Tales of the Riverbank – Execution Dock

Over the centuries London has been notorious for its brutal system of publicly executing those found guilty of committing capital offences against the state…. In this installment we will examine how those convicted of Mutiny, Piracy and Murder on the High Seas were sent to meet their maker at the infamous Execution Dock.

It seems that over its 400 year history Execution Dock had several locations….Probably its earliest location was a short distance down river from The Tower of London….As London expanded so the execution site was moved further and further to the East. It was said that the famous Judge Jeffreys would dine in the Angel Pub, Rotherhithe and watch the executions taking place across the river…That would be possible if (as thought) the penultimate location was close to The Town of Ramsgate Pub at Wapping Old Stairs….Certainly it is said that the old pub had cellars that were once used as prison cells for the occasions when it was used as a court house….And we know that public houses were sometimes used for that purpose….It is also said that the infamous ‘Hanging Judge’ Judge Jeffreys was finally arrested close by to the Town of Ramsgate when he was recognised by a sailor attempting to flee the country by ship.

The final location for Execution Dock was between Wapping Police Station and King Henry Wharf, very close to what is now the Captain Kidd Pub in Wapping High Street….Indeed Captain Kidd had the misfortune to be one of the most famous victims to end his life there in 1701….He even had the misfortune to have to face execution twice as the rope broke at the first attempt.

Executions were public shows and a ceremony proceeded each event….The prisoners would normally be held at the Marshalsea Prison (close to London Bridge) and the condemned prisoners would then be taken across London Bridge in a procession led by the Chief Warden of the Admiralty (proceeded by his silver oar of office) and they would then be transported along Wapping High Street….The procession would halt at the Turk’s Head Public House where the condemned men could drink their last quart of ale before continuing along the High Street to King Henry Stairs where they would arrive to find a gallows erected near the low water mark….The prisoners would have been attended by an ‘Ordinary’ (chaplain) and an executioner who would also have been employed at Tyburn and Newgate and at the appointed time the prisoners would have been ‘Switched Off’ (Hanged). Once pronounced dead, the bodies would be taken down from the gallows and the then secured to a wooden post at the low water mark….They would be left tied to the post for three tides to rise over the bodies…..The most notorious criminals would then have their bodies covered in tar and their bodies would be publicly displayed on gibbets at prominent locations on the river as a stark warning to others.

The final executions to take place at Execution Dock were on 16th December 1830 when George Davis and William Watts were executed for Mutiny.

If that all sounds like a very long time ago then it may help to consider that very close by to Execution Dock is the modern day Wapping Overground Train Station and digging the underground tunnel that today links Wapping and Rotherhithe was commenced in 1825…. Five years before those final executions took place.

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  1. Hello Robroy……..very barbaric times……not satisfied with just hanging they had to be put on show too…. ugh…….well we have moved on from those times thank goodness, but i wonder if the punishment acted as a deterrent……I believe the termology “Take Him Down” came about because of cells deep underground….or in some cases a tunnel leading from the court house under the road across to the cells…..

    1. Barbaric and violent times indeed…. Did it act as a deterrent? No of course not….As for the origins of “Take him down” I’m not sure….. I suspect it may come from (as you suggested) cells being beneath the level of the courts…. In some cases I believe the stairs from the cell passage led directly into the dock.

  2. hello Rob
    Executions have always been billed as being a deterrent even these days, take Texas as an example. Have crime rates anywhere? Surprisingly in some places, it’s higher. the question that still needs to be answered is what should society do with Capitol Offenders? How about building an orbiter to planet XYZ and sending them there!!! But hey did not the English try that already, sending convicts to a very far away island? Ummmmm wonder where that was?