DURING MOST of London’s history, murderers, thieves and other miscreants received swift justice. An open-topped cart to Tyburn, and a swift drop from the gallows was the judicial response to a bewildering variety of crimes, some of them minor to modern eyes. But for
four centuries, the East End had its own answer to Tyburn Tree. The hamlets east of the City were the maritime hub of London, from where English ships travelled the globe, to return with their cargo or booty. Appropriate then that criminals on the high seas would meet their end at Wapping’s Execution Dock.
The Dock had its roots in the huge expansion of English naval power during the mid-1300s, fuelled by the military ambitions of one of England’s longest-lived kings, Edward III. The monarch, who reigned from 1327 to 1377, developed his country into one of Europe’s great powers, resisting the might of France and Spain. Key to this was a powerful navy and, with England isolated by water, pirates were not just a threat to the economy and English trade, they threatened the very security of the realm.
So stern measures were developed to counter the activities of the privateers, whose number had only increased with the rise in English seapower. After the Battle of Sluys in 1340, Edward established the High Court of Admiralty to deal specifically with piracy and spoil (goods purloined from enemy ships in time of war). From the late 1500s, the admiralty court would sit at the Old Bailey, home also to the Central Criminal Court, but its victims would take a different
route to the gibbet. Most ‘inshore’ prisoners would be housed at Newgate (just next to Old Bailey) but their maritime counterparts would more likely be incarcerated at Marshalsea Prison, on the south bank of the Thames. (East End chronicler Charles Dickens was traumatised as a child by his father’s spending time in Marshalsea for debt). The guilty men (and occasional women) would be brought on an open cart from Southwark, across London Bridge, past the Tower of London and to Wapping.
But if you had to go, better to go in style perhaps. The prisoner would be flanked in his carriage by the hangman on one side and a chaplain on the other – victim, damnation and salvation all in one small cart. And the wagon would be preceded by the Marshal (the sentencing judge) on horseback with a silver oar clasped in hand. En route to the gallows, the condemned were even allowed to stop for a final quart of beer at the Turk’s Head Inn, which stood at 30 Wapping High Street until it was destroyed by enemy bombs during the Blitz. This final drink was a small act of humanity common to many British cities. The Last Drop Tavern in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, next to the city’s main gallows, offered a similar service to Auld Reekie’s miscreants.
There would always be a good crowd too – Londoners always loved a public execution – and not just in the streets. The gibbet was erected at the low water line, recognising the fact that his crimes had been committed at sea. And within yards of the gallows, dozens of little boats would be bobbing, packed with onlookers keen to get a good view of the hanging. The deaths were
brutal even by the standards of public execution. Early on of course, the victim was hoisted up and left to choke. But even after ‘the drop’ was brought in, breaking the neck and causing immediate death, the maritime felons had it rougher. A shorter rope was used, meaning they would still dangle and suffocate. Especially popular was ‘the marshal’s dance’, as the hanged thrashed arms and legs furiously around in their death throes.
The humiliations didn’t end there. Many victims of the rope would pay for a decent funeral if they had the means. In latter years, with the advent of the bodysnatchers and burkers, some would pay friends to ensure their corpses weren’t purloined for dissection (which had been allowed since Henry VIII’s time and was the norm by the 1700s). And at least at Tyburn they cut you down quickly after you’d been dispatched. But at Wapping, the corpses were left until three high tides had risen and washed over their heads. The worst offenders would then be cut down, coated with pitch to preserve them for as long as possible, and hung
‘pour decourager des autres’ down river at Blackwall Point or across at Rotherhithe’s Cuckold’s Point, down at Tilbury Point or at Woolwich. Incoming crews would be warned off piracy by the site of a rotting, crow-pecked corpse – and there were famous names, such as Captain Kidd.
The last hangings at Wapping were in 1830 and in 1834 the Admiralty Court was wound up, its powers transferred to the Central Criminal Court. How many unfortunates had been dispatched down the centuries? It’s impossible to be sure, but between 1735 and 1830 there were 78 confirmed hangings and six ‘probables’. The enthusiasm of the Crown for killing pirates was
without limit it seems. But there were exceptions. Certain privateers sailed just close enough to the wind to be of use to the monarch, and even commanded naval vessels – Raleigh and Drake spring to mind. Though it was a dangerous game and both ended up on the gallows. Others of those managed to escape the gibbet and die in their beds. And it’s one such – John Mucknell, a rough Stepney lad who rose to be a knight of the realm, who we discover next week.
An entertaining if historically questionable take on the Captain Kidd story. Charles Laughton could never be accused of underplaying his role … but what is Tower Bridge doing in a movie set in the 17th century!
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