Throughout the Golden Age of Piracy (from approximately 1650 until 1720) and before this, the UK played an important part in the history of piracy. As well as spawning many of the most famous pirates still talked about today, parts of Britain were hotbeds of pirate activity, acting as key smuggling locations and strategic storage points.
Pirate attacks also took place in British waters and around its coastline, which saw the looting and commandeering of ships as well as gruelling, drawn-out naval battles.
Here are 7 destinations around the UK where you can get a sense of pirating history.
1. Rye, England
This picturesque town in East Sussex used to be one of the most active smuggling destinations in England. Rye was made a Cinque Port in the 12th century, meaning it was seen as important for trade and defence in England, and so was given special privileges, such as tax exemptions. Its geographical location and status as a maritime trade hub made it extremely appealing to smugglers (such as the notorious Hawkhurst Gang, who used to drink and plot at Rye’s Mermaid Inn), and therefore also to pirates.
Rye is just one example of the often blurry line that existed between smuggling and pirating. Where one stopped and the other began was sometimes a subjective judgement made by those keeping official records, which could be scarce. Similarly, the town also had links with privateering, which involved ship captains being commissioned by governments to attack and loot ships from other countries. Some saw this as little more than state-endorsed piracy.
2. Newport, Wales
Several famous historical pirates were Welsh, including arguably the most ‘successful’ pirate of all time, Bartholomew Roberts, known as Black Bart. Another well-known figure is Henry Morgan (Harri Morgan in Welsh), who was born near Newport. Technically a privateer who later became Governor of Jamaica, he eventually had a rum named after him: Captain Morgan.
Newport was a major hub in Wales for smuggling and pirate activity, largely due to its busy docks and location above the Bristol Channel. The channel was also a haven for smuggling during the 16th to 18th centuries, thanks to the covert hideaways it provided and its proximity to Cornwall, Bristol and South Wales. Tobacco’s increasing popularity in these times brought with it an increase in smuggling and Newport was soon flooded with illegally transported tobacco, not all of which went unnoticed. Trades records detail a seizure of almost 10,000lbs of tobacco and 40 gallons of brandy in Goldcliff, a village in Newport, in 1784.
3. Bristol, England
It’s thought that Blackbeard, history’s most infamous pirate, was born in Bristol, southwest England, around 1680. Fortuitously for Blackbeard (real name Edward Teach or Thatch), though not so much for the many ship crews he and his gang terrorised, he was born during the Golden Age of Piracy, which no doubt made his rise to notoriety on the high seas that much smoother.
But it wasn’t just Blackbeard that forged Bristol’s rich historical connection with pirating. At the beginning of the 18th century, Bristol became known as England’s ‘second city’ largely due to its sizeable and busy harbour. Trade around the harbour was thriving at this time, and a significant part of this was due to the city’s major role in the transatlantic slave trade, which proved extremely profitable for many traders. With such a thriving maritime economy, Bristol soon became a haven for pirates.
4. The Cornish Coast, England
The jagged coastline of Cornwall – and wider southwest England – proved an immensely useful geographical feature for pirates, as the numerous caves and pockets in hidden-away crags gave them places to stash stolen and smuggled goods, and even ships. Not everyone managed to stay under the radar, however, and there are numerous records of arrests and hangings for those who committed piracy.
When talking about piracy in Cornwall, it’s also important to mention the Barbary pirates, groups from North Africa who would raid European coastal areas and kidnap people to be sold and used as slaves in Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli and Moroccan towns. Due to its relatively isolated location, England’s southwest coast was a key area of attack for Barbary pirates, and thousands of people were taken from the region, particularly from Cornwall.
5. Wapping, England
For around 400 years, the East London area of Wapping housed a site grimly known as Execution Dock, built to hang those who were found guilty of piracy by British Admiralty courts. The most famous pirate put to death at the dock was William Kidd, known as Captain Kidd, now a legendary name within pirating, although some argue that Kidd was more of a privateer. Either way, Kidd was found guilty of piracy and hanged at Execution Dock in 1701.
The dock’s exact location in Wapping is disputed. Some claim it was where the Swan Wharf building or Wapping Overground rail station now stand, while three pubs in the area (The Town of Ramsgate, The Captain Kidd and The Prospect of Whitby) all claim to be on or extremely close to the original site. The final executions took place at the dock in 1830, when William Watts and George Davis became the final people to be hanged for piracy in England.
6. The Yorkshire Coast, England
In the 18th century, smuggling was rife across the Yorkshire coast, and wherever there were smugglers, pirates were sure to follow. For example, George Fagg was a prominent smuggler around Yorkshire (particularly Scarborough), during the 1770s. Some accounts refer to him as a local smuggling kingpin, while others label him a pirate (perhaps partly because his ship, The Kent, was known to be heavily armed with different types of guns).
There are also clear-cut accounts of pirating around the area. A family-run ship-building firm in Scarborough, Tinndalls, began arming their ships with guns after one of their vessels, Morning Star, was attacked and plundered by pirates in 1828, killing some of the crew in the process.
Pirating has also passed into the local folklore. One tale involved Robin Hood’s Bay, a small fishing village on the Yorkshire Coast that became a hotspot for smuggling thanks to its covert, winding alleys and buildings close to the water. The village was said to be named after Robin Hood, in gratitude for Robin fighting off pirates who tried to steal local fishing boats. Charming as the story is, there is no supporting evidence, though it does show that the area was familiar with the problems of pirating.
7. The North Channel, Northern Ireland/Scotland
Running between the east coast of Northern Ireland and the west coast of Scotland (and therefore connecting the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean), this strait was the setting for a vicious naval duel in 1778. The battle was instigated by John Paul Jones, a Scottish-born sea captain sometimes referred to as a hero, sometimes as a pirate. Jones attacked a British naval ship, HMS Drake, in the channel after a series of smaller attempted raids around nearby British coastal towns.
Jones had mapped out his attacking strategy in detail and apparently took HMS Drake in just one hour and 15 minutes. Though it can certainly be seen as pirating in one light, Jones was a captain in the US Navy at the time and the attack was viewed as an American victory in the American War of Independence between North America’s British colonies and Britain. He went on to attack and conquer further British ships in the Battle of Flamborough Head in 1779. Unsurprisingly, Jones was labelled a pirate throughout Britain, but lauded elsewhere by the US and its allies.