The Prospect of Whitby and the Hanging Judge

 In Articles, books, Explainer, history, non fiction, research, writing, Writing

Yes, that is a noose, and that is the River Thames. And yes, the gallows’ crossbeam is indeed aimed at the financial centre, Canary Wharf. The gallows is part of the Prospect of Whitby, one of London’s oldest public houses. Might the landlord be making some kind of a statement? Maybe, although a lot of the pub’s regulars are bankers. Then again, this is London, where most people appreciate a little gallows humour with their pie and mash.

I visited the pub (several times) on my trip to London to promote Hudson’s Kill. At first I thought the gallows might be a gimmick. Turns out it commemorates one George Jeffreys, The First Baron Jeffreys of Wem, more colloquially named The Hanging Judge. Jeffreys was the Chief Justice in The Bloody Assizes of 1685, in which as many as 700 people were said to have been put to death in the wake of Monmouth’s Rebellion.

The Prospect

I was gripped by this discovery, as I remember studying Monmouth’s Rebellion and the Bloody Assizes at school, and being fascinated by the stories told about the brutal Judge Jeffreys. And I remembered enough history to recall that the Bloody Assizes didn’t take place in London: the court cases and executions, which included hanging, drawing and quartering, were all conducted in the West Country.

So why is there a noose hanging over the Thames? Fortunately, I was able to consult a number of excellent and entertaining works dedicated to London’s history; some tell tales of the city’s pubs; others tell stories about its’ execution sites. The Prospect of Whitby happens to be both: back in the 17th Century, pirates were hanged on nearby Executioners Wharf, and Jeffreys was reputed to dine at the pub – then called The Devil’s Tavern – so that he could watch the hangings over a spot of lunch. (Don’t worry, he got his deserts.) 

Judge JeffreysHere’s what happened: Jeffreys was an appointee and faithful servant of King James II. James was popular in London, but there was plenty of opposition to his rule in the provinces and overseas, and he had to put down two rebellions almost as soon as he was crowned; one in the south of England and one in Scotland. He crushed a small Scottish army in the north, and handily beat the Duke of Monmouth at the Battle of Sedgmoor in the south.

To consolidate his power and deter any further opposition, he did two things. First, he increased the size of the army. Second, he sent his new Chief Justice, George Jeffreys, to send a message. Jeffreys travelled from Winchester to Wells over a three-week period in August and September of that year, presiding over the trials of more than 1400 prisoners in what was called The Bloody Assizes. A large number were executed, mostly by hanging. Some were hung, drawn and quartered. Other were beheaded or burned. The remains of the treasonous dead were sent around the country, to be displayed as a warning to any would-be rebels.

As mentioned earlier, there were rumours at the time that Jeffreys dispatched as many as 700 people during his Bloody Assizes, but the real number appears to have been closer to 320. As many as 850 men were transported to the West Indies, which was generally regarded as a delayed sentence of death by disease and hard labour. The remainder were imprisoned, and many of them died in prison of typhus.

Jeffreys, just 40 years old at the time, was rewarded by James with the office of Lord Chancellor. And he continued to do the King’s bidding, prosecuting and executing criminals with considerable relish, as the anecdote about dining during a hanging at the Devil’s Tavern suggests. He was famous for his quick and bad temper, which may have been further soured by a painful kidney disease, but he was careful never to overstep the law.

King James II was not quite so circumspect. He infuriated Parliament and the people, and alienated many of his supporters, by promoting Roman Catholicism in what was then a very Protestant Britain. In 1688, he suspended Parliament when it refused to accede to his demands, and then enraged the people when he prosecuted seven Anglican bishops. Riots broke out all over Britain, eroding his authority, and creating an opportunity for his daughter, Mary, and her husband King William of Orange, to invade.

William’s forces landed at Torbay in November. James’ Royal Army refused to fight. Of 30,000 men, all but 4000 deserted. On December 10, James fled. He made a run for France, sailing down the Thames. On the way, he threw the Great Seal into the river. This attempt to disrupt Parliament (which could not be summoned lawfully without the Great Seal) may have disrupted his escape: he was captured by fishermen near the mouth of the Thames, and sent back to London under guard. Later he was packed off to Paris in exile.

Wapping Old Stairs

Jeffreys was not a Catholic. In fact, he was quite an outspoken Protestant, and contemptuous of the Roman religion. Still, he was James’ creature. Did he plan to travel with the King? It’s possible. He was caught the next day, 12 December, dressed as a sailor. The story goes that he popped into his local, The Devil’s Tavern, one last time – or perhaps to meet someone who would help him escape, possibly to Hamburg – but he was spotted and pursued by a mob down Wapping Wall. He got as far as another pub, the Town of Ramsgate, and was hurrying down to the river, along a narrow passageway called Wapping Old Stairs, when he was captured.

The Gazette, 12 December, 1688

Jeffreys was sent to the Tower, more for his own safety than anything else, but, prison being prison in the late 1600s, that was pretty much the end of him. In less than five months, he was dead.

The tale that Jeffreys liked to sit in The Devil’s Tavern and watch the hangings is a good one, but, sadly, it doesn’t feel quite right to me. Pirates and other ne’er-do-wells were indeed hanged on the north bank of the Thames, in Wapping, at a place called Execution Dock. But the location of the dock is disputed: some accounts place it at Brewhouse Lane; others say it was located at Red Lyon Street (Dundee Street today).

Detail of Wapping

Both are roughly half a mile upstream from The Prospect of Whitby, and around a curve in the bank that might have been tricky to see around. Granted, the topography and the skyline of the Thames has probably changed a lot since then, and the original tavern may have faced west and not east, but it would have been tough to have a good view of the executions, even with a telescope.

All that said, I do like to think of Judge Jeffreys enjoying a good hanging over a spot of lunch or a casual ale. And why not? Back in the 1600s, public executions were a common form of entertainment, as well as a public lesson*, and there are many accounts of people gathering at Wapping to watch thieves and pirates being strung up, including the hapless Captain Kidd. Still, I don’t believe the Prospect (or The Devil’s, I should say) was where Jeffreys went to watch. I think he would have strolled down to the Town of Ramsgate to take his dubious pleasure. The pub is right between the two presumed locations of Executioners wharf, and it had an appropriately dodgy reputation back then. It’s exactly the right place to watch a hanging, before repairing to the more salubrious end of the town for a nightcap.

The Thames from Wapping docks

*From The Daily Telegraph:
For more than 400 years pirates, smugglers and mutineers sentenced to death by Admiralty courts swung at this scaffold on the banks of the Thames at Wapping. Most were brought from Marshalsea, a prison in Southwark … Until the end of the 18th century, the bodies of pirates were often left on the noose until at least three tides has (sic) washed over their heads. Others were displayed at Cuckold’s Point, on the Rotherhithe peninsula, or Blackwall Point, on the Greenwich peninsula, as a warning to others.

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