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Execution Dock – The Pirate Scaffold

Execution Dock was a scaffold in London on the River Thames for hanging pirates, smugglers, and mutineers under sentence of death by the Admiralty courts for crimes committed at sea.

The exact location of Execution Dock is speculated, with suggested contenders being the Warf building, the Captain Kidd pub, the Town of Ramsgate pub, and the Prospect of Whitby pub – where a replica gallows has since been erected on the Thames shore.

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Those sentenced by the British Admiralty were held in the Marshalsea, a notorious prison in Southwark which would later be used as a debtors prison (being the scene of Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit). Prisoners were paraded in a cart from the Marshalsea by the Admiralty Marshal (or one of his deputies) to London Bridge, past the Tower of London, and towards Execution Dock.

In 1796, the Gentleman’s Magazine reported: ““They were turned off about a quarter before twelve in the midst of an immense crowd of spectators. On the way to the place of execution, they were preceded by the Marshall of the Admiralty in his carriage, the Deputy Marshall, bearing the silver oar, and the two City Marshals on horseback, Sheriff’s officers, etc.”

Crowds of spectators gathered along the shores of the river or rented boats anchored in the Thames to witness the public hangings, usually carried out by hangmen employed at Tyburn or Newgate Prison.

For those condemned for piracy, hanging was done with a shortened rope, meaning that the drop from the scaffold was insufficient to break the prisoner’s neck, causing a slow death by strangulation. This became known as the Marshal’s dance, as the limbs would often be seen to “dance” from slow asphyxiation.

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Once dead, the body was left until at least three tides had washed over their heads, before then being removed and placed in a cage along the Thames estuary as a warning for criminal activities at sea.

The most infamous pirate to receive this fate at Execution Dock was Captain William Kidd, or simply Captain Kidd in 1701. Captain Kid was a privateer initially commissioned to protect English interests in North America and the West Indies, but later convicted for piracy for capturing the Quedagh Merchant and crimes committed by him and his crew against captees.

The last people sentenced to hang at Execution Dock was with the sentencing of George Davis and William Watts in 1830 for piracy. Both men were involved in the Cyprus mutiny, an incident when inmates captured the Cyprus, a brig ship anchored in Recherche Bay off the British penal settlement of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania, Australia).

Header Image Credit – Public Domain

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Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan
Mark Milligan is multi-award-winning journalist and the Managing Editor at HeritageDaily. His background is in archaeology and computer science, having written over 7,500 articles across several online publications. Mark is a member of the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW), the World Federation of Science Journalists, and in 2023 was the recipient of the British Citizen Award for Education, the BCA Medal of Honour, and the UK Prime Minister's Points of Light Award.
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