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Tag: River Thames

Charles I’s pirate – John Mucknell

WHEN TODD STEVENS set off for a shallow shore dive off Scilly one winter’s day, he had high hopes. Previous expeditions had yielded gold coins, 17th century guns and an anchor. It was all a legacy of the Scilly Isles unique geographic position. Sitting some 20 miles off the toe of Cornwall, the archipelago controlled the western approaches to northern Europe and south

Author and diver Todd Stevens

Author and diver Todd Stevens

to the Mediterranean. Ships must pass the islands on their way east to the East Indies and west to the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, pirates had settled on Scilly as the perfect base from which to plunder the growing sea trade of England, France, Spain and the Dutch – indeed the disgruntled Dutch would declare war on the islands in 1651, a war which would not officially end until 1986.

Todd, a transplanted cockney who has made Scilly his home (the West Ham cap, proudly worn, is evidence of his East End roots), was in for a much bigger find though. Fighting against the powerful current, he cleared the sand to find the skeleton of a huge vessel. And in doing so, he was led to the story of one of British maritime history’s most unlikely ‘heroes’. Could this be the wreck of the John, an East Indiaman turned pirate vessel, famously lost off Scilly during the English Civil War? The story of Mucknell and Todd’s search for the truth, is told in Stevens’ fascinating new book*.

Drunk, violent and unpredictable, East India Company captain John Mucknell was disloyal to his employers and to the rule of law, stealing his own ship and turning to piracy. Yet Mucknell ended his days as Sir John, a Vice Admiral in Charles I’s own fleet of pirates, and his widow received a royal pension. Mucknell was a Stepney lad, not high-born but certainly of respectable family. The Mucknells were Catholic and worshipped at St Dunstan’s: John had been baptised in the church in the year of his birth, 1608. And he had spent his entire working life as a servant of the East India Company.

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

Todd Stevens, magging off the coast of Scilly

By the 1640s, Mucknell was an established and trusted captain, but he was also a loose cannon. England was in the throes of the Civil War. A loyal Royalist, John was violently at odds with the Puritanical Roundheads and would express his opinions loudly and drunkenly about the inns of Stepney. The Company received reports of his erratic and sometimes paranoid behaviour, but nonetheless in 1643 were to give their man a plum posting: charge of the new John, a state-of-the-art vessel, lighter, lower and fleeter than its predecessors, and carrying 44 guns. They had made a huge mistake.

Mucknell hatched an elaborate plan (though much of the detail seems to have got lost in a fog of rum). The ship was bound for Surat, in Gujarat, India. The East India Company planned that Mucknell would be bringing back a cargo of spices and silks, and there were agents aboard to buy and sell goods. En route, the skipper was charged with picking up a wealthy Portuguese ambassador. But John had other ideas. He had already instructed wife Elizabeth to head for the Royalist stronghold of Bristol, where he would meet her once he had stolen the ship.

Things swiftly deteriorated on the John, and Stevens convincingly argues that Mucknell engineered discord. There were drunken fights and the crew split between loyalists to the Company and those wanting to join Mucknell and rob the ship and its passengers. Mucknell attempted to cast anyone in opposition as ‘a Roundhead’ though its unclear how much his fight was ideological and how much for monetary gain. Within weeks of setting off from Wapping, Mucknell had lost the

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

John Mucknell's protector, the Prince of Wales, would later reign as Charles II

rest of his fleet, before marooning passengers and many of the crew on the small isle of Johanna, off the coast of Mozambique. He then fled back to Bristol, picked up Elizabeth and headed to the Scillies. It was 1643, and the long and bloody English Civil War had another eight years to run.

There are reports of pirates operating out of Scilly since the 11th century. When Mucknell arrived, at the helm of an impressive new 44-gunner, he was immediately able to dominate, and form the rag-bag ‘navy’ into a fighting force. They were unpredictable; there was little honour among thieves and when Naval ships came out to challenge the pirates it was frequently every man for himself. But in the midst of Civil War, the pirate Mucknell found himself enjoying unlikely protection. King Charles was only too happy to see the Puritans get a bloody nose, and he issued letters of marque, authorising Mucknell to attack and rob ships. The pirate was now a privateer, licensed by his monarch. The dissolute merchant mariner, who had no real battle experience, now found himself elevated to Vice Admiral. And the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, knighted him.

