We've talked about piracy on the River Thames, that great artery that made London what she was and is, before. The freebooting on the waterway was always lucrative, but it seemed to come into it's own as England did. By 1600 there was a good deal of documentation at the Admiralty Court about the river men who turned a profit by stealth and theft. Some of these people have come down to us with names at the very least and some with an anecdote or two attached. Today then, Brethren, a few river pirates from the Golden Age of Thames-side highwaymen.
First is the tale of one Garret Scottle of Limehouse in what was becoming London's East End. Scottle was involved in one of the trades that fed the great machine of seafaring, as were most of the inhabitants of his neighborhood. What he did precisely is unknown but business was bad enough that he rounded up a few men and left a punch house late on December 20th of 1607 with no good intent in his mind. The men, five in all, rowed a dinghy downstream to Deptford where they came upon a launch at anchor. They boarded her and managed to take fifty pounds before abandoning their prey and their own boat for shore. The raid was so badly bungled, probably due to the inebriation of the perpetrators, that the men were caught within 24 hours. All but one, including our man Scottle, hanged for their crime.
This act of desperation shows the lengths to which people would go to make a shilling. Many of the documented piracies seem to have been committed by amateurs. The waterways were only marginally patrolled by the navy and no police force existed on land. The poignant case of Elizabetha Patrickson and her husband William is in the same vein. The couple waded out to the boat of one Henrico Marten, a lawyer. According to the indictment against them, the Patricksons took a "turkee" (linen and silk blend) woman's gown, a dagger and a cloth doublet amounting to the ridiculously small sum of fifteen pounds. Caught virtually in the act, Elizabetha and William were tortured into confession (probably by pressing or with the ingeniously miserable iron bands known as Skeffington's grieves) and eventually hanged. Clearly the Patricksons are more to be pitied than censored.
For the knowledgeable few, however, professional river piracy was almost a sure bet. With the lack of reliable law enforcement, a ruthless, capable man or woman could spend years pillaging on the Thames and never fear the noose. One such thorn in the Admiralty's side was a man known as Black Will. Described by one victim as "... a black fellow... who said he knew he should never be taken for he had used that trade... these twenty years." There are documented cases involving Black Will from 1608 until at least 1620. In some he is an African. In others he is an Englishman wearing a black coat or with his face blacked or both. Will may have been more than one man, but he surely was never brought to justice.
A second famous river pirate of the time was Dick of Dover. Like Black Will, there are many accounts of Dick over a similar period. Some documents assert he was a sailor named Richard Catro. Catro was questioned at the Admiralty but denied he was the famous pirate. After a freebooting escapade involving 150 pounds worth of cloth taken from a French merchant near Tilbury, Catro was arrested and sentenced to death. Later mention of Dick of Dover puts his actually execution in question. Or perhaps, as with Black Will, more than one pirate sported the moniker.
Thames river pirates carried on, to some degree unchecked, throughout the 17th and into the 18th century. Better patrols, by citizen groups and the navy, slowed but did not stop the thieves as the 19th century approached. The stories that have come down to us, though, are a wonderful snapshot of the human condition in all its forms.
Some are as amusing now as they must have been frightening then. I personally love the story of the Ratcliffe brigand who boarded ships wearing a metal helm shaped like a skull. And the tale of hapless Arthur Hale, who appeared in Admiralty Court wearing a pair of silk stockings from the cargo he claimed vehemently never to have seen, much less stolen.