by Ben Johnson
Leading between Birdcage Walk and Old Queen Street is the small passageway of Cockpit Steps, named after its rather sinister connection to the age old pastime of cock fighting. The steps themselves are actually the last remaining parts of the old Royal Cockpit, a venue built in the 18th century for the upper classes to watch and wager on cock fights.
Cockfighting had first become popular in the Tudor times, mainly as a quick and easy way to make money due to the heavy betting and surprisingly thorough regulation that went with the sport.
The rules were remarkably complex, so much so that entire books were written regarding the correct manner in which the fights should take place. At its simplest level, the cocks had to be of the same weight and height, with their tails and wings trimmed. As William Sketchley wrote in 1814…
Rules for matching and fighting cocks in London:
To begin the same by fighting the lighter pair of cocks (which fall in match) first, proceeding upwards to the end: that every lighter pair may fight earlier than those that are heavier.
In matching (with relation to the battles) it is a rule always, in London, that, after the cocks of the main are weighed, the match bills are compared.
That every pair of dead or equal weight are separated, and fight against others, provided that it appears that the main can be enlarged by adding thereto either one battle or more thereby.
Some historians argue that however evil and unpleasant cockfighting was, it nevertheless played a large role in introducing rules and regulations into other sporting arenas. The large sums of money being wagered and the massive popularity of the sport meant that they had no other choice – it needed to be fair and balanced!
The cockpits themselves were often dirty, rowdy and rather seedy affairs. Although the Royal Cockpit was geared more towards the upper classes (due to its 5 shillings admission charge), most cockpits were places where social classes mixed. The majority of towns boasted at least one cockpit, and in more rural retreats the gentry were even known to hold matches in their own country houses!
But there’s more…
These steps are rumoured to be haunted by a headless lady! First reported by The Times in 1804, it told of a pair of Coldstream Guards who after walking past Cockpit Stairs saw a headless lady moving down the stairs and drifting over the road towards St James’ Park. After seeing the apparition, the guards were so frightened that they had to be confined to hospital!
More recently in 1972 a motorist driving past the steps at night collided with a lamppost. He was adamant that the reason he swerved was to avoid a woman in a red dress who suddenly appeared in front of the car.