As a traveller entering London in 1765, aside from the mythical fog and mist which greeted weary travellers, there was another, grislier welcome to the city. In the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, rotting corpses creaked in iron cages or hung from gallows all along the River Thames. A sinister deterrent to those considering a life of piracy on the high seas.
The unfortunate souls who received this fate were convicted pirates, smugglers and mutineers who had been arrested for their crimes at sea and detained in Southward at the infamous Marshalsea Prison. Once the Admiralty Courts had heard their case and handed out the dreaded punishment, the damned were led over London Bridge, to Wapping, to the location of the execution dock.
Entire families crowded around to view the spectacle, with spectators mooring on boats on the Thames to get a glimpse of the action. On the way to the gallows, the condemned were given one last quart of ale at The Turks Head Inn. Once complete, they were marched to the Execution Dock, located just offshore below the tideline, where they were given the opportunity to deliver a final speech. The gallows had to be fixed below the tide line, as the Admiralty Courts only had jurisdiction below the tide line.
At low tide, a short rope would be placed around the convict’s neck to prevent the drop itself from mercifully granting the victim a quick death. The condemned was then hung until dead, suffocating and flailing in front of the crowd in a gesture affectionately named, The Marshals Dance.
Once dead, the body would remain fixed until three tides had washed over it, then, if the deceased was sufficiently famous, the body would be covered in tar and placed to hang in an iron gibbet cage as a deterrent to other would-be offenders. Captain Kidd, the infamous pirate who inspired the Treasure Island novel, was left hanging Thames-side for over twenty years.
Visiting the waterfront pubs of Wapping today, there are plenty of allusions to Wapping’s gory past. Outside The Prospect of Whitby pub, there are a set of replica gallows, located below the high-tide line. The site of the actual gallows itself was likely to be next to the Town of Ramsgate Pub on the waterfront. No visit would be complete without paying homage to Captain Kidd himself by sipping on a quart of ale at The Captain Kidd.