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The Story of the English ‘Pirates’ Wrongfully Hanged in Leith

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On 11th April 1705, three sailors were hanged at Leith Sands before an animated crowd of locals.

Thomas Green, captain of the English merchant vessel Worcester and two crewmen, First Mate John Madder and James Simpson, were executed on charges which included piracy and murder.

There is much evidence to suggest the trio were wrongfully hanged. Far from being cut-throat pirates, the men of the trade vessel appear to have been unfortunate victims of Scotland’s precarious economic situation at the time.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

In August 1704, several months prior to the execution, the Worcester anchored in the Firth of Forth seeking shelter from rough seas and stormy weather. Having recently returned from a trade mission to India, its cargo hold would’ve been brimming with all manner of spices, fine materials and goods.

On the 12th August, the vessel was seized on the order of the Scottish courts, the crew in its entirety was arrested and imprisoned in Edinburgh and its expensive cargo was sold.

Bewildered and dragged before a court, Green and the crew of the Worcester probably wondered how they wound up facing such serious charges.

The reality is that there were bigger things at play in this incident.

Scrambling for Influence

One of the men pulling the strings in this affair was Roderick Mackenzie, secretary of the Company of Scotland, the trade organisation behind the failed Darien expedition several years earlier.

Scotland’s failed attempt at establishing a trade colony in Central America had plunged the country into political and economic turmoil. Close to bankruptcy and in a state of depression, tensions were high as Scots merchants looked on enviously while their English counterparts reaped the rewards of global trade.

The Company of Scotland trudged on though, still striving to establish Scotland as key player in global trade.

And while attempts to stake a claim in the Americas had failed, Scottish merchants believed there was great opportunity to be had in the India market. But they would face a significant hurdle to achieve this.


Read more Rambling History


Nearly a century prior, the Crown had granted the East India Company exclusive rights to trade in India, which transformed the company into a titan of global trade. This meant any attempts by independent Scottish merchants to capitalise on the lucrative market would be fiercely opposed.

In early 1704, a trade vessel by the name Allendale was seized in the Thames amid claims the ship was infringing on these trading rights. The Allendale appears to have been a cover for Scottish merchants to tap into the India market. Although sailing out of London, it was crewed entirely by Scots.

This seizure was viewed as yet another insult among Scottish merchants and men of influence, who were eager to recoup their losses.

An ill-fated Arrival

And so the Worcester arrived in the Firth of Forth. With word spreading that this English trade ship was anchored off shore, Mackenzie and co-conspirators are alleged to have coordinated the seizure of the vessel.

The Worcester was accused of attacking a Scottish trading vessel, the Speedy Return, off the Malabar Coast in 1703, killing its crew and captain and stealing trade goods. It was this supposed incident that provided the justification of the seizure.

On 5th March 1705, the trial began. Most sources depict the trial as somewhat of a farcical affair riddled with contradiction, hearsay and dubious testimony. Writing more than a century later, English historian George M. Trevelyan described the court as being “drunk with patriotic prejudice”.

As the incident was alleged to have occurred outside Scottish waters, the prosecution argued that the Worcester had sailed under an English flag. This meant the Worcester was subject to the admiralty of the Kingdom of Scotland, which at this time was still separate from its English counterpart.

Many crewmembers were forbidden from giving evidence during the trial and there were claims that witnesses were bribed to give testimony which benefited the prosecution.

The trial lasted little over two weeks, and on 21st March a verdict was reached. Judge Graham ruled that the men of the Worcester were to be “taken to the sands of Leith…and there to be hanged upon a gibbet till they be dead”.

A ballad describing the execution of Captain Thomas Green. Image: NLS Digital

The exact number of men initially sentenced to death is unclear. Some sources suggest the whole crew of 39 men was condemned while others note that a dozen or more were sentenced to hang.

The verdict sparked somewhat of an uproar and prompted Queen Anne to personally intervene in the trial to delay the executions. In addition, information was passed from London that claimed survivors of the Speedy Return had been repatriated and were willing to testify in the trial.

The Speedy Return is said to have been attacked in a different place and by another alleged pirate, John Bowen.

Fanning the Flames

A provisional date for execution was set for the 4th April. However, this was pushed back due to several appeals and attempts to reach a settlement in the case.

It was around this time that the mood began to sour in Edinburgh. The trial had been an emotionally charged affair, and many locals were eager to see the execution go ahead.

A patriotic fervour swept through Edinburgh. Public officials were harassed and threatened in the street by unruly mobs calling for action. This simmering resentment reached boiling point on 10th April, when a mob confronted the Chancellor of the Court, prompting him to hastily confirm the execution of three senior crewmembers for the following day.

On the morning of 11th April, Captain Green, First Mate Madder and John Simpson were hastily escorted from Edinburgh to Leith Sands, followed closely by a mob of locals.

As onlookers waited for the trio to be hanged, Captain Green is recorded as having said: “I am innocent in design or deed and free from the crimes for which I am condemned.”

In the wake of the incident, the rest of the crew would eventually be released. Historians including Trevelyan would later write that the incident was fuelled by an outpouring of public anger over the political and economic strife Scotland had experienced in the decade prior.

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