With Captain Jack Sparrow entertaining cinema audiences in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, I thought I'd take a trip to east London on the trail of another pirate - this one of the supernatural variety.
The waterfront neighbourhood of Wapping, to the east of the City of London, has changed enormously over the last few centuries. Once, this place teemed with dockers and sailors scratching out a hard but honest living, and with pirates and smugglers squeezing out a hard and dishonest living, the law-abiding and the criminal crammed together amid the noise and bustle of these winding streets. Now the area is relaxed and fashionable, the old wharves and warehouses having been converted to luxury apartments during the last two decades of the 20th century.
The past floated up from the depths as I slipped down a narrow alley beside the Town of Ramsgate pub in Wapping High Street. There I found myself at the top of some steep, time-worn stone stairs leading down to the murky waters of the River Thames. Despite the bright spring sunshine this place was silent and deserted and, after carefully picking my way down the seaweed-slimed steps, I reached the rocky foreshore of the river. There I was alone with the gently lapping tide, breathing in air that smelled faintly of the sea: of salt and ancient decay.
This is the foot of Wapping Old Stairs and it is around here that the ghost of pirate Captain William Kidd is said to linger. Descriptions of where Kidd's ghost has been seen are a little vague on details but he is supposed to haunt the site where he was put to death in 1701 - the wonderfully named Execution Dock. Although the dock no longer exists it stood just a short distance to the east of these steps.
As the name suggests, Execution Dock was where pirates, smugglers and mutineers were hanged after they had been sentenced to death by Admiralty (maritime) courts. Because the Admiralty had jurisdiction only over crimes committed at sea, the scaffold from which the condemned were hanged was positioned in the River Thames itself, just beyond the low-tide mark. After death, the bodies were left to hang until three tides had washed over them and only then would the bloated and blackened corpses be cut down. (The fact that this happened at Wapping may be the source of the expression "What a whopper", referring to something enormous.)
Execution Dock was in use for 400 years and it stood until around 1830. Reminding visitors of the area's brutal past, a mocked-up gallows (see picture below) stands at the rear of the Prospect of Whitby pub a few minutes' walk further east from the site of the old dock.
So who was the pirate whose ghost bobs about here? William Kidd was born in Scotland in around 1645. Little is known of his early life but after around 1689 Kidd was working as a privateer in the Caribbean, authorised by the British Crown to attack enemy (which meant French) ships. He was later sent out by the authorities in New York and Massachusetts, charged to fight against enemy privateers operating off the North American coast. Then in 1695 Kidd was given letters of marque from King William III, commissioning him to hunt and capture pirates in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean who were attacking ships of the East India Company.
In February 1696, Kidd set sail from Deptford in southeast London aboard a newly built ship, the Adventure Galley. This voyage would go disastrously wrong. As the months passed it became increasingly apparent that Kidd's ship was not fully seaworthy and was developing leaks. A third of his crew died from a cholera outbreak on the Comoro Islands off the southeast coast of Africa. Worst of all, the captain was unable to find any pirates to attack.
He desperately needed to capture ships because this was an expensive expedition and most of the funding had been put up by powerful English nobles who expected a return on their investment. He also had his own crew to worry about for they were growing ever more restless. Some simply deserted when the opportunity arose but the greater problem lay with those who remained, who were muttering more and more about mutiny.
In October 1697 Kidd refused to listen to his crew's calls for him to attack a passing Dutch ship. Doing so would have been an act of piracy but Kidd's inaction provoked a furious argument with his gunner, a man named William Moore. A fight ensued, during which Kidd smashed an ironbound bucket against Moore's head. The impact cracked the gunner's skull and he dropped to the deck, later to die of his injuries. Kidd had committed murder.
If the accusations later made against him are to be believed, the pressures mounting on Kidd eventually drove him to turn pirate, attacking innocent vessels and plundering their cargoes.
In January 1698 he captured the most valuable prize he had ever taken, an Armenian ship named the Quedagh Merchant but although that ship was travelling under French passes its captain turned out to be an Englishman. Kidd later claimed that he wanted to return the vessel but his crew refused, insisting that the French passes made this ship fair game. Whatever the truth of this, the Quedagh Merchant was in far better condition than his own failing vessel and so Kidd scuttled the Adventure Galley and installed himself aboard the seized merchantman, renaming it the Adventure Prize.
When he reached Anguilla in the West Indies in April 1699 Kidd learned he had been denounced as a pirate and that searching for him somewhere out there on the high seas were several English men-of-war. He abandoned the Adventure Prize and bought a new ship, the Antonio, on which he sailed to New York City, hoping he could clear his name. But New York's colonial governor, the Earl of Bellomont, chose instead to send Kidd to England to stand trial.
In May 1701 Kidd was found guilty on five charges of piracy and for the murder of William Moore. He was taken to Execution Dock and hanged on 23 May - twice. On the first attempt the rope snapped, dropping him into the thick Thames mud. The second attempt was more successful and after the customary three tides had risen over him his corpse was taken away, covered in tar to preserve it, and gibbetted in an iron cage over the Thames at Tilbury Point in Essex. There it hung for years as a gruesome reminder to passing sailors of the fate awaiting pirates.
According to legend, Kidd buried much of his pirate treasure in locations that have yet to be discovered. That may be true but at least some of his loot was recovered, being dug up on Gardiners Island off Long Island, New York and used as evidence against him. It is said that Kidd's ghost haunts Gardiners Island as well as the area around Execution Dock, but that was a bit far for me to travel for this article.
The tide was beginning to come in now and so I carefully made my way back up the slippery old steps and into the Wapping of the 21st century. For all its recent gentrification, this can still be an eerie place if you know about its past; it's enough to shiver anyone's timbers.
(The Museum of London is currently hosting an exhibition about Captain Kidd: visit their website for details.)