London’s Bloodiest Places

London's gruesome history...

Upmarket restaurants, estate agents displaying ads for luxury apartments and joggers incessantly circling blocks of renovated former warehouses are a few of the things that characterise Wapping, a classic example of London gentrification where a former East End slum has been transformed into the residential utopia of many an investment banker. Dig a little further than the trendy pubs and the tranquillity of its quiet streets turns to eeriness once a very murky past is revealed.

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why the vast majority of London’s houses are Victorian in style, the answer is simple: the city experienced an expansion of massive proportions during Queen Victoria’s reign, with new railway lines and roads encouraging commerce and increasing traffic, while industries in the docks grew and encouraged an influx of immigrant workers. Rows upon rows of terraced houses were constructed to accommodate this growth in population, despite this many homes still suffered from overcrowding.

As business prospered the gap between rich and poor escalated, the crime rate multiplied (muggings taking place in broad daylight were commonplace) and the docklands areas found themselves under constant risk of pirate attacks. A watch house at West India Docks had guards constantly surveying the area for any potential criminal activity, which must have been a tedious occupation if ever there was one before the advent of the iPhone.

Less than ten minutes walk from Wapping tube station, at 62 Wapping High Street, is the Town of Ramsgate pub, crammed amongst narrow brick buildings and distinct from afar thanks to a red sign and the hanging flower baskets that hint at the nature of its business. This pub, just like all the other buildings on this street, overlooks the river Thames on one side. Ships would routinely set off and disembark from here, and it was in the cellars of the Town of Ramsgate where convicts were held before being transported to the colonies, more often than not to Australia, where on the one hand they’d be able to enjoy better weather, on the other they would have to deal with punishing manual labour and regular beatings.
The unluckiest of criminals would meet their fate at the grisly-named Execution Dock. Hangings for those who disregarded the law were as usual as weekly markets, in a time when the issue of human rights was not yet a blip on the horizon. It is believed the dock was situated just a few metres up the road from the Town of Ramsgate, although there is some dispute over its exact location. Some claim it was where the underground station now is, while others believe it was at number 80 Wapping High Street, now a Savill’s estate agents.

After being hanged, it was custom for the bodies of the accused to be left dangling in low water for the tide to wash over them three times before they were removed. The Angel, a pub on Bermondsey Wall, with its sweeping views over the Thames, is believed to have been the favoured spot by many members of the public who would gather here to watch the execution take place as they cheerfully supped a pint of ale.

Furthermore, the bodies of some of the most notorious criminals would be ‘gibbeted’ - hung in a chain contraption that permitted their decaying figures to be perfectly visible to the passerby, serving as a deterrent to any would-be pirates and law-breakers. Cuckold’s Point was one of the gibbet sites; although there is nothing to pinpoint it today the sharp bend the river makes (which is what the ‘cuckold’ - meaning ‘pair of horns’ refers to) gives it away. Other spots for gibbets were on the Isle of Dogs and Bugsby’s Hole, nowadays near the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel. The bodies of these unfortunate felons were left till they decomposed, with their clothes rotting and crows pecking at their flesh.
The macabre treatment of convicts was not limited to the East End. Next time you’re taking a stroll through Hyde Park on a sunny day, make a point of visiting Speaker’s Corner. Poets, anarchists, eco-warriors, tourists or students often converge here to either make an enraged protest or eagerly listen to an impassioned speech. Little over two centuries ago the public executions that took place here were amongst London’s top social events. The ‘Tyburn Tree’, named after the Tyburn tributary of the Thames, was an innovative form of gallows with three legs, permitting mass executions. So efficient was the Tyburn that on occasion over 20 men and women could be executed in one go. The Tyburn stood in the middle of a major crossroads (the junction of what is now Oxford Street and Park Lane), therefore this stark construction was an instantly recognisable landmark for visitors. Thank goodness for the London Eye these days.

The spectacle of hanging was proving to be so popular that crafty entrepreneurs began charging a fee to watch. Up to 10,000 people would attend on a Monday, with numbers rising considerably for highly publicised cases. As that great documenter of Victorian times, Thackeray, once said, “It is curious that a murder is a great inspirer of jokes. We all like to laugh and have our fling about it; there is a certain grim pleasure in the circumstance - a perpetual jingling antithesis between life and death, that is sure of its effect.”

The practice of gibbeting was stopped in 1834 and Tyburn had ceased to be used as a principal site for execution by the late 18th century, mostly due to the heavy congestion created by the crowds of people that flocked to watch the hangings, rather than for any moral reasoning. It’s burdensome to think that less than 200 years ago the humiliating act of publicly executing someone was alive and well, not to mention a great source of entertainment in the city of London. At least now the masses are content watching The X Factor rather than clamouring for blood.


by Leila Hawkins

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