Judge Jeffreys' downfall came when James II fled the capital in the early hours of 11 December 1688 and Jeffreys, then Lord Chancellor, decided that he had better follow suit. He made his way to the docks at Wapping, boarded a collier bound for Hamburg and disguised himself as a sailor. However, on the following day he decided to go ashore: some accounts say because he had heard that the ship was about to be searched, others that he was such an incurable alcoholic that he had to satisfy his cravings in a local tavern.
It is said that as he drank in The Red Cow, situated in Anchor and Hope Alley, he had the misfortune to be recognized by a man who had once appeared before him in court. Later renamed The Town of Ramsgate, because fishermen from the Kentish port landed their catch at Wapping Old Stairs nearby, the pub at 62 Wapping High Street, E1 still exists. Fortunately for Jeffreys, the militia arrived before the rapidly growing mob could carry out their own form of justice. Committed to the Tower of London for treason, he died there on 18 or 19 April, at the age of forty-three. On 2 November 1693 his remains were removed to St Mary Aldermanbury, London, and placed by those of his first wife, as he had requested.
His arrest at Wapping is Jeffreys’ main historical connection with that part of the docks, but local folklore tells us that he had been a regular visitor to the area for some years before that dramatic incident. At Execution Dock, between Wapping Old Stairs and King Henry’s Stairs, it was said that convicted criminals were chained to rings fixed to the walls by the shore until they were drowned by the rising tide; they were left there for three high tides to pass over them. Judge Jeffreys is reputed to have been particularly fond of ordering this form of execution and was said to have hired a room at the Angel inn, on the opposite side of the Thames in Bermondsey, to get a good view of the drowning men.
Execution Dock at Wapping had long been the recognised place for the execution of pirates. Despite its name, there was no dock at this spot, but merely a permanent gallows on the foreshore. It is recorded in an early chronicle of London that in the reign of Henry VI (1422-1471) two watermen were hanged beyond St Katherine’s for murdering three Flemings and a child on board a Flemish vessel, “and there they hengen til the water hadde wasted them by ebbyng and flowyd, so the water bett upon them…” Stow refers to Wapping (Ratcliffe) as, “the usuall place of execution for hanging of Pirats and sea-Rovers, at the low-water marke there to remaine, till three tides had overflowed them.” It appears that those who died at Execution Dock did so by hanging rather than drowning and that Judge Jeffreys is unlikely to have been a spectator; no doubt his arrest in Wapping has led to this piece of folklore growing up. Some accounts claim that Jeffreys was apprehended in the cellars of the Prospect of Whitby, one of London’s oldest riverside pubs, at 57 Wapping Wall, E1. It is also said that he would dine there while gloating over the death throes of the criminals at Execution Dock, but it is impossible to see this part of the Wapping riverside from that location.