Dick and I came here from Kilkenny 10 years ago. We live in the overcrowded tenements by the Tower, a quarter they nickname Knockfergus because so many Irish people live there. My Dick got a job as a coal heaver- casual, dangerous, back-breaking work for pitiful wages unloading coal from the holds of the colliers that sail down from the North East and anchor along the Thames. They shovel heavy coal up a series of platforms, one above the other, up to the ship’s deck, then onto the waiting “cats” or lighters that take it to the wharves where coal porters load it onto carts.
Last Spring food prices soared. Rents were going up. It was impossible to make ends meet. The coal-hauliers came out on strike for a better wage. The Port was at a standstill. The dispute got very heated. That April saw trouble all along the River. A sailor was killed in a brawl between seamen and strikers and two strike leaders who had not been involved in this “Irish affray” were arrested, found guilty of murder and hanged at Tyburn.
John Green, the publican of the Roundabout Tavern by Cutthroat Lane, Wapping, like a number of other publicans, is also a “coal undertaker” who employs the heavers. He recruited a bunch of scabs to try to break the strike. We gathered outside his pub, strikers and families shouting, throwing stones and protesting. Green fired at us with a musket from windows on the first floor, wounding some of us. He killed Will Wake, a striker, with a bullet though his head and also Tom Smith, a cobbler in the crowd, who bled to death on the pavement. Green was arrested and charged with the killings, but, despite witness evidence, Magistrates found him not guilty and set him free.
Then they arrested my Dick and six other Irish heavers: John Grainger, Danny Clark, Pat Lynch, Tommy Murray, Peter Flaherty, and Nicholas McCabe. They were charged with possessing a loaded gun, shooting at John Green and terrifying local inhabitants. Nobody had been hurt. But they were all found guilty, sentenced to death and publicly hanged in Sun Tavern Fields off Ratcliffe Highway. It was a public holiday. Thousands came to jeer. Our children saw their innocent Daddy’s body and the others swinging from the gallows.
This story is largely based on fact – thanks to Colm Kerrigern for background information. Today Gordon House, Glamis Road, stands on the execution site.
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