Monday, April 12, 2010

History: Along The Thames

River piracy is as old as humans and boats. One has to imagine that there were rovers and raiders along the Tigris and the Nile before laws prohibiting their spoilage of other people's property had even been written. There are two rivers in the world, though, where a lot of documentation exists on the subject. One is the mighty Mississippi and the other, perhaps to no one's surprise, is the Thames.

Much of what is known about Thames "pirates" comes from the High Court of Admiralty which was situated in London. This meant that, more than the provincial rivers where acts of pillage may have been taken care of locally without a lot of writing things down, the rovers on the Thames, once caught, were tried, sometimes tortured and executed with all due ceremony. And documentation.

Many of these people would hardly fit the pirate mode in today's popular mindset. They were more like waterborne vagabonds and pickpockets. Some even eschewed their own craft all together and simply hiked up their breeches or skirts and waded out into the muck to ransack a vessel left empty and vulnerable. It wasn't a pretty life, obviously, and with the threat of torture and death dangling over one's head it was clearly a life pursued out of necessity. These men and women were probably not the egalitarian "all for one and one for all" sorts that we now imagine pirates to be. It's a surety they were looking out for themselves at all times.

Piracy on the Thames, defined as a crime committed on the river or it's estuaries up to the high water mark, is documented as far back as the early 13th century. In Survey of London, John Stow tells of a fleet sent into the river from London in 1216 to bring Thames pirates to justice. They succeeded in catching these perpetrators, Stow says, " well innumerable others that they drowned, which had robbed on the river Thames."

The problem continued to grow and really took off in Restoration London. As the city became wealthier and it's population began to burgeon, crime naturally increased. Communities, largely populated by sailors and those who made a living on the sailing trade, sprang up east of the city proper and became notorious dens of vice and crime. Places like Ratcliffe, Limehouse, Redruth and Wapping all fell under this general umbrella with many more besides. It was here that fashionable Londoners imagine the threat lurked, just waiting to take advantage of them as they took a wherry to the theater or the gambling house.

And this was probably the main crux of the pirate problem. The Thames was a far easier way to get around the city than any of it's narrow, filthy Medieval streets could possibly be. By the time Charles II was firmly back on the British throne, it is estimated that up to 2,000 "wherrymen" were ferrying people to and fro for a fee around Westminster and Southwark alone. There was lots of wealth on the river and a dishonest sculler or bargeman could easily take extra cash from unsuspecting passengers and then disappear into the night.

Such arrangements led to entire families getting into the business of stealing. A clever wherryman might have his family lie in wait and then, when the time was right, strip the unsuspecting customer of everything he or she owned, from wig to shoes. No wonder than that many wealthy people would not travel without a bodyguard, much like the ersatz celebrities of our own time.

The individual stories of Thames river pirates are sometimes shocking, sometimes poignant and sometimes down right amusing. Many of them, though, are truly owed their own post. We'll return to this issue again, but for now suffice it to say that life along the Thames wasn't always easy or fun. For the lucky few, though, it did pay handsomely.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! You make it sound so... dirty. Just kidding. Nice to see that the pirates along the Thames were not so different from any others elsewhere in the world (past or present) Pirate Queen.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! Another hard way to eek out a living. "Dirty Jobs they're everywhere..."