Innocent Childhood Pastimes, Greenwich Stylee…

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by accounts of 19thC Greenwich Pensioners going up Greenwich Hill with telescopes and charging tourists a penny to look at the criminals hanging from gibbets at Execution Dock.

It seemed a bit of a feat of physics to me, since Execution Dock is at Wapping and the river bends at least twice before you get there, so… how…? Ah, well, I let it go…

Then last night I was reading the reminiscences of one G.B. Richardson (yes, Harriet, probably one of your ancestors, though he talks about Richardson’s press as though it was that of a stranger, so I can’t be sure…) writing some time in the 1880s about grand days out when he was a boy, walking up into Greenwich Marshes (the Peninsula to you and me…) with bright eye and rosy cheek –  ”there were no factories then; it was a walk with bright green fields on one side and a beautiful tidal river on the other, not, as now, the colour of pea soup”  and the penny dropped.

By the time GB was writing he was an august Victorian gent of some standing – representative of the Greenwich District Board of Works and a member of the London School Board – which makes it all the more remarkable what he was about to ‘fess up to.

He and his grisly little chums had gone to see dead bodies swing from gallows on the other side of the river. It was, it would seem, a big treat for Greenwich kids. “There was no expectation creating more interest than that of ‘seeing the men hanging’.”

The creepy corpses were at “what is now the Blackwall railway station”. I looked up Blackwall railway station – obviously nothing of it exists any more but it was, apparently here which makes far more sense for those pensioners with their telescopes. The station was built in the 1830s, opened 1840, so we must be talking Georgian times for the swinging pirates.

Mr GB reckons there were six men hanging in iron gibbets “as a warning to all mariners passing up and down the river against the sin of mutiny, piracy and murder.”

It was, apparently, a game for the local kids to swim out to the iron cages – two corpses to a gibbet. There were six dead bodies dangling when GB was a boy.

“My delight was to reach their feet by any stick that I might get hold of, or other means, and make them swing backwards and forwards and make the chains rattle”.

Ah, those were the days…

Sadly the jolly  japes didn’t last. GB regrets that ‘one by one they dropped, and then the remainder were removed, and the gibbets also” and bang went all the joy out of life for Greenwich’s youth.

Fun hasn’t been the same since.

the attachments to this post:

captain kidd hanging
captain kidd hanging

4 Comments to “Innocent Childhood Pastimes, Greenwich Stylee…”

  1. Mary says:

    If you look at some of the stuff I have been putting on my new Peninsula history web site –
    under Bugsby’s Way I’ve put a bit about gibbetings both here and at Blackwall. I think one of the problems is that many writers confuse hanging someone and gibbeting their body – and a number of writers have said Execution Dock was moved down here – “ok, show me the official record”. There is a picture of a body on a gallows which looks to be somewhere near Enderby Wharf, and as in the 18th century that was the Government Gunpowder Testing Station which would have involved a security presence, then a gibbett near that would make sense. Otherwise ….. see Rosemary Taylors booklet on Blackwall.

  2. Meirion says:

    Mary’s peninsular history site is great but this site…

    has a good quality version of Roque’s 1746 map which puts the gibbet to the West of the old Greenwich ferry opposite the new Waitrose or perhaps the old Thames pub on Norway St – perhaps Galliard could name one of the New Capital Quay blocks “Gibbett View” although other accounts say there were a number of gibbets on Dog Island and others put gibbets at Blackwall Point by the Millennium Dome on the Greenwich side of the river. Might be more likely that Richardson and his friends swum out a few yards from the Greenwich bank to rattle the chains of the gibbets than that they swam the width of the then very busy Thames. There seems to be agreement that some of the bodies of the pirates hanged at Execution Dock were tarred and taken to be exhibited in the gibbets down river. In any case Dickens says that by 1839 the gibbets had gone after they were outlawed in 1834.

  3. joe says:

    A really interesting report, also love the dryly amusing comments (gallows humour?) :) Thanks for posting this.

  4. Mary says:

    Thanks for the link – I didn’t know about. This is all really bad – I forget where I read an account of some poor man, condemned to hang, dying of heart attack when being measured up for the cage in which his body was to be gibbetted.