PortCities London

London and the pirates

Pirate trials

Swift justice

Seamen and their families were very aware of the penalty for piracy. The publicity surrounding the trials and executions of pirates made sure of that.

Most trials lasted no more than one or two days, even when 20 or 30 prisoners were involved. This was mainly because there were no arguments in their defence. It was the usual practice for the accused men to conduct their own defence.

Pirate defences

Captain Kidd hanging in chains
View full size imageCaptain Kidd hanging in chains. © NMM
Since most of the men on trial were seamen with little or no education they could not make a good case for themselves. Their response was usually one of the following:

  • they said nothing at all in their defence
  • they simply said they were drunk at the time
  • they claimed they were forced men - their ships had been captured by pirates and they had been compelled to do as they were told.

The trial of Captain Kidd took place at the Old Bailey, London, in May 1701. Kidd was found guilty of murder and piracy and was hanged at Execution Dock.


Dolzell and the clergyman

A pirate captain on the deck of his ship.
View full size image A pirate captain on the deck of his ship. © NMM
The job of the clergy was to get the condemned men to admit their guilt and to persuade them to repent and see the error of their ways. This was not always easy. Many pirates had no time for religion and even less for the clergy.

Captain Alexander Dolzell was convicted of piracy at the Old Bailey in December 1715. While held in the dungeon at Newgate prison, he was visited constantly by the Reverend Paul Lorrain who was the Ordinary, or prison chaplain. Captain Dolzell was a 42-year-old Scotsman and a hardened criminal.

Dolzell refused to look at the Bible and threatened to tear it up. And on one occasion he said he would kick the chaplain down the stairs!

The chaplain wrote:

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He was so brutish and so obstinate that he would not be satisfied with anything I offered to him in this matter....He declared he would do me some
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mischief or other before he died, or haunt me afterwards.

In the last moments of his life Dolzell had a change of heart. As Lorrain offered up final prayers on the scaffold, Dolzell said he repented and apologised for his rude behaviour. The chaplain was not impressed:

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Whether that repentance was sincere, and not too late, is much to be doubted.

 Speeches and confessions

Execution at Tyburn from Newgate Calendar.
View full size image Execution at Tyburn from Newgate Calendar

The speeches and confessions of criminals about to be hanged in England and the colonies were usually printed. They sold in large numbers in the days following an execution.

The largest source of such speeches is the 18th-century periodical titled The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were executed at Tyburn. Most of these are biographies of thieves and murderers hanged at Tyburn, but it does include the speeches of a number of pirates.


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