18th Century Gibbet in Museum of Docklands
One of the more grisly aspects of the Isle of Dogs in the 18th and 19th Century was when a set of gallows stood at the bottom of the Island. It was a familiar sight to many arriving in London by the river to pass by the rotting corpses of Pirates and other criminals at strategic points along the Thames.
It was at nearby Execution Dock in Wapping that many executions took place, however after the event the corpse was often covered in pitch and tar and put into a Gibbet and strung up. The Gibbet was built to keep the corpse in place even when it decomposed therefore a body could be on display for years.
Gibbeting or “Hanging in chains ” as it was called was part of the justice system that believed murderers and other serious offenders should not have the benefit of a proper burial but their bodies should either be used for dissection or be put on public display to act as a deterrent. Cuckolds Point in Rotherhithe, Blackwall Point opposite Blackwall and the Isle of Dogs were popular sites for these public display of pirates, selected for their clear view from the river to remind the many mariners who passed by the perils of becoming a pirate.
The exact spot of the gallows on the Isle of Dogs is not known but the 1746 Roque map shows it clearly marked a short distance from the old Ferry House opposite Greenwich
William Hogarth in his Idle Apprentice series of drawings in 1747 offers a much clearer view of the scene.
The Idle Apprentice companions are pointing to the gallows as a warning what would happen to him if he didn’t change his ways. The drawing clearly show the windmills on the Isle of Dogs at the time and the gallows next to the River.
A Reverend Mozely in his ” Reminiscences,” remembered travelling past the Island in 1820.
In 1820, and for many years after, the only inhabitants of the Isle of Dogs that I ever saw were three murderers hanging from a gibbet.
Although Samuel Pepys had christened the Island as the unlucky Isle of Dogs in the 1660s, it was in the 18th and 19th century that the south part of the Island began to gain a reputation as a uninhabited windswept marsh with a ghostly atmosphere. Obviously rotting corpses clanking in chains in the river mists did little to challenge this preconception.
However some people benefitted from this grisly spectacle, for many years the Greenwich pensioners who lived at the Naval Hospital would set up their telescopes at the top of Greenwich hill and charge people to look at the scene across the river.
This pastime was especially lucrative at the time of the Greenwich Fair when thousands of people crowded in Greenwich to enjoy the revelries.
Charles Dickens noticed the practice was still going on in 1839 when he visited the Fair.
The old pensioners, who, for the moderate charge of a penny, exhibit the mast-house, the Thames and shipping, the place where the men used to hang in chains, and other interesting sights.
Dickens said used to hang, because a few years earlier in 1834 after new legislation the gallows had been taken down and the practice stopped. Needless to say many of the pensioners complained that one of their little sidelines had been curtailed and some newspapers at the time took up their cause.
In 1858 a newspaper reporter discussing Public Executions remembered the practice.
Some few semi-barbarities indeed remained, of which the pillory has but recently disappeared ; that of hanging in chains, designed as an indignity to the dead and a terror to the living, was, we think, not extinct till about forty years ago. Old men amongst us will well recollect the numerous gibbets on the Isle of Dogs, which with here and there a bone bore witness to the commonness of the practice.
From the 1840s the river front on the Isle of Dogs was developed and ship builders and factories were set up and all evidence of the Islands grisly past was destroyed.
Well perhaps not all the evidence for in recent years a skull and skeleton were found on the foreshore near Burrell Wharf which would have not been too far away from the gallows.