History – The Devil’s River

Most everyone knows the River Thames flows through London. But there are many smaller rivers which feed into the Thames and are either lost or hidden from us today. One of these is called the Neckinger and comes from “the Devil’s neck-cloth” which is an old term for the hangman’s noose.

    Today it flows mostly underground but reappears when it joins the Thames a few hundred metres east of Tower Bridge at a place called St Saviour’s Dock. The association with hanging is that this dock was one of the Execution Docks of London where sailors would be executed for their crimes.

St Saviour’s Dock and the Neckinger

    However, these executions were different to the ones carried out on “dry land” such as at Tyburn or Newgate. The bodies were left to hang or placed in a gibbet until the tidal waters had covered and uncovered them three times. This was a graphic message to sailors passing by in ships not to commit crimes against the Admiralty.

    The Neckinger has a long history. When King Canute the Great invaded, he used the river to bypass the enemy troops stationed on the Thames near where London Bridge is today. Geoffrey Chaucer also mentions the river in his Canterbury Tales. He says that it is a place where the pilgrims can water their horses before beginning their pilgrimage to Canterbury.

    Back in the 1800s, the area of St Saviour’s Dock was known as Jacob’s Island. It was considered to be the worst slum in the whole of London and at that time, that was saying something; there was a lot of stiff competition around. In fact, in 1838, the famous Victorian writer Charles Dickens described it as “the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London”. He also used the location in one of his famous novels, Oliver Twist and forms the backdrop to where the character of Bill Sikes loses his life.

    Today, it has changed and although the river is still visible here, the banks are full of expensive modern apartment blocks. But if you do venture there, take a look up the river and soon you will be able to imagine what it might have looked like back then.

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