Piracy, as the richest man in Somalia will tell you, is a difficult game.
First of all, there’s the startup costs – you need a ship, some cannon, lots of cutlasses, supplies of food, fresh water, ammunition and Vaseline sufficient for several months at sea and a wicked-awesome hat. Then there’s the cost of running the ship and keeping the crew. By the time you’ve paid for all that, it’s hardly worth your while actually plundering anything. Then there’s the risks of bad weather, sickness, boredom and loneliness, and that’s supposing you actually find people to rob who won’t blow you out of the water, and you don’t get caught by the Navy or Cut-Throat Jake.
All in all, it’s not as much fun as Johnny Depp makes it look (although, to be fair, hanging out with Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley is probably no picnic). But the ingenious folk of London came up with a simpler way of doing things. Why chase the ships when the ships can come to you?
London, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, was an incredibly busy port. Indeed, even well into the twentieth century it was a bustling centre of sea commerce. The whole reason Tower Bridge was built to lift was because, had it been built any other way, the economic effects of not letting ships through would have been devastating.
There were so many ships, in fact, that before the massive dock building programme of the 19th century, the Port just couldn’t handle them all. Ships would be moored up for weeks at a time awaiting their turn to be unloaded. Have you seen the film version of Sweeney Todd? You know that bit at the beginning where they sail into the City? Yeah, not a chance.
This made the ships easy pickings for pirates, who could pretty well walk from the shore. Something had to be done. The new docks of the nineteenth century – largely covering the area we now call “Docklands” – would be walled. But in the meantime, there was always good old execution.
On the right is St Saviour’s Dock. The mouth of this dock was chosen as the execution site, which must have been a bit offputting if you were trying to unload. The river that feeds this dock is known as the “Neckinger”, a corruption of “neckerchief,” as a reminded of this grisly purpose.
This disgusting, mud-and-slurry (Murray?) -filled inlet was the Western boundary of Jacob’s Island, a rookery made famous by Charles Dickens, who made it the setting of Fagin’s hideout in Oliver Twist.
The Western boundary was marked by the narrower Folly Ditch. Between the two rivers was an area of overcrowding that’s almost unimaginable in London today. Space was so short that some dwellings were even built out over the river, clinging desperately on to the sides of already ramshackle buildings and threatening to drop the inhabitants into water that was little more than raw sewage.
Eventually, action was taken in the 1850s. The stews were demolished and replaced with factories and warehouses (some of which, as you can see above, survive to this day) and Folly Ditch was filled in and built over. Not before Bill Sikes met his end there, of course.
Actually, if you’re into your psychogeography, this is probably a place of considerable significance. First of all, there’s the accumulated misery of decades of slum living. Then there’s the pirate executions. Then there’s the death of Sikes. And to cap it all, Spring-Heeled Jack supposedly struck here in 1845. Basically, if you’re planning to summon the Devil, this is probably the place to do it.