In 1626, master mason Nicholas Stone was employed by George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, to build this ‘water gate’ to give York House easy access from the Thames. The design has variously been attributed to Balthazar Gerbier, Inigo Jones and Nicholas Stone himself.(1) Although it is frequently named York watergate, it is also known as York stairs. Watermen’s stairs(2) were dotted all along the Thames to provide easy access from the boats to the land and vice versa, but were seldom graced with a fancy structure such as this above the actual steps.
John Tallis, in his Illustrated London, vol. 1 (1851-2) provides an elaborate description:
The York Stairs, or Buckingham Water-gate, at the end of Buckingham-street, the last relic of the gorgeous pile of York House, will furnish some conception of the surpassing beauty of the whole fabric. It is considered one of the most perfect and elaborate relics of Inigo Jones. We approach York Stairs from a small inclosed terrace, planted with lime trees, an agreeable promenade for the residents in the neighbourhood, who maintain the gate and terrace in good order, from the proceeds of a rate levied on their houses for that object. On the Thames front is a large archway, opening upon steps, that conduct to the water, with a window on either side. These, and four rusticated columns, sustain an entablature, surmounted by an arched pediment, and two couchant lions, bearing shields. In the centre of the pediment, within a scroll, are the arms of the house of Villiers. On the north side are three arches, flanked by pilasters, upholding an entablature, whereon are four balls. Over the key-stones of the arches are ornamental shields, with anchors, that in the centre [have] the arms of the Villiers family impaling those of Manners. Upon the frieze, the motto, Fidei coticula crux [the Cross is the Touchstone of Faith] is inscribed.
Samuel Pepys, Secretary of the Admiralty, lived in Buckingham Street which runs from the gate to John Adam Street and hence towards the Strand. His house was very conveniently situated so close to the stairs when much of the 17th-century transport still went via the river as we can read in his Diary. The plaque on the left is attached to 14, Buckingham Street, but at number 12 a round plaque says that Pepys lived there from 1679 to 1688. See London Remembers for that one and lots of other Pepys plaques. When George Villiers, the 2nd Duke of Buckingham was forced to sell York House in 1672 to developers for £30,000, he stipulated that his name should be commemorated and so the streets on the plot of land that was once York House became George Street, Villiers Street, Duke Street, Of Alley, and Buckingham Street. Some of these streets are still extant, though Of Alley has been renamed York Place [see LondonUnveiled for photograph of street sign and more info]. Duke Street is now John Adam Street and George Street is now York Buildings.
A video of where Pepys lived from 1679-1688, and the York Stairs water gate where he would have gone down to the River Thames. By Guy de la Bédoyère.
The stairs now no longer provide the function they were designed for, as in the 1860s, the marshy shores of the Thames were enclosed by a retaining wall and many metres of river were turned into land with a sewer and an underground railway underneath and elaborate gardens above.
Already in the seventeenth century, Christopher Wren, in his plan to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666 included “a commodious quay on the whole bank of the river from the Tower to Blackfriars” and John Evelyn “suggested another plan with the same view, and besides lessening the most considerable declivities, he proposed further to employ the rubbish in filling up the shore of the Thames to low-water mark in a straight line from the Tower to the Temple, and form an ample quay, if it could be done without increasing the rapidity of the stream.”(3) But it took another two hundred years before the Metropolitan Board of Works could begin the work under the supervision of the principal engineer Joseph Bazalgette.
York Stairs is now a mere tourist attraction in a pretty garden, reminding us of the busy river life of bygone centuries.
(1) See Wikipedia
(2) See Wikipedia and Peter Finch, Access to the River Thames: Steps, stairs and landing places on the tidal Thames (2010), online here
(3) Walter Thornbury / Edward Walford, Old and New London, volume 3 (1878), pp. 322-323.