The city of London was once the largest port in the world, and as such attracted its fair share of pirates and smugglers.
Try to imagine. Still in the first decades of the 19th century, travelers approaching the port of the city of London on the Thames were greeted by a horrible sight: the river was flanked by a number of gallows, from which corpses hung in decomposition, were exposed in iron cages. The wind rocked the human remains, causing a sinister crunch that terrified sailors.
The infamous London Execution Dock was used for 400 years up until 1830. It was used to execute all seagoing criminals, including pirates, mutineers, and smugglers.
At that time the English Crown was in a phase of strong expansion of the empire. The colonies, scattered in distant places, represented an enormous economic resource, for the raw materials they supplied, and at the same time as buyers of the products made in Great Britain.
The maritime trade, to be convenient, needed safe routes, so that during the reign of Elizabeth I the corsairs were supported by the crown, which used them as an instrument of contrast to the ships of the other colonial powers, and to the “independent” pirates. However, when these mercenaries of the sea no longer had the Crown’s endorsement, almost all of them turned into pirates, therefore criminals who threatened maritime trade.
The only punishment for this crime was death: all those who committed crimes on the sea (pirates, mutineers, smugglers) were locked up in Marshalsea Prison or Newgate Prison, waiting to be transferred to the Execution Dock for public execution. London had several places where death sentences were carried out, but the pier on the Thames was used in particular for pirates.
The condemned paraded by foot along the roads that led from the prison to the Execution Dock, led by the High Court Marshal or his deputy, who proceeded on horseback carrying a silver oar, symbol of the authority of the Admiralty’s authority. Prisoners were transported using a cart which had a chaplain inside so they could confess their sins to him. The streets were full of spectators, as well as the banks of the Thames, while others enjoyed the show from the river, aboard specially crafted boats. Men and women, old people and children, an immense crowd attended the gruesome spectacle of a man who died hanging by the neck. You could not outrun the long arm of the law, they did not care if you committed the crimes in their waters or abroad. You would be brought back to London and tried by the High Court of the Admiralty.
Along the way to the gallows there was a pub (which today is a cafeteria), where the condemned man could drink his last gallon of beer, while at the foot of the gallows he had the opportunity to give his last speech, to regret his bad deeds or to accuse someone of his sad fate.
With his last words the time of the condemned also ended: the criminal was hung by the neck until death occurred. For those who were convicted of piracy, they would receive the cruelest of punishments: they would be hanged with a shortened rope so that when the floor was dropped out from under them their fall would not snap their neck, they would then strangle to death.
During the agony the victim struggled, and this macabre sight was called “the dance of the marshal”.
Hangings were always performed at low tide, but the bodies of the condemned were removed only after the tide had washed their body three times. If the crime was so terrible, then the Admiralty would have the bodies covered in tar and hung in chains at Blackwell Point or at Cuckold’s Point as a warning to all of those who would dare turn to piracy.
This is an account from The Gentleman’s Magazine, from February 4, 1796, that gives a clear picture of an execution at London’s Docks.
“This morning, a little after ten o’clock, Colley, Cole, and Blanche, the three sailors convicted of the murder of Captain Little, were brought out of Newgate, and conveyed in solemn procession to Execution Dock, there to receive the punishment awarded by law. On the cart on which they rode was an elevated stage; on this were seated Colley, the principal instigator in the murder, in the middle, and his two wretched instruments, the Spaniard Blanche, and the Mulatto Cole, on each side of him; and behind, on another seat, two executioners.
Colley seemed to be in a state resembling that of a man stupidly intoxicated, and scarcely awake, and the two discovered little sensibility on this occasion, nor to the last moment of their existence, did they, as we hear, make any confession. They were turned off about a quarter before twelve in the midst of an immense crowd of spectators.
On the way to the place of execution, they were preceded by the Marshall of the Admiralty in his carriage, the Deputy Marshall, bearing the silver oar, and the two City Marshals on horseback, Sheriff’s officers, etc. The whole cavalcade was conducted with great solemnity.”
The notorious Captain Kidd was the most famous pirate (and first corsair) among those hanged at the Execution Dock. He was taken from Newgate Prison and hanged at the dock in 1701. The rope snapped during his first execution, so they strung him up again and killed him the second time. His body remained hung for a number of years that varies according to the different stories: according to some they were two, for another three, while it seems unlikely that they were even forty.
The last executions to take place at the Execution dock were performed on December 16, 1830, where sailors George Davis and William Watts, who had murdered a ship captain, were hanged.
Today no one knows exactly where the forks were located, but a replica stands just outside a historic 500-year-old pub, The Prospect of Whitby.
The exact location of the former dock is disputed, with three riverside pubs claiming the site: the Prospect of Whitby, Captain Kidd, and the Town of Ramsgate. The last is thought to be the most likely location. Down a narrow alley along the western side of the Town of Ramsgate, you can see some stairs known as the Wapping Old Steps. At low tide, they lead all the way down to the river foreshore, to what may well have been the real site of Execution Dock.