Wapping itself is given up entirely to seamen and those who supply them with stores and other necessities. The old taverns look quaint, built end on to the river, with open galleries and balconies alive with sailors and those that go down to the sea in ships. Here they drink and talk of the wonders they have seen in the great waters, spinning their yarn, while assembling crews for the next voyage.
The neighbourhood is a dangerous one, for the pressgang are always very busy snapping up likely subjects for the Queen's Navy. All along this bank smuggling is extensively practised, and many of these public-houses have trap-doors and cellars artfully concealed, where many a keg of Nantz or Hollands find a temporary home.
The same neighbourhood also has a darker side, for here is Execution Dock, where they hang pirates and sea-rovers or bold buccaneers on a gibbet at low-water mark, and there they are left until three tides have overflowed them.
This place of ill omen has been in existence ever since the reign of Henry the Sixth, Sometimes the malefactors after execution were hung in chains and placed in prominent places on the banks at Bugsby's Hole, Blackwall, where their swaying bodies and creaking chains might be seen by sailors as a ghastly warning.
"Then, fair Thames, Queen of fresh water, famous through the world, And not the least through us, whose double tides Must overflow our bodies; being dead May thy clear waves our scandals wash away, But keep our valours living." Old Play: HEYWOOD AND ROWLEY,
It was in Wapping that, after James the Second's flight, Lord Chancellor Jefferies concealed himself, disguised as a common sailor, in a small alehouse called the "Red Cow," in Anchor and Hope Alley, hard by King Edward's Stairs.
He was trying to escape abroad, but in an unguarded moment he looked out of one of the windows, and was recognised by a Chancery clerk.
Any one having once seen that terrible face could never forget it. He immediately raised a hue and cry, and the house was surrounded and the ex-Lord Chancellor arrested.
Such was the fury of the mob that he was nearly torn to pieces, and, had it not been for the King's officers, who shielded him, would scarcely have escaped instant death.
He was locked up in the Tower, where he subsequently died, as some say, from the effects of the violence of the mob, but really from stone, from which he had cruelly suffered for some years.
The laws at that time were cruel, and, as judge, he never mitigated one atom of their severity. He simply administered them as they were, but his habit of browbeating witnesses, and his violent conduct generally on the bench, have branded his name with infamy.