So although he was attacking ships of the English Navy, our man was doing so as Vice Admiral Sir John Mucknell, and he was about to get a powerful ally. Prince Rupert of the Rhine was the archetypal Cavalier, a dashing young man, a born soldier and overall commander of the Royalist forces by his mid-twenties. He had no maritime experience but was put in charge of the pirate fleet operating out of Scilly, and for the next years he would inflict defeat after defeat on the Navy, ransacking East India Company ships, and picking off any foreign vessels that came too close. The Scilly pirates had a vast area of control, operating as far west and south as the Azores, and so controlling the Atlantic sea routes. At his side was Sir John Mucknell.

There were reverses, and after one bloody skirmish Mucknell retreated to Wexford in Ireland to regroup. But by 1651, as the war reached its denouement, he was back, operating out of Scilly. And it was on one of those forays into the Atlantic, off the Azores isle of Terceira, that our man disappears from history. With eight years of bloody piracy behind him, the end seems to have been more mundane, as Rupert’s flagship The Constant Reformation, simply took on water and sunk, taking 300 souls with it. Documentation is scant of course, but there is no record of Mucknell taking another posting after that date.

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Are these the ship's cannon from the long-lost ship John?

Did John perish alongside those 300 in the sinking of The Constant Reformation? Or was he saved alongside Prince Rupert (who would go on to live into his sixties and become head of the King’s Navy after the interregnum). Certainly by 1660 he was dead. In that year, we find his wife Elizabeth petitioning the new king, Charles II “for her husband’s pension of £200 a year, for service, granted in 1645, which was five and a half years in arrears when he died”. Basic maths might suggest that Mucknell had been lost in the battle off Terceira. Elizabeth had been “driven from her habitations at Poplar and Bristol, her goods seized and she forced to fly beyond the seas.”
For centuries Mucknell and the John were lost to history. But Todd’s explorations kick the whole story off again, and this year English Heritage announced plans to dive the wreck. The story of the King’s Pirate is not done yet.

* Pirate John Mucknell and the Hunt for the Wreck of the John by Todd Stevens. AuthorHouse Publishing. ISBN 978-1467001588. Order details at www.piratemucknell.co.uk/
View The King’s pirate in a larger map

Dock deaths and the Poplar Hospital

Docklands hospital in Poplar

Poplar Hospital catered for the wounded from the East India Docks

THE NAME of the infirmary was tellingly blunt. The ‘Poplar Hospital for Accidents’ suggested that the East End of the 1800s was a dangerous place where bad things happened. And though it would become a refuge for East Enders suffering every kind of ailment, primarily it was created to cope with the constant stream of broken and shattered men carried from the East India Docks – the most dangerous place of all.

Dock work was inherently dangerous of course. The frequently half-cut dockers (cheap booze being one way to make a hellish job bearable) were manoeuvring large, heavy objects between moving ship and stable shore across narrow gangplanks, often slick with ice or other muck. They worked in a confusion of men and vehicles, alongside precipitous drops into the filthy Thames, with sharp grappling hooks being swung around with sometimes careless abandon. But a series of historical turns would make the job more dangerous still during the 1800s.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the Port of London was completely gridlocked, with ships taking days or weeks to be emptied, turned round and sent back to sea. The answer was to build a series of new, enclosed docks, increasing capacity while bringing down costs to the merchant companies, and thus of the goods they were importing. The West India Dock was built in 1802, the East India in 1803, London Docks in 1805 and half a dozen more would follow. The dock owners were now losing less stock through theft, with their well-protected docks, and so prices could come down further. It would lead to an economic boom for England and the beginnings of the great days of London retail. East End stores and market stalls were now selling imported fabrics, tea, coffee, rum, oranges and bananas, and East Enders could afford to buy them.

But with increased capacity came competition, as the dock owners cut prices to vie for business. That meant lower wages for the dockers, who were already on a daily rate or were being paid by the quantity they shifted throughout the day. And there was more competition for jobs, as new labour came in from the English countryside and from Ireland, forcing down wages further. Corners would be cut, and so accidents would happen.

The work itself was dangerous, dirty and tiring (and tired men had more accidents). Bags would burst, showering dockers with iodine, phosphate, asbestos, lead, cement or guano. A docker of more recent vintage, Bill Abbott, recalled the perils of working with inexperienced men, saying: “I’ve had chaps working with me down a ship’s hold that never handled a hook or done a job down a ship’s hold in their lives. On one occasion, put on sugar, and I gave him a hook…And said “now put your hook in there”, and I’m saying that, as he did so he went literally – bashed his hook right through the middle of me hand. I’ve still got a little hole there now. Almost pinned me hand to the bag of sugar.”

