PortCities London

London and the pirates

Pirate executions

Execution Dock

A pirate hanged at Execution Dock.
View full size imageA pirate hanged at Execution Dock. © NMM
For more than four centuries pirates were hanged at Execution Dock on the north bank of the Thames. The exact spot is shown on old maps of London and lies a mile downstream from the Tower of London on a bend of the river at Wapping.

Today the riverside pub called 'The Captain Kidd' overlooks the original site of the gallows. In the early years of the 18th century the waterfront at Wapping was a jumble of wharves, wooden cranes and small shipyards. Beyond the wharves were narrow streets lined with the houses of seamen, dockers, shipwrights and their families.

This picture shows the execution of the pirate James Lowry who was hanged at Execution Dock, Wapping. The prison chaplain stands next to the condemned man on the scaffold. The church of St Mary, Rotherhithe, can be seen in the background. The official on horseback at the left holds the Admiralty oar.

A public event

The Silver Oar - versus - The White Wand - or - The Helmsmen (caricature)
View full size imageThe Silver Oar - versus - The White Wand - or - The Helmsmen (caricature). © NMM
The gallows were built on the shore near the low tide mark. When an execution was due to take place, large crowds gathered on the shore and in boats moored out in the river.

The condemned man had to travel in a procession from the Marshalsea Prison on the south bank, across London Bridge and past the Tower of London to Execution Dock.

The procession was led by the Admiralty Marshal or his deputy who carried the silver oar that represented the authority of the Admiralty. The pirate travelled in a cart and was accompanied by the prison chaplain.

After the pirate had been hanged it was usual to let three tides pass over the body before it was taken away to be buried in an unmarked grave or sent to Surgeon's Hall for dissection. The dissection of executed criminals had been authorised in Henry VIII's reign and was common practice by the 18th century.

Pirates on display

Captain Kidd standing over the treasure he buried at Gardiners Island
View full size imageCaptain Kidd standing over his treasure on Gardiner's Island. © NMM
It was the custom to display the corpses of the more notorious pirates at places along the river where they would be seen by the crews of all ships entering and leaving the port.

The body of Captain Kidd was left suspended at Tilbury Point on the lower reaches of the Thames. It would have been visible there for an hour or more as the ships navigated Sea Reach. That was the broad stretch of the river that curves around the desolate point.

Further upstream, opposite the town of Woolwich, the body of John Prie, pirate and murderer, was hanged in chains in 1727. Following the capture and trial of Captain Gow and his crew in 1725 it was ordered that 'the captain and lieutenant will be hanged in chains, the one over against Greenwich, the other over against Deptford'.

Preserved with tar

Captain Kidd hanging in chains
View full size imageCaptain Kidd hanging in chains. © NMM
To make sure that the pirates' bodies remained intact for as long as possible, the corpses were coated with tar. This was normally used to preserve the wooden hulls of ships and so would have been fairly effective in preventing bad weather affecting them. The tar may also have stopped birds pecking the flesh.

Once coated with tar, the body was fitted into a specially made harness of iron hoops and chains that held the head, body and legs in place. You can see an example of a set of irons and chains dated 1730 in Rye Museum.


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