on the subject but in essence the cocks had to be of the same weight and height and their wings and tails had to be trimmed. Possibly these regulations were the start of developing rules and regulations to govern sporting events.
In England cockfighting established itself as a popular form of entertainment around the 16th century and many towns and areas had their own permanent cockpits where people from all walks of life would meet and gamble. Cockpit Steps mark the site of a royal cockpit – not to be confused with the Royal Cockpit Theatre, part of the Whitehall Palace complex – and was built some time during the 18th century. It was designed to attract the better sort of person, charging a 5 shilling admission fee.
Cockfighting was banned in England and Wales following the passing of the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1835 but the popularity of the Royal cockpit had long since waned. It was demolished some time during the second decade of the 19th century and all that remains of it are our steps which used to surround the pit. It is fascinating to stop on the steps and imagine the hub-bub of conversation as monies are wagered and fortunes are won or lost.
But the steps have another intriguing story to tell – one of a dastardly crime and the paranormal. In the late 18th century a soldier, thought to have been an officer of the Coldstream Guards, stationed at the nearby Horse Guard barracks lured his wife into nearby St James’ Park and murdered her, decapitating her in the process. While he was attempting to dump her body into the lake he was spotted and apprehended by other members of his regiment.
Ever since there have been reports of a headless apparition wearing a red striped dress stained with blood haunting Birdcage Walk, walking down Cockpit Steps towards the lake. Sometimes she has been seen coming out of the lake. The Times carried a report of a sighting in January 1804 by two soldiers, possibly Private George Jones and Richard Donkin of the Coldstream Guards, on sentry duty who were so distressed by the sight that they were declared unfit for any further duty.
One sighting was as recent as 1972. A motorist driving past the steps at night hit a lamp post claiming that he had had to swerve to avoid a headless woman in a blood stained dress. He was acquitted of dangerous driving – I will have to remember that one. Many is the time I have staggered out of the Two Chairmen, opposite Cockpit Steps, but never have I encountered the headless woman. Maybe next time.