This Thames-side set of stairs gives access to the River Thames from Wapping High Street and is one of few survivors of what was once numerous “watermen’s stairs”.
The Grade II-listed stairs, which are accessed from the top via a narrow passage bearing their names which runs down the side of the Town of Ramsgate pub, were once used to reach boats to carry passengers across the Thames or offload cargo.
The worn stone stairs at Wapping Old Stairs, which the Historic England says may be of earlier origin than the 18th century, are unusual in that there’s two sets of stairs – one set back behind the other.
Many believe the stairs were the location of Execution Dock, where pirates, smugglers and mutineers were executed by hanging including the notorious Captain William Kidd (but there are alternate theories about where the stairs were located).
Other surviving watermen’s stairs go by the names of Alderman Stairs, Pelican Stairs and King Henry’s Stairs (also known as Execution Dock Stairs, thanks to its being another site posited as the location of Execution Dock.)
• As controversy continues to swirl around the statue dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, another statue was unveiled in London this week – this time depicting two women pirates which some accounts say were lovers. The statue of Mary Read and Anne Bonny was unveiled at Execution Dock on the north bank of the Thames at Wapping – a site where pirates and smugglers were put to death for more than 400 years. Commissioned by audiobook company Audible to mark the release of a podcast, Hell Cats, a dramatic interpretation of the two women’s lives, the statue of Read and Bonny is the work of artist Amanda Cotton. Early next year it will be relocated to Burgh Island off the south Devon coast.
• The National Trust has released a series of six free downloadable backdrops – featuring some of the star interiors from its properties – for use in virtual meetings. The backdrops on offer include Vita Sackville-West’s writing room in the tower at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, Agatha Christie’s library at Greenway, and the ‘Office of the Caretaker of the Electric Light’ at Cragside (pictured above). Different backgrounds will come online in coming weeks. Head to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/virtual-backgrounds-for-zoom.
• The London Transport Museum has unveiled three new virtual tours taking in the Holborn (Kingsway) area, Brompton Road station and King William Street station. The tours, part of the museum’s Hidden London programme, provide access to areas not usually open to the public as well as to historic archival material and footage from the museum’s collection and are led by expert guides on Zoom. Admission charges apply. For more, including dates, see www.ltmuseum.co.uk/hidden-london/virtual-tours.
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Located on the north bank of the River Thames in Wapping, East London, this pub owes its name to the infamous mariner who met his end at nearby Execution Dock.
Located in what was originally a warehouse, the pub – one of several riverside pubs in Wapping – only apparently dates from the 1980s but the historic location – and the ample views it provides over the river from its garden area – ensures it still has plenty of atmosphere.
Captain William Kidd himself was a Scot, born in 1645, who took to the seas in the Caribbean where he operated as a privateer. It was during a voyage in the Indian Ocean – he had set off from London in 1696 – that he undertook actions which led him to being accused of murder and piracy, something he discovered upon his return to the Caribbean soon after.
He traveled to the North American city of Boston to plead his case with the governor but was instead arrested and eventually sent to England where he stood trial for piracy and murder. He was found guilty on all charges and was hanged on 23rd May, 1701, at Execution Dock – believed to have been located just to the west of the pub – in Wapping.
It was apparently a messy affair – the hangman’s rope broke on the first attempt and he was only successfully hanged on the second. Kidd’s tar-covered body was later displayed in a gibbet hung over the Thames at Tilbury Point as a warning to other pirates for three years.
Kidd’s fame grew after his death, thanks in large part to rumours he’d left buried treasure someone in the US, and his name has become somewhat synonymous with piracy ever since.
The pub, at 108 Wapping High Street, is operated by Samuel Smith’s.
The favoured place to dispatch pirates, Execution Dock was located on the north bank of the River Thames just off Wapping High Street.
Among the most famous to be executed here was Kidd himself who, having been found to have turned pirate while operating as a privateer under the authority of King William III, was hanged here on 23rd May, 1701.
The site, near where a cannon foundry operated supplying the fleet of King Henry VIII, was in-use as an execution ground for more than 400 years, from the 15th century until the last hanging in 1830 (that of pirates George Davis and William Watts).