Bill got off lightly. Cargoes could fall from nets or slings as they were being winched to and fro. The busy river would roll ships around at the dock, casting men over the side, to be drowned or crushed between hull and dock. Within the holds of the ship, barrels and chests would be dislodged, crushing men beneath them. In the confused melee of river traffic, collisions occurred, despite the skills of the watermen and lightermen – even those experienced river pilots went over the side from time to time. On the dock itself, cranes, winches, tractors, locomotives and platform trucks all added to the accident count.

So in the early 1850s, a drive was launched. Money was raised by charitable donations and the former Custom House was purchased and transformed into the new Poplar Hospital in 1855. It was soon bursting at the seams and had to be expanded twice over the following years; at one point, it was estimated that a dozen new cases were being treated at the hospital every hour of the day and night, and the hospital bore a plaque “in grateful recognition of the splendid services rendered by the Hospital to the Staff of the London and India Dock Company, since the Hospital was established”.

Seventy years on, its role hadn’t changed. Poplar Borough Council published its Official Guide to the Metropolitan Borough of Poplar in 1927, and reported that: “Accidents in the Port of London, in the docks and shipping, amongst the factories and the engineering works, are of frequent occurrence, and often of the most terrible character … immediate attention to the injured is often a vital consideration.”

The injuries were horrific of course. Crushed limbs, severe lacerations, arms or legs often amputated by falling machinery or whipping ropes. And the Poplar Hospital, while a boon, was still severely limited in what it could do for patients. By the mid-1800s, anasthaesia was becoming established at least. In the early 19th century surgery had been an horrific affair, with pain relief consisting of biting on a strap of leather and a strong will. Unsurprisingly, many died of shock during their operations. One estimate put the post-operative death rate in London hospitals at over 90 per cent in the early 1800s. And it was a common saw that you were safer outside hospital than in. Infection was rife, with no understanding of what caused disease, let alone antibiotics to combat it. A docker might go in with a serious wound only to die from infections picked up in hospital. By the late 1800s, antibiotics had joined anasthaesia, and surgical techniques had improved, but survival rates were still pitifully low.

Times would change of course. The hospital suffered bomb damage in 1941 but wouldn’t close until 1975. In 1982 it was demolished to make way for new houses – the old Victorian buildings and limited space no longer suitable for the demands of modern medicine, though the people of Poplar would miss their local hospital. But by then of course, the docks were all but dead. Downriver, at Tilbury, the docks may still be dangerous places but the advent of health and safety awareness meant the carnage of the docks was history.

How Cubitt moved the East End to the West End

The Cubitts were the family of master builders who reconstructed much of London in the first half of the 18th century.

Eldest brother Thomas built part of Buckingham Palace, large chunks of Belgravia, Bloomsbury and Camden Town. He eventually became so rich and powerful that he even helped underwrite Prince Albert’s pet project of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and personally funded the building of a kilometre of the Thames Embankment.

Middle brother William, who eventually became Lord Mayor and a Tory MP, built and gave his name to Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs, while youngest brother Lewis built Kings Cross Station, parts of Euston and many of the bridges that carried the railways around Britain.

But perhaps the family’s most remarkable achievement was transplanting a large chunk of the East End to the West End – and building a new suburb in the process.

Thomas was one of London’s first master builders and revolutionary in his method of gathering all the trades together under the umbrella of his firm. He had a humble birth, in 1788, the son of a Norfolk carpenter. He followed his father into the trade but had much grander ideas. There was good money to be made as a ship’s carpenter travelling the trade routes to and from India, and by his early twenties he had salted away enough cash to realise his dream of starting his own firm in London.

The capital was enjoying a huge building boom in the early years of the 19th century. London had never truly recovered from the devastation of the Plague and Great Fire, London had struggled through more than a century of economic stagnation and low population growth, and that only maintained by immigration from overseas and the home counties. But by the turn of the 1800s, London was growing again, and quickly.

Trade with the Empire was mushrooming, and had to be supported by a huge development of the docks of the East End, creating thousands of new jobs. To fill them, thousands of men and women poured in to London each year from Ireland and the shires of England. The canals were snaking out from London to take goods around England, and within a few years a massive investment in railways would transform the economy and infrastructure of the land.

