March 14, 2011


David Ellis

THE kind-natured folk of Wapping in the once less-salubrious area of London's Docklands, are quick to give a warning to tourists who venture at night into their now sought-after area in search of a truly traditional London pub.

"Beware the Hanging Judge," they caution. "He wanders around here after dark."

George Jeffreys, the Hanging Judge died back in 1689, but the locals swear his ghost is a common sight along the banks of the Thames near what was once Execution Dock…. allegedly watching with a frightening smile always playing across his lips, the spot where the gallows once stood.

Judge Jeffreys was one of Britain's more bizarre judges and had a macabre pastime: he enjoyed watching criminals hang, especially those whom he himself had sentenced to the rope.

His most famous effort followed the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, an attempt to overthrow King James II, the last Catholic monarch of England. Judge Jeffreys sent no less than 200 men to their death on the gallows after their failed uprising, earning himself his sobriequet.

And when he found another 800 had had some part in the Rebellion, but not sufficient to hang them, he sent them off to the West Indies as convicts, their papers marked as never to return to England.

However the Hanging Judge also enjoyed some pleasures more homely than watching his victims hang: he never passed up the opportunity of a cool ale on a warm day – nor any other day for that matter, regularly visiting a pub on the Thames called the Prospect of Whitby.

It was from here, and between pints at the bar – a simple piece of pewter stretched across a series of barrels – he would wander the 100 metres upstream to Execution Dock to witness the agonising death of sailors convicted of capital offences while at sea.

These poor souls were hanged at low tide, often with a short rope so death wasn't instantaneous. This caused their bodies to twitch uncontrollably. They would then be left dangling until three high tides had washed over their bodies.

After each hanging Judge Jeffreys would return to the Prospect of Whitby for a final cleansing ale, before going home.

But what goes around, as they say, comes around: in 1688, King James was finally overthrown by the supporters of William of Orange, who installed their man as King William III of England. King James fled to France but Judge Jeffreys was a bit slow off the mark in realising the fate that would befall him for his support of the ill-fated James.

All too late he tried to sneak out of the country dressed as a sailor but was recognised by one of those who'd appeared before him in the past, and had lived to tell the tale.

Judge Jeffreys fled to another pub nearby, the Town of Ramsgate, but only had time to gulp down one pint before an angry mob arrived. He was saved by the army, who took him to the Tower of London 'for his protection'.

That protection proved value-less: the Hanging Judge died less than four months later of a kidney disease.

These days the two historic pubs attract a steady stream of well as a host of local regulars ready to chat with visitors about their infamous one-time judge, and in some cases, supposed connections their families had with his victims.

The Town of Ramsgate is the older of the two taverns, dating back to the 1460s when it was called the Wars of the Roses.

It was renamed the Red Cow in 1533 after what these days would most certainly be seen as politically-incorrect: coincidentally at the time, the barmaid was an ill-tempered shrew who sported a shock of red hair.

It's current name Town of Ramsgate refers to the fishermen from Ramsgate in eastern Kent who used to offload their catch at Wapping rather than pay the hefty taxes for landing their catch nearer London's Billingsgate market.

Today at the Town of Ramsgate pub, and the nearby Prospect of Whitby, you can get a traditional pub lunch of fish and chips... or equally-traditional bangers and mash.

Or just settle for a cold pint... as the Hanging Judge would do, enjoying one in each of them.



[] HANGING Judge Jeffreys sentences another poor soul to the gallows – a contemporary painting.

[] ALTHOUGH Execution Dock has long gone, this historic gibbet with its cruelly shortened rope has been preserved as part of Wapping's dark history.

[] THE Prospect of Whitby pub today – a favourite watering hole of the Hanging Judge.

[] THE Town of Ramsgate pub today: another of Judge Jeffreys' favourites, it dates back to the 1460s.


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