Is The Original Jolly Roger In A Deptford Churchyard?

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 87 months ago
Is The Original Jolly Roger In A Deptford Churchyard?

Walk through Deptford Green and you may suddenly have the strange sensation that a pair of eyes is burning a hole in the back of your head. You wouldn't be wrong, either. Well, it's a pair of eye sockets, anyway:

And there isn't just one skull, but two of the blighters, perched on the entrance to Deptford St Nicholas church:

Photo: Mike Quinn

Skull and crossbones creep into every nook and cranny of London — from those peering over the gateway into St Olave Hart Street, to the grave of a John Dunn in Cranford. Why is it, then, that it's rumoured these particular two skulls inspired the bloodcurdling logo of the pirate, the Jolly Roger?

The skulls certainly didn't have anything to do with pirates when they were erected outside Deptford St Nicholas, sometime between 1697 and 1716. Sean Patterson hosts an extremely informed tour of Deptford, and tell us: "The classic skull on crossbones is a memento mori symbol and the charnel house is just inside those gates.

"This small churchyard had many more burials than it could support and so bones were piled up in there waiting for the second coming to resurrect them."

Print engraving of Stede Bonnet in Charles Johnson's A General History of the Pyrates, 1724

But could this memento mori have given someone the idea for one of history's most iconic logos?  

Well, the area has stronger maritime roots than Captain Jack Sparrow's dreads. Henry VIII established the first Royal Navy Dockyards in Deptford in 1513 — long before Greenwich. Says London Footprints:

Within 40 years the King's Yard became the chief Thames dockyard, covering 30 acres with wet docks, slips, workshops, stores, mast pond, rope walks, sail lofts and officer's quarters.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, then, Deptford positively reeked of salty seadogs. Where there were ships, there were pirates — or privateers at least. One such privateer was Welshman Captain Henry Morgan. And it is he, says I Never Knew That About London, who is supposed to have passed through these gates, clocked the skulls, and turned them into a flag. Then set off from Deptford to 'terrorize the Spanish main'. Lad.

Hammers home the whole maritime heritage thing, doesn't it. Image: Google

All very romantic, yet there are no records that this was ever the case. Other sources name salty characters including Emanuel Wynne, Edward England, Richard Worley and Henry Avery as pioneering flyers of the Jolly Roger. Maybe, if Morgan did use the motif himself, he simply nicked it off one of these. Nicking stuff is, after all, what privateers do.

Sean Patterson is doubtful of the Morgan/Deptford claim too: "A skull motif flag in various forms is reported being used by Barbary pirates a century before," he tells us, "and there are no reports of them raiding Deptford.

"So while real pirates may well have walked beneath the gateposts and smiled at them, it's more likely they were recognising an existing symbol rather than being inspired by it."

But while we may never be able to prove if a Deptford churchyard once inspired Morgan to create the Jolly Roger, we can at least be sure that he inspired another world famous logo:

Last Updated 18 January 2017