As well as the huge ‘capital projects’ as they would be called today, homes were needed for the builders. The supremely organised and dynamic Thomas, running his own building firm from the Grays Inn Road in his early twenties, was perfectly positioned. His first big job was the London Institution at Finsbury Circus. Then he set to work making the homes for the new Londoners who were building the docks, railways, canals and houses of the growing city. The villages of Camden Town, Highbury and Stoke Newington became London suburbs, their fields and market gardens buried beneath cobbles and brick.

Meanwhile, over in Westminster, landowner Lord Grosvenor was about to see his real estate rocket in value. The Grosvenor estate had begun with the marriage of Sir Thomas Grosvenor to Mary Davies in 1677. Mary brought with her the unpromising dowry of 500 acres of land north of the Thames and west of the City. Marshy and sparsely populated, the land languished for half a century, before the slow repopulation of London made it worthwhile for the family to develop first Mayfair and next Belgravia. Now Lord Grosvenor was eyeing an inhospitable patch of marshland south of Buckingham Palace: the location was ideal, but the land unusable according to many he consulted. In 1824, he turned to the new master builder of London in search of an answer.

Cubitt, creative as ever, had the perfect solution. Over in the East End, the medieval hospital of St Katharine, along with 1250 houses crammed alongside, had been marked for redevelopment by an 1825 Act of Parliament. 23 acres would be demolished and dug out as the new St Katharine Dock. The slum-dwelling inhabitants, mostly dock workers themselves, would be made homeless (probably having to move into even more crowded slums); only the landowners would be compensated.

But if the developers were indifferent about where the former residents went, they did have the problem of what to do with the thousands of tons of earth dug out of the banks of the Thames. Step forward Thomas Cubitt, with a fleet of barges which for months steamed up and down the river – dumping acres of East End soil into the Pimlico bog. Within a few years, elegant new terraces of white stucco would rise from the mud of Wapping-in-the-West, and Thomas Cubitt would become a rich man. The Grosvenors became, and remain to this day, far richer still.

The precocious Thomas, still in his thirties, now handed the business over to younger brother William. He would go on to develop Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs and – with brother Lewis – make a fortune from the railway boom. Thomas was now rich enough to pursue his own projects. He died in 1855 and Queen Victoria (for whom he built Osborne House as well as helping out Albert with his Great Exhibition) described him as “a real national loss. A better, kindhearted or more simple, unassuming man never breathed”.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel this week (9 April 2006)* marks one of the real pioneers of British industrial design. A multi-skilled engineer who built tunnels, bridges, steamships, railway trains and railway stations.

As well as a prodigious appetite for work, Brunel was a man who took risks, and alongside his spectacular successes were dramatic failures … sometimes with tragic consequences. The anniversary has particular significance for the East End of London. Brunel had worked on the Thames Tunnel, and during the 1850s he would launch the Great Eastern, the biggest ship ever, from the Isle of Dogs.

Brunel was born in Portsmouth the son of Sophia and Sir Marc Brunel, who had emigrated from France. The young Brunel was sent back to his father’s country to study, and at just 20 was made chief assistant engineer on his father’s Thames Tunnel project. The tunnelling shield, the first of its kind, supported the bore of the tunnel and allowed men to work inside. The technology forms the basis of tunnelling to this day.

It was unpleasant and dangerous work. The diggers were waist deep in foul water, there were two major floods, and several men were killed. On one occasion Isambard himself was almost drowned, and was never to fully recover. The tunnel took years to build, was a financial failure as a foot tunnel, and was then converted for use for the East London Line (Wapping-Rotherhithe).

Brunel had gained an extraordinary amount of engineering knowhow by his late twenties and began a prodigious career – one littered with ‘firsts’. In 1830, aged 24, he won the competition to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge at Bristol – it had the longest span of any bridge in the world. Brunel became a bridge specialist: the new railways and roads meant bigger and better bridges were being built. The Royal Albert Bridge over the Tamar followed, as did the Maidenheead Railway Bridge. It was another first – the widest and flattest brick arch bridge in the world. Brunel seemed able to work in any material, and on any project.

Aged 27, Brunel was chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. Again he went out on a limb, deciding the lines from Paddington should be broad gauge, which he argued offered greater comfort than the standard gauge – Brunel brushed aside the fact that every other railway was using the standard gauge pioneered by George Stephenson. His railway became an engineering monument that defied nature – with dramtic viaducts and tunnels making light work of any obstacle (Box Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the world). After Brunel’s death, though, the Great Western adopted standard gauge.

