One of the fantastic things about wandering around London is that you are walking on century’s worth of history without even realising it. Some of it will be related to royalty and some of it to the more sinister aspects of this ancient city, but it is there, beneath your feet all the same. Most of it is not even hidden, open for all to see instead of being locked away in a place that you are charged admission to enter. Instead it is what makes the city what it is, the pathways, alleyways and buildings that form the city itself. Cockpit Steps is such a place. A narrow passageway of curving stone steps leads between Old Queen Street and Birdcage Walk – it may look unremarkable but it is a link to the darker side of the city’s past. Thousands of people once regularly walked this seemingly innocuous staircase.
The Royal Pit
The steps once led to a place far more gruesome than they do today. If you would have taken a walk down these steps in the eighteenth century you would have found yourself in a cock fighting venue. This was the Royal Cockpit, a purpose built venue where the upper classes went to wager on the outcome of what can only be described as barbaric cock fights. To keep the pit free from rabble there was a five shilling admission fee charged. While to us now the whole idea is abhorrent and the images that the name brings to mind summon up noise, confusion and a mass of bloody feathers, the whole of the activity relating to cock fighting was very organised with many rules and guidelines that needed to be observed. It was far from the free for all that we imagine it was.
There was a lot of money to be made in the cockpit, and substantial wagers were regularly placed, therefore there needed to be safeguards in place to see that ‘fairness’ prevailed. The fights themselves were structured too, with the birds being pitted against each other being evenly matched in size and weight. The lighter birds would be the first to spar and the matched would gradually move up the weight scale until the final birds to fight were the heaviest and most robust they had. It was on these heavyweight matches that the majority of the larger wagers were made. So complex were the rules and regulations covering the sport that there were a number of books published explaining them in detail.
A Haunted Staircase
Aside from the spectral crowing of cockerels that may be heard there have also been sightings of a mysterious headless woman that walks the steps. In 1804 a sighting resulted in the hospitalisation of two burly Coldstream Guards. In 1972 a car was involved in a collision with a lamp post after the driver swerved to avoid running down a woman in a red dress that had emerged from the top of the steps, though no trace of the woman was found.