The Port of London used to be the biggest port in the world; it is still the second largest in the country. The location of the Thames and the river’s sea access has played a major part in the general history of London, making it a significant trading site for centuries. Sea access also brought some negatives to the city, however, as it attracted smugglers, pirates and mutineers.
Those that were caught, tried and found guilty by the British Admiralty in London were hanged at Execution Dock in Wapping in the East End for over four centuries.
About Execution Dock, The History
Execution Dock was used as a hanging site for over 400 years until the 1830s. It is thought that its location in Wapping was set at the low-tide mark in the Thames that marked the jurisdiction of the British Admiralty. It was the Admiralty’s job to deal with any crimes at sea, and people were executed in London whether they committed their crimes abroad or at home. Although London’s prisons had their own scaffolds and hangmen, the Admiralty wanted its own public site of execution at a visible point on the waterfront to give the warning that seafarers ought to behave or face the scaffold.
The Admiralty tried all kinds of crimes and criminals – it wasn’t just in charge of its own British sailors, but would take on any sea-based miscreant. Sailors were most often committed for execution for fairly serious crimes like murders or mutiny; pirates and smugglers didn’t stand much of a chance if they were caught red-handed. The automatic punishment for piracy was death by hanging in a public place.
Not all hangings were equal
People who were executed at this dock were symbolically hung over the river rather than on land; not all hangings were the same and some were fairly barbaric. If you were a pirate, you were hanged with a shorter rope than usual as an extra punishment. This meant that you didn’t actually hang and die quickly but were slowly strangled to death, as the drop wasn’t long enough to break your neck. This kind of hanging was known as The Marshal’s Dance (after the High Court Marshal who presided over executions) as the victims’ legs would often jerk in dance-like movements as they struggled for air.
The executioners were also not allowed to cut down the bodies as soon as the hanging was done. The custom was to leave the bodies on the scaffold in the noose until at least three tides had ebbed and flowed over their heads. If you had really done something bad, your body was then tarred after hanging, put in chains and hung at certain points along the Thames. This often happened with pirates and was supposed to warn people of just what would happen if they decided to follow a Long John Silver career!
The hanged man and the quart of ale
Hangings were very public affairs a few centuries ago. During its heyday, people saw a trip to Execution Dock to see a hanging as a great day out. They would line the banks of the Thames to see notorious criminals executed; some would even charter boats to watch proceedings from a poll position on the Thames. The people about to be executed weren’t given an easy time of it before they reached the scaffold — they were taken to Execution Dock in a cart, paraded through London.
There was one bright spot in what was probably not a good day for most of these criminals. Tradition allowed the parade to stop at a tavern or inn on the way to Execution dock to drink a last quart of ale. This may only equal a couple of pints, but it was better than nothing.
Captain Kidd and Execution Dock
The most famous person to be hanged at Execution Dock was Captain Kidd who was sentenced for piracy and murder in 1701. His was not the smoothest execution – the rope broke when the hangman tried to hang him and he had to wait for them to sort out another to try again. Kidd’s body was used as a deterrent to would-be pirates. It hung at Tilbury Docks on a gibbet for three years.
Where is Execution Dock?
Although Execution Dock is marked on historical maps as being close to Gun Wharf in Wapping, nobody knows the exact location any longer. Some people believe that it stood where Wapping Station now stands; others that it was located on the site of Swan Wharf. If you’re taking a walk around Wapping, you can get an idea of its approximate location by visiting the Prospect of Whitby pub, which is near the site – there is a noose hanging from the back of the pub commemorating Execution Dock.