Execution Dock – an exploration.

Execution Dock has an interesting history as it dries out at low tide. Pirates and smugglers were chained to the dock floor at low tide and left for three tides to pass over their heads (seven hours each time). After which, their bloated and bird and fish eaten bodies were hung on a gibbet over the river as a warning to other potential pirates or smugglers.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be shown around Execution Dock at low tide by a registered “Mudlark”. Please note that treasure hunters and seekers of curiosities on the river at low tide need a licence that is issued by the City of London Corporation.Do ensure that you comply with the Law if you decide to go hunting. The licence itself is inexpensive.

Summary of Objects discovered at low tide in and around Execution Dock in Wapping.

  1. Clay pipes and stems
  2. Ships nails (from old wooden sailing ships)
  3. Coins
  4. Lead seals
  5. Buttons
  6. Musket balls
  7. Porcelain fragments
  8. Handmade Pins

1. Smoking only began late in the reign of Queen Elizabeth and did not really become popular until regular sea trade started in Stuart times between England and the American colonies. Tobacco was initially very cheap (2d a pound – 1p/lb in modern money) as it was light and ships could bring large quantities back with them.

James I  hated smoking so much that he called it the “Devil’s pastime”. He first made it illegal and anyone caught smoking could be fined, thrown into prison or put in the stocks! Later, he was persuaded to relent and instead taxed tobacco at 5s-10d a pound (28p/lb), which made the total cost six shillings a pound (30p/lb). This was the equivalent of three months pay in those days!

Because it was so expensive, the bowls were very small in the older pipes. Not many people owned pipes either as they broke too easily. Pubs used to keep a stock of pipes that were filled at the bar by a boy. If people wanted to smoke, they bought tobacco by the pipe-full. The mouthpiece was put in the fire to sterilise it after other smokers used the same pipe. You can tell from the blackened stems where the mouthpiece was.

2. Ships nails are around in vast quantities as repairs to wooden sailing vessels were ongoing. The nails were all hand made by dockside blacksmiths.

3. Silver coins found in the river come out black. Little silver will be found in peatty areas such as wetlands and bogs as the acid  dissolves the silver within a few decades. A silver coin found by me is an early (1837~40s) Queen Victoria “Bun Shilling”. They were called Bun Shillings because she was quite young when she became Queen and had her hair tied up in a bun as was fashionable then. It was probably lost when someone was getting into or out of one of the many row-boat ferries that existed in those days. A shilling (5p) would have been a weeks wages for a labourer in those days and whoever lost it would no doubt have said a few choice words after seeing the river swallow a weeks pay!

A George III (late 1700s) penny was found. This would have been the price of four loaves of bread. A days shopping.

4.   Lead seals. Thousands of these abound. They were used to seal the bales that were brought off the ships. Dockers would slash the ropes or twine that held the bales and throw the twine (and seal) into the river.

5. The buttons found are interesting but quite plain (in keeping with the kind of people who lived and worked in the area. Occasionally, military buttons can be found. Also dockers badges crop uo occasionally, which gave them immunity from being press-ganged into the Navy! (not much fun).

6. Several kinds of musket balls were picked up. The bigger ones are true musket balls from the time before rifles and bullets existed. A bullet is needed if a rifle is to be used. Muskets were used without bullets and were laboriously loaded with gunpowder, wadding then the musket ball. The musket was fired and then the whole process started all over again!

Smaller balls found belonged to single shot pistols. All the ammunition belongs to the Napoleonic War period (ended 1815) when Royal Marines would use the dock area for target practice from ships. When using muskets, the Marines regularly suffered burns to their cheeks from the gunpowder blowback. To cover these facial scars, they grew large “sideburns”!

7. Porcelain fragments were just thrown into the river with normal household rubbish. The rural scenes on some pieces have been identified with a type common in Regency (early 1800s) times.

8. Hand-made pins. Before the Industrial Revolution and in the early !800s, pins and other goods that we take for granted nowadays all had to be made by hand. Pins were particularly fiddly to make and children as young as six were forced to work for 12 hours a day making them with their nimble (but not for long) fingers.

Pins were also cheap because child labour was used to keep the prices low. Observers at the time noted how these children in Wapping had bleeding and calloused hands from having to handle a tangle of sharp objects quickly. Afterwards, the pins were sent up river to West End dress makers or to the impoverished lacemakers of Spitalfields.

Metal detectors are useless on the banks of the river due to the high metal content in the shore (pins, nails etc). A gardeners hand fork works better, with gardeners gloves to protect hands from puncture wounds.

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