When you think of the River Thames what springs to mind? Thames Clippers? Riverside pubs? What about Pirates?
Back when the River Thames was the main thoroughfare for ships bringing goods from across the world, river Pirates would often target them for their cargo…
Pirates in London
Back in the 18th Century the River Thames would have been full of thousands of ships, all waiting to be allowed to dock and unload their cargo which could be a lengthy process lasting months. It has been estimated that at the end of the 18th Century over £79 million (in today’s money) worth of goods was on the river at any one time waiting to be unloaded.
With all of these ships being held in such a small space, it created quite a draw for criminals, and around £48 million worth of cargo was stolen by river pirates. Due to the rampant piracy on the river the Thames River Police was founded in 1797. Their headquarters in Wapping still exist today and house the Thames Police Museum, which is well worth a visit.
Evidence of Pirates in London found by Mudlarkers
People taking part in a pastime known as ‘Mudlarking’ (this involves searching the river banks at low tide) have found evidence of pirates on the Thames. Once an actual occupation amongst the poorer in society, Mudlarking is now a hobby taken up by those who are interested in finding traces of the cities past washed up by the river (it’s worth noting that since 2016 anyone taking part in Mudlarking on the Thames must apply for a license from the Port of London Authority).
Mudlarkers have found pirate cobs in the mud on the banks of the Thames. These rough coins were created to make bringing precious metals back from South America to Europe easier. The metals were cut down into rough coins at the correct weight and stamped before being loaded up and shipped off towards Spain where pirates were often waiting to attack and take the cargo for themselves. The existence of these cobs in the Thames shows that some of these pirates would have made their way towards London and the easy pickings of ships left anchored on the river. People have also found silver Spanish Eight Reales, the fabled pieces of eight in pirate lore.
State-sanctioned pirates in London
Not all pirates were pillaging the ships on the Thames – some were just returning home. ‘Privateers’ were state-sanctioned pirates, carrying approval from Queen Elizabeth I to raid Spanish ships and return to London with the plundered loot. Remains of one such ship the Cherabin was discovered in 2003 in the Thames Estuary where it had sunk with all its cargo during a heavy storm. The Cherabin was 80 feet long, weighed 160 tons and had gun ports and canons, making it a formidable ship to come up against.
The price of piracy
If you were caught committing piracy without permission from the queen the penalties were severe. Once caught most pirates were held at Marshalsea Prison in Southwark (now the location of a library) before being taken to execution docks in Wapping to be hung. Once they were executed, their bodies were left tied to the shore until three tides had washed over them. Some of the bodies, for example the notorious Captain Kidd, were then covered in tar and displayed in a gibbet at prominent locations on the Thames at Blackwall Point (located at the tip of the Greenwich Peninsula) and Cuckolds Point in Rotherhithe (now the location of Pageants Crescent) to act as a deterrent for anyone who might be contemplating piracy.
The next time you take a stroll along the Thames keep an eye out for pirates and their lost loot!
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