How three innocent English ‘pirates’ were hanged in Leith in 1705

On April 11, 1705, three sailors were hanged at Leith Sands in front of a bustling crowd of locals.

Thomas Green, captain of the English merchant ship Worcester and two crew members, First Lieutenant John Madder and James Simpson, were executed on charges of piracy and murder.

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the trio were wrongfully hanged. Far from being relentless pirates, the men of the trading ship seem to have been the unfortunate victims of Scotland’s precarious economic situation at the time.

Wrong place, wrong time

In August 1704, several months before the execution, the Worcester anchored in the Firth of Forth seeking shelter from rough seas and storms. Recently back from a trade mission to India, his hold was full of all kinds of spices, noble materials and goods.

On August 12, the ship was seized by order of the Scottish courts, the entire crew arrested and imprisoned in Edinburgh, and her expensive cargo sold.

Perplexed and dragged into court, Green and the crew of the Worcester probably wondered how they had ever faced such serious charges.

The reality is that there were bigger things at stake.

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Scramble for influence

One of the men pulling the strings was Roderick Mackenzie, secretary of the Company of Scotland, the trading organization behind the failed Darien expedition several years earlier.

Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a trading colony in Central America had thrown the country into political and economic turmoil. On the brink of bankruptcy and in a state of depression, tensions ran high as Scottish merchants watched enviously as their English counterparts reaped the rewards of global trade.

The Company of Scotland continued to plod along, still striving to establish Scotland as a key player in world trade.

And although attempts to claim a concession in the Americas had failed, Scottish merchants believed there were great opportunities to be seized in the Indian market. But they would face a significant hurdle in getting there.

Almost a century earlier, the Crown had granted the East India Company exclusive trading rights in India, which transformed the company into a titan of world trade. This meant that any attempt by independent Scottish merchants to capitalize on the lucrative market would be fiercely opposed.

In early 1704, a trading vessel by the name of Allendale was seized in the Thames as the ship breached these trading rights. The Allendale appears to have served as a cover for Scottish merchants to gain access to the Indian market. Although sailing from London, her crew was entirely Scots.

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

Stock image of a ship.
Stock image of a ship.

An unfortunate arrival

And so the Worcester came to the Firth of Forth. With rumors spreading that this English trading vessel was anchored offshore, Mackenzie and his co-conspirators allegedly 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 her crew and captain and stealing trade goods. It was this supposed incident that provided the justification for the seizure.

On March 5, 1705, the trial began. Most sources describe the trial as a far-fetched affair riddled with contradictions, 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 allegedly took place outside Scottish waters, the prosecution argued that the Worcester sailed under the English flag. This meant that the Worcester was subject to the Admiralty of the Kingdom of Scotland, which at this time was still separate from its English counterpart.

Many crew members were barred from testifying during the trial and some claimed that witnesses had been bribed to testify for the prosecution.

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

The exact number of men originally sentenced to death is unclear. Some sources suggest that the entire 39-man crew were convicted while others note that a dozen or more were sentenced to hang.

The verdict sparked an outcry and prompted Queen Anne to personally intervene in the trial to delay the executions. In addition, reports came in from London that the survivors of the rapid return had been repatriated and were willing to testify at the trial.

The Speedy Return was reportedly attacked in a different location and by another suspected pirate, John Bowen.

Fanning the flames

A tentative execution date has been set for April 4. However, this was pushed back due to multiple 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 emotionally charged and many residents were eager to see the execution continue.

A patriotic fervor swept through Edinburgh. Civil servants were harassed and threatened in the streets by unruly mobs calling for action. This simmering resentment came to a head on April 10, when a mob confronted the Court Chancellor, prompting him to hastily confirm the execution of three senior crew members for the following day.

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

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

Following the incident, the rest of the crew would eventually be released. Historians, including Trevelyan, would later write that the incident was fueled by a wave of public anger over the political and economic strife Scotland had experienced over the previous decade.

Ross Kelly runs Rambling History UK and regularly writes about Edinburgh, Scottish and international history. You can visit the site here.