Execution Dock

Take the edge off: The ghosts of Execution Dock

The allure of the haunted pub

Michelle Fisher, host of the Haunted History Chronicles podcast, explores the dark history of East London’s Execution Dock and the haunted pubs that line the streets nearby.

Why are so many pubs and inns said to be haunted? I think the answer might lie in the word ‘pub’ itself.

Other buildings like abbeys, castles, stately homes and manor houses are often associated with supernatural happenings but they have an element of exclusivity compared with the local pub which is everybody’s heritage and central to a community. The intrinsic nature of a pub is that it is a ‘public’ house, where the doors are open daily to anyone who desires a drink and place to sit. 

Pubs have been at the heart of our social lives for more than a thousand years and have played a significant part in our country’s history. Through turbulent times and periods of peace they have provided for people of all social classes somewhere to meet and exchange news, discuss problems, conduct business and enjoy the company of friends and loved ones. If walls could talk they would certainly hold a monopoly on drama. 

As we step into these locations time seems to stand still, and the echoes of bygone eras reverberate through the air. These establishments often carry with them centuries of stories, secrets and spectral whispers. They play host to a myriad of unexplained phenomena from flickering lights, moving objects to unexplained gusts of cold air. 

The moment you enter a haunted pub, a sense of anticipation hangs in the air. Every haunted pub boasts a distinct tapestry of tales that have been handed down through generations, weaving themselves into the very essence of the establishment.

The flickering light from the stone fireplace casts eerie shadows on ancient timber beams and the floorboards remember long forgotten patrons. It is a place where the past mingles with the present and the veil between the living and the spectral becomes tantalisingly thin.  

As visitors settle in their seats, surrounded by the whispers of history, tales of paranormal encounters are shared. Patrons regale each other with spine- chilling anecdotes of ghostly apparitions, goosebumps rise on the arms of listeners as they immerse themselves in the rich tapestry of supernatural experiences, their senses heightened by the knowledge that they are treading on haunted ground. A unique camaraderie forms as strangers bond. A pint becomes a vessel through which you can sip from the well of history and commune with the departed.   

So gather your courage and raise a glass to the otherworldly inhabitants that are said to linger within the hallowed halls of these pubs. From phantom bartenders pouring pints to ethereal barmaids serving spectral patrons, the apparitions encountered by staff and visitors alike leave an indelible mark on the imagination.  

Execution Dock

Like other parts of the country London has a prolific connection with smuggling and skullduggery. Years of fighting, debauchery, plundering and drinking would begin to be addressed from the 15th century when the Admiralty brought in Execution Dock. The name was given to an area along the bank of the Thames which saw the execution of hundreds of pirates, a watery grave being the fitting end to men, and occasionally women, who committed crimes at sea. 

The final hangings of Execution Dock were on December 16th 1830. George Davis and William Watts had both been charged and found guilty of the crime of piracy. Held in Marshalsea Prison they were paraded from the prison over London Bridge and past the Tower of London and on towards Wapping and Execution Dock.

Like so many before them these men were permitted to “take the edge off” and consume a final quart of ale in establishments such as The Turks Head Inn, The Prospect of Whitby and The Town of Ramsgate Pub before continuing along the streets lined with spectators eager to see them on their final journey to the gallow where their deaths were met by an excited crowd of spectators singing execution ballads set to well known tunes depicting their crime and punishment. Ballads like: 

The Merites of Piracie

Set to the tune of My Virgins Treasure

“Of all the pirates I’ve heard or seen,
The basest and Bloodiest is Captain Green,
To treat our Merchant Ships at such a rate,
After Robbery, his Crime to aggravate,
Under pretence of setting them a shoar:
Our Merchant Men them to devore.
Which clearly is proven to be true,
He deserves to be hanged & all his Crue”

British Library- Roxburghe, C.20.f.9.609; EBBA 31311

The ordeal was a painful one and the treatment of the corpse was intended to act as a bleak and stark warning. As the rope was placed around the criminal’s neck, they could not look forward to a quick death. The rope at Execution Dock was intentionally short and not sufficient to break the neck. What followed was a period of long and protracted suffocation as the ladder was kicked from beneath them, a method known as “turning the prisoner off.” 

Their eyes and tongue bulged from their ever deepening purple faces. Limbs would spasm and contort in a jerking rhythm nicknamed by spectators as the Marshal’s Dance. Once dead, their bodies were held for three tides to bloat and rot; their faces locked in twisted horror and anguish until the crows stripped it down to the bone. Every low tide would reveal a more gruesome sight than the last as the water-logged flesh was consumed by crab and other creatures until it was time to cut the body down.  

Hanging of a Buccaneer at Execution Dock, Public Domain 

The borough of Wapping, with its cobbled lanes and old painted wall signs, is home to several pubs which stand as reminders of the darker chapters in these establishments’ histories.

The Prospect of Whitby, built around 1520 and known first as The Pelican and later by the nickname the Devil’s Tavern, is said to be haunted by many of those condemned men. The spectres of these executed individuals appear as dark and elusive shadows that lurk before vanishing; their stories interwoven in the fabric of the building and the beer and blood that has been shed.  

“There have been numerous sightings of ghosts and apparitions here over the years, as well as tales of poltergeist experiences,” a sign under a hidden staircase by the Smuggler’s Bar reads, “Wapping was a hard place in which to live, work or even pass through. Many a poor would have lost their life here in all manner of unnatural ways.” 

Judge Jeffreys is regarded to have had a favourite seat in The Prospect of Whitby. The infamous Hanging Judge lived close by and is said to have found pleasure in the spectacle of the hangings. On quiet nights some report him still sitting sipping on his ale.  

The Prospect of Whitby – Image Credit Greene King Pubs

Legend has it that the pub is also haunted by the ghost of a female thief who would cut the coin purses from the belts of drunken men. According to legends, she was caught in the act by one of her victims who then proceeded to beat her to death in the back of the inn. ‘Moll Cutpurse,’ as she is known, is seen smoking a pipe and wearing breeches in the corners of the pub.   

Whether you believe in the supernatural or not, these establishments carry an undeniable allure, inviting guests to embrace the eerie and embark on a journey into the heart of the unknown and consider all those who have passed before. 

Links to Michelle’s social media pages, publications, podcast and blog (both of which features a range of guests and topics) can be found at  https://www.podpage.com/haunted-history-chronicles/

You can support the podcast, get involved or gain access to additional content, research, podcasts, conversations and writing at https://www.patreon.com/Haunted_History_Chronicles

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