Some inventions never got off the ground, including the Atmospheric Railway, which was to use vacuum power to move trains through Devon. But Brunel looked ever forward, and even while he was wrestling with the demands of the railways, he was looking at transatlantic passenger travel. New ways of making steel and the advances in steam power meant this was now a reality, and the bold Brunel convinced his bosses at the GWR to build the Great Western, simultaneously. advertising the railway. Typically it was to be no normal ship.

At 72 metres in length, she was the biggest steamship ever. The Great Western eventually made 74 crossings to New York, cutting the journey time in half. He went on to build bigger and better ships, including the Great Britain and the Great Eastern. Launched in 1858, this vessel dwarfed the Great Western, being 700ft long and carrying 4000 passengers.

Thousands flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the work in 1858. She was the pride of Britain but, just before completion things began to go wrong. Several men died during the final stages of her construction: it was rumoured that a riveter and his mate were entombed between her twin hulls. From then on, hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night, horrifying the supersititious workers.

The launch was a disaster. Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt with a man was dead and four others badly hurt. It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by inch to the water. As the ship steamed into the Channel, the skipper allowed steam to build up and there was an explosion. Scalded seamen struggled to the deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s huge wheel. Three more died before the day was out. Visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles built for the Great Eastern.

The strain told, and Brunel died of a stroke in 1859, just days before the maiden voyage to New York. He was just 53. Yet in the BBC poll of ‘Great Britons’ in 2002, Brunel came second only to Winston Churchill. The reason is probably that in his risk taking he came up with so many firsts.The Great Eastern would never make money, yet it had an importance that Brunel could never have anticipated. It was the ship used to lay the transatlantic telegraph cable … putting Europe and America in telecommunications contact for the first time.

*Events take place all year. A complete programme of the events during the Brunel 200 celebration can be found online at www.brunel200.com.

Brunel and the Great Eastern

Tens of thousands of people flocked to the Isle of Dogs to see the biggest ship in the world being built.
She was the pride of Britain until, just before completion in the 1850s things began to go horribly wrong.
Because so much money had been poured into building the gigantic Great Eastern, cuts were made and risks taken. Several men died during the final stages of her construction. It was rumoured they included a riveter and his mate entombed between her twin hulls.
From then on, thoughts of the two trapped workmen made many of the crew nervous. Hollow knocking sounds were heard below decks at night and the ship was dogged by ill-fortune throughout her life.
It was a complete turnaround from the fortune that smiled on the ship when she was first designed by the golden boy of Victorian engineering, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Brunel had already built a tunnel under the Thames, constructed railways and designed the Clifton suspension bridge. Everything in his working life was big. Even his railway stations, like Paddington, were the size of cathedrals.
But he went a feat too far in creating an enormous steamship which could carry her own coals on a voyage to Australia and back. He needed a partner to bring the idea to reality and, in choosing John Scott Russell who owned a shipyard at Millwall, he chose the wrong man.
Russell was a braggart who could not live up to promises he made to Brunel. He failed, for instance, to find suitable land on which to build the huge ship.
As a result she was built in a far from ideal spot and had to be launched sideways into the Thames at Millwall.

The launching was a disaster. Huge crowds turned out on the appointed day when Miss Hope, daughter of a shipping company director, smashed a bottle of Champagne against the hull.
Chains took the strain of moving the 19,000-ton vessel but could not cope. They snapped, hurling workmen into the air. Brunel called a halt but, by then, one man was dead and four others badly hurt.
The launching ceremony was postponed with the ship having moved only four feet.
It took four months to drag the Great Eastern inch by tortuous inch to the water. By now the national press was hooting with derision and Brunel became ill with worry.
Even when the ship steamed out into the Channel, disaster was at hand. The skipper allowed too much steam to build up and there was an explosion.
Scalded seamen groped their way up on deck. One flung himself overboard in agony only to be mangled in the ship’s paddlewheel. Three more died before the day was out.
The Great Eastern limped back to port, her splendid Victorian fittings ripped to shreds, and did not re-emerge for a year.
Brunel died a broken man aged only 53 and, although the Great Eastern lived on for 30 years, she seemed jinxed.
She lost money as a transatlantic passenger steamer and was converted to the ignominious job of laying ocean cables.
Brunel’s dream, of using her on the Australia run, was never realised and eventually she was broken up for scrap.
Not much remains today of the Great Eastern apart from photos and souvenirs.
But visitors to Millwall today can, at low tide, still see the launching ways and piles that were built for Britain’s ill-starred queen of the seas.
For further reading: The Big Ship by Patrick Beaver; Brunel and his World by John Pudney.