21 JUNE 1585
The ancient road began at the Tower and ran east to west along a terrace of gravel. To the east it disappeared into the flat treeless horizon of the estuary, merging into the earth just as the earth merged into the sea at the muddy edge of England.
As it left London, this road, which in only a few years would become a highway, formed the northern boundary of a dreary region of swampy land. The great river, as it bent south then north again, formed the southern edge of this semicircle of marshland. It had been drained and flooded, drained and flooded half a dozen times in the previous fifty years, while England burned Protestants then Catholics and then Protestants again. This place could not seem to decide if it was of the river or of the earth. The ancient name for the misbegotten half-land was Wapping. No one could remember where the name came from.
In recent years small wharves and little clusters of houses had appeared along the riverbank at Wapping. The rich men who funded the buildings decided that houses and wharves would do a better job of keeping out the river than the sea walls they'd been building for decades in their vain attempts to reclaim the land from the waters. And, more to the point, a wharf generated more profit than a wall.
During the days men made themselves busy around the dozens of boats that moored up along the wharves, the vessels settling down into the riverbed when the tide went out and rising again as it flooded back in, washing up against the wood-and-brick pilings. The pickings were not rich. London's most lucrative trade still headed further upstream toward the wharves that operated within the city walls, but a new gray economy was emerging here downstream at Wapping.
Beyond this sliver of moneymaking and building, back behind the wharves, between the river and the road, were the marshes. The occasional flood still occurred, sweeping away families and livelihoods as well as the property of the men of business. This dank, oozing landscape, unpromising and undeveloped, was the result of the river's inundations. The ground was low, lower than sea level in some places, rising up to the bluff along which the road ran to the north. A man could stand there in the marshes, his feet sinking into the mud, and look to the backs of the wharves and warehouses along the river and imagine that they were floating on water.
There was a gap in the riverside development, and in this gap stood a group of gallows. The gallows lived on borrowed time - already there were complaints that this place of execution was dragging down the land value of investments. Could it not be moved downstream a bit, perhaps to Ratcliffe, somewhere benighted and undeveloped where men of business were not trying to attract custom? But for now the gallows still stood. On this midsummer's eve there were six river pirates hanging there.
The gallows were right at the water's edge, set in among the wharves. The six unfortunates hanging from the ropes had been caught after leaping aboard a barge in the river. It had been their sixth attack in four weeks and it was to be their last. The local lightermen and watermen had banded together to bait a trap for them, putting out stories that a barge with wool intended for France and Spain would be traveling downstream that day. When the pirates had clambered onboard, a group of twenty river men hidden beneath sails had emerged and captured them, but sadly not before the pirates, or at least, reported most of the ambushers, the apparent captain of the pirates, whose knife had flashed more quickly and more viciously than those of his crew, had sent three of the Wapping lightermen into the embrace of the old river, their throats slashed and their eyes empty. Eventually the men overcame the pirates and after some cursory discussions with what passed for the authorities in this new outpost they decided upon a customary punishment. The pirates were hanged at Execution Dock, where they would be left for three tides as a signal to others (and perhaps an offering to the river) before being cut down and disposed of.
Excerpted from The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd. Copyright © 2012 by Lloyd Shepherd. Excerpted by permission of Washington Square Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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