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St. Mary Overie Stairs

St. Mary Overie Stairs and its adjoining dock functioned as a large wharfe and landing place on the southern bank of Thames, which provided river access to Winchester House and the Priory of St. Mary Overies (Stow 1598, sig. Y7v). While the stairs were commonly known as either Winchester Stairs or St. Mary Overie Stairs, they were sometimes referred to as St. Saviour Stairs after the Dissolution of the Monasteries (Rendle 203; Cave 225). Howard and Godfrey note that in 1174, the Bishop of Winchester granted the Priory of St. Mary Overies full access to the quay (Howard and Godfrey). In return, the Bishop of Winchester was given the right to travel across the London Bridge freely. Both St. Mary Overie Stairs and St. Mary Overie Dock are labelled on Rocque and Pine’s 1746 map (A Plan of the Cities of London and Westminster, and Borough of Southwark with Contiguous Buildings). The landing site is also visible on the Agas map, though it is not labelled. While the stairs themselves are not depicted on Google’s modern map, St. Mary Overie Dock remains visible to this day (Google Inc.).
St. Mary Overie Priory likely derives its provocative name from the necessary activity of crossing over the Thames in order to reach it. But the stairs more aptly evince that meaning since they would be the main point of accessing their religious namesake after crossing the river. Either way, the emphasis on crossing over to this location was very likely due to the constant traffic into the south bank in Southwark where these stairs were built. This location ironically abetted immoral permissiveness because it fell out of the jurisdiction of the City of London and into the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Winchester, whose manor, Winchester Palace, stood adjacent to St. Mary Overie Stairs. The Diocese would have collected rents and fees from the many brothels and gaming houses in that district (Livingstone and Cross, Southwark).
Though these stairs do not carry any significant literary references, a plaque near the present location of the stairs, tells of the legend of St. Mary Overie, which challenges the crossing over designation:
Legend suggests that before the construction of London Bridge in the tenth century a ferry existed here. Ferrying passengers across the River Thames was a lucrative trade. John Overs who, with his watermen and apprentices, kept the traverse ferrie over the Thames, made such a good living that he was able to acquire a considerable estate on the south bank of the river.
John Overs, a notorious miser, devised a plan to save money. He would feign death believing that his family and servants would fast out of respect and thereby save a day’s provisions. However, when he carried out the plan, the servants were so overjoyed at his death that they began to feast and make merry. In a rage the old man leapt out of bed to the horror of his servants, one of whom picked up a broken oar and thinking to kill the Devil at the first blow, actually struck out his brains.
The ferryman’s distressed daughter Mary sent for her lover, who in haste to claim the inheritance fell from his horse and broke his neck. Mary was so overcome by these misfortunes that she devoted her inheritance to founding a convent into which she retreated.
This became the priory of Saint Mary Overie, Mary having been made a saint on account of her charity. During the Reformation the church of St Mary Overie was renamed St Saviour’s Church. In 1905 it became Southwark Cathedral and the collegiate church of St Saviour and St Mary Overie
(The Legend of St. Mary Overie Priory.)
Aside from the rumor and legend linked to these stairs, some extant tradesman coins, which were small private tokens used for paying watermen at locations specified on the coin, hint at the popularity or necessity of these stairs for river navigation and access to Southwark. Guild regulations often dictated that no whyrrye take for his fare from numerous nearby locations to Sayncte Marye Oueryes stayres (Watermen’s Company 2), hence the trade tokens were used to either circumvent or maintain that restriction.1


  1. See trade token O.NN19814 (Obverse inscription: John / Standbrooke / Lymeman. at / St. Mary. Overs / Stairs) and R.NN19814 (Reverse inscription: In / Southwarke / His. halfe / Penny / I.S.S. [in cursive script with triad of initials in Roman capitals below, in field]). (JLS)


Cite this page

MLA citation

Smith, Joul L., and Molly Rothwell. St. Mary Overie Stairs The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0, edited by Janelle Jenstad, U of Victoria, 05 May 2022,

Chicago citation

Smith, Joul L., and Molly Rothwell. St. Mary Overie Stairs The Map of Early Modern London, Edition 7.0. Ed. Janelle Jenstad. Victoria: University of Victoria. Accessed May 05, 2022.

APA citation

Smith, J. L., & Rothwell, M. 2022. St. Mary Overie Stairs In J. Jenstad (Ed), The Map of Early Modern London (Edition 7.0). Victoria: University of Victoria. Retrieved from

RIS file (for RefMan, RefWorks, EndNote etc.)

Provider: University of Victoria
Database: The Map of Early Modern London
Content: text/plain; charset="utf-8"

A1  - Smith, Joul
A1  - Rothwell, Molly
ED  - Jenstad, Janelle
T1  - St. Mary Overie Stairs
T2  - The Map of Early Modern London
ET  - 7.0
PY  - 2022
DA  - 2022/05/05
CY  - Victoria
PB  - University of Victoria
LA  - English
UR  -
UR  -
ER  - 

TEI citation

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