Those convicted of piracy in the High Court of Admiralty were typically brought to Execution Dock from Marshalsea Prison (or in some cases from Newgate) in a procession across London Bridge and past the Tower of London which was led by the Admiralty Marshal or his deputy who carried a silver oar as a symbol of their authority.
In a public spectacle, the pirates were then hanged on a wooden scaffold built at low tide but unlike at other sites of execution where they were cut down after death, the victims were left hanging to allow three tides to wash over them.
The most notorious of the pirates would then be tarred and put in a gibbet to be exhibited on one of the banks of the Thames as a warning to others (Kidd’s remains were apparently left in such a state for more than 20 years at Tilbury).
The exact location of Execution Dock remains a matter of dispute with favoured locations including a spot near the Town of Ramsgate pub, just along from The Captain Kidd pub near what are now known as King Henry’s Stairs and, between the two locations, a warehouse which stands on the waterfront and is prominently marked with an E (for Execution Dock). Some even suggest the site was outside the Prospect of Whitby pub further east along Wapping High Street.
There’s currently an exhibition on Captain Kidd at the Museum of London Docklands, Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story. See here for more information.
• The true story of Captain Kidd and an exploration of London’s links with piracy is the focus of a new major exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.Pirates: The Captain Kidd Story features original artefacts dating from 300 years ago when London was a site of pirate executions and tells the story of the infamous Captain Kidd’s life until his execution at Wapping’s Execution Dock. Among the artefacts is the original costume worn by actor Johnny Depp as he played Captain Jack Sparrow in the film Pirates of the Caribbean. The exhibition, which opens tomorrow and runs until 30th October, is being held in conjunction with a series of pirate related events including an adults-only pirate night on 27th May where you have the chance to sample some genuine “pirate drink” and take part in pirate speech lessons. Admission charges apply. For more information, visit the Museum of London Docklands website www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Docklands/Whats-on/Exhibitions-Displays/Pirates.htm.
• The path of London’s Olympic Torch Relay has been announced and will finish with a week long jaunt through London. The torch will arrive in Waltham Forest on 21st July next year and then pass through Bexley, Wandsworth, Ealing, Haringey and Westminster before its arrival at the Olympic Stadium on 27th July. To find out how to nominate someone to carry the torch or for more information on the relay, visit www.london2012.com/olympic-torch-relay.
• On Now: London’s Underworld Unearthed: the Secret Life of the Rookery. The seedy side of the St Giles Rookery, a once infamous quarter of the capital, is laid bare in this new exhibition at the Coningsby Gallery. Back in 1751, the area was known as “a pit of degradation, poverty and crime” known for its free-flowing gin. Artist Jane Palm-Gold has displayed 18th and 19th century artifacts found during the Museum of London Archaeology’s recent excavation of old St Giles (conducted prior to the construction of the recent Central St Giles development which now covers the site) alongside her paintings, building what has been described as a “multi-layered psycho-geography that both mesmerises and disturbs”. Runs until 3rd June at the Coninsby Gallery at 30 Tottenham Street (nearest tube station is Goodge Street). Admission is free. For more information, see www.coningsbygallery.com
• Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue – known for having helped cure King George VI of his stammer, the story of which is told in the recent Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech – has been honored with a green plaque by Westminster Council. The plaque was expected to be unveiled today at 146 Harley Street, where Logue, who is known to have used fees from wealthier client to subsidise free treatments for those who could not afford them, lived from 1926 until 1952. The plaque is one of 94 which Westminster Council has placed to mark buildings of particular significance for their association with people who have made lasting contributions to society.
• On Now: The Seven Seas at Selfridges in Oxford Street. Conceptual artist Beth Derbyshire’s seven minute video installation features seven films of seven different seas around the globe. On show as part of Project Ocean – an initiative by Selfridges and 20 environmental and conservation groups aimed at celebrating the ocean’s beauty and highlighting the issue of overfishing. Runs until 8th June. For more information, see www.selfridges.com.