Should you find yourself wandering through the riverside shores of Wapping this summer, you may stumble upon a curious sight. Moored right in the heart of its docklands, walled in by a perimeter of trendy new-builds, are two pirate ships, seemingly out of step with both place and time.
How did they get there? Admittedly, the story doesn't have the same grandeur of historic London attractions such as The Golden Hinde or Cutty Sark. Rather, it stems back to the legacy of an ill-fated shopping centre.
A Grade I listed warehouse, Tobacco Dock opened in 1811, and was a key trade hub along the River Thames for storing… well, have a guess. By the late 20th century, however, it had fallen out of purpose, so the green light was given to a £47m project to develop the Tobacco Dock Shopping Centre.
Much was made of the venture, with pre-publicity hyping it as the 'Covent Garden of the East End'. Unfortunately, upon opening in 1989, a mixture of poor location, dire transport links and a recent downturn in the UK economy meant that it emphatically failed to build upon its initial promise.
Within a year, most retailers had called it quits, although, in an admirable display of British perseverance, a couple of cafés managed to somehow hang on until the mid-2000s, when the complex was finally put out of its misery. With the warehouse now acting as an entertainment and events space, the clearest remains of the lavishly-designed shopping centre remains its two replica pirate ships — built to entertain the children after a hard day at the clothes stores.
Now, before we're made to walk the plank for that anti-climax, their history does stretch further back than the 1980s. For although the two vessels are fake, they are both designed and named after real ships: The Three Sisters was a 330-ton trade ship built at nearby Blackwall Yard in 1788 that travelled to the East and West Indies to return with tobacco and spices, while the Sea Lark was an American merchant schooner captured by Britain in 1811.
The latter reportedly endured tumultuous times in the Anglo-American War of 1812, before it was eventually sold off in 1820. Less is known of the Three Sisters, though when it was open, the replica was used to educate children about the story of piracy – which is likely why, for reasons otherwise unknown, the copies are both referred to as pirate ships.
So what of them now? Occasionally lit up at night for corporate shindigs, the ships are otherwise closed to tourists and for years have been left to rust amid foreboding anti-trespassing signs. Yet considering the continued use of the Tobacco Dock, surely there must be a future for these replicas too?
The most obvious purpose would be as a pirate museum, especially considering Wapping's rich history in the subject. London's huge community of maritime rogues (only natural, considering its port was for a while the largest in the world) meant the area was home to Execution Dock, where those found guilty of piracy by the Admiralty were brought to be hanged and, in the worst cases, tarred and feathered for all to see.
Most famously, this was where Captain Kidd — often credited as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island — met his demise in 1701. Found guilty of both piracy and murder (though his actions are much disputed by historians) Kidd was hanged after two attempts, and his body gibbeted over the Thames for three years as a warning to future pirates.
Before his hanging, Kidd would have been allowed to stop in at The Turk's Head Inn (destroyed in the Blitz) for a last pint of ale, while the actual location of Execution Dock is generally believed to now house one of three pubs: The Prospect of Whitby, the Captain Kidd and the Town of Ramsgate.
Although they are really are just the rusting remains of a children's play area then, perhaps we should treasure Wapping's two ships as a fitting monument to the area's piratical heritage. Especially since Tobacco Dock finally appears to have found its feet as an events space, wouldn't it be nice to next scrub the decks of its two most distinctive attractions, so that they could once more feel the wind in their sails?