Posted by: Christine | April 11, 2012

Death on the Leith Sands

On this day, in 1705 (which, by coincidence, also happened to be the Wednesday after Easter) three men were taken from cells in Edinburgh Castle, for Execution.

 On the previous 16th March they had been found guilty of Piracy, together with the rest of the crew of their ship, the Worcester, and on 21st March all of them had been sentenced to be “taken to the Sands of Leith within the  Flood-mark, upon the first Wednesday in April next, being the fourth Day of the said Month, betwixt the Hours of Eleven a Clock in the Forenoon, and Four a Clock in the Afternoon, and there to be Hanged upon a Gibbet till they be Dead”.

The first execution, which had been due to take place on the 4th April, had been delayed by various petitions. Affidavits had been produced that the men were innocent of the charges and on the morning of the 11th a letter had been received from Queen Anne asking for a postponement of the execution. The Scots Privy Council met but decided to ignore the request – they were afraid for their own lives if there were more delay.

How had it come to this?

Scotland was bankrupt, after the failure of the Darien Expedition  a few years earlier. More recently, ships sent to India to trade had not returned – they were suspected of being victims of piracy. Scotland’s last trading ship had just been confiscated in London, by the English East India Company. It was at this point that the Worcester, an English ship, put into the Port of Leith on its return journey from India with a valuable cargo of Pepper and other spices. The temptation was too much and the Scottish Company (The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies) seized the ship. After several months it seemed that they would have to surrender the Worcester. At this point members of the Worcester’s company were intimidated or bribed to say that had piracy had been committed  on one of the missing Scottish ships and its crew murdered.

Soon after the trial crew members of this missing Scottish ship had returned and sworn that the Worcester was not involved, but the Scottish Company had so inflamed public opinion that a mob of at least 80,000 was demanding the execution take place. If a sacrifice were not made, the whole crew would have been lynched. In fact the Chancellor of the Privy Council was nearly killed when it was suspected that the execution had been delayed.

And so it was that the three men; Thomas Green, Captain of the Worcester, John Madder, the chief mate and James Simpson, gunner were loaded into the cart and taken, accompanied by the town guard and the vast mob, through the Canongate and out the Waterport to Leith and to the Sands. One English witness in the crowd reported that the mob “huzza’d in triumph as it were, and insulted them with the sharpest and most bitter invectives”

Simpson was the first to die. Next was Captain Green, who even now expected a reprieve, pausing on the ladder and twice removing the cloth from his face. The last to die was John Madder, whom the crowd believed the worst of all. The others were Englishmen and hated as such, but Madder was a Scot and therefore perceived to be a traitor to his country. All three died proclaiming their innocence. (see below)

What followed shows that the executioners recognised this innocence, as the bodies were immediately cut down and removed for burial. The captain of the guard had to draw his sword to prevent the mob abusing the bodies. They were buried the same day at South Leith church.

Record of burials at South Leith Church
O.P.R. Deaths 692/02 052 Leith South (Scotlandspeople)

If they were really guilty of piracy, the bodies would have been left hanging in chains. This had happened to the pirate Captain Kidd, executed in London in 1701, shortly before the Worcester had started her voyage. His body hung at Wapping for three years. 

The next batch of the crew were due to be executed the following Friday, but the anger having been satisfied by the first execution, this was postponed and eventually the rest of the Worcester’s crew was quietly released. The ship however was awarded to the Scottish Company and all the goods, including the personal possessions of the crew, were sold.

The Trial of the crew of this English ship, in Scotland demonstrated the difficulties of government of two separate countries under one Crown, and later the same year the Queen ordered Commissioners to assemble to sort out the situation. This resulted in the Union of England and Scotland two years later. England paid off Scotland’s debts and the Royal Bank of Scotland was set up to handle this money, and the winding up of the Scottish Company – The owners and sailors of the Worcester got nothing.

The last Speech of Capt. John Madder, Chief Mate of the Worcester, Commanded by Capt. Green.
I Here Declare in the Presence of God, and before all these People, my Auditors and Spectators; That I nor any of Captain Green’s Crew, never committed Piracy, Robbery, or Murder, or had Accession thereto in our whole Voyage: Nor I at any other time during my Life, upon any sort of Ships, Boats or Barks, or any other thing that moved on the Water, of any sort of Language, Nation, or People, whether European, Asian, African, or American, or of Scots, English, or Dutch, if the Words of a Dying Man my be believed, by giving of his Solemn Oath, in the Presence of God, and all these People, which Oath all Christians may think and be sure of, that I would not step into Eternity with a Lye in my Mouth; and if I did, there would be no Remission for my Immortal Soul from my Great and Omnipotent Judge and Saviour, by whom I hope, by unfeigned repentance, I shall be saved.
My Oath is such, Here I Swear in the Presence of God, and Before all these People, nothing but what is Truth, as I must Answer before my Impartial Judge when called to Account at the Great day, If I be guilty of these False and Calumnious Accusations that I’m condemn’d for, viz. Piracy, Robbery and Murder; That the Great God of Heaven and Earth, that Minute my Immortal Soul departs my Body, it be thrown to Utter Darkness, where there is nothing but Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth. But as I’m Innocent of these False and Calumnious Accusations that I’m Condemn’d for, I trust in my Great and Merciful God, by the Mediation and Intercession of my Lord and Saviour JESUS CHRIST, on whose Merits I confide and relie, will graciously Pardon all my other Sins committed in my Life-time, whether of Omission or Commission, or Thought, Word, or Deed, which are all known to him who is Omniscient, for there is nothing hid from him with whom we have to do: And God knows, and I hope in due time will discover the Practices of some Persons who have been at great Pains and Zeal to Cheat us of our Lives, by false and Perjur’d Witnesses, which I appeal to God to be true, and I am Innocent, and Innocent Blood will call for Vengeance on them that is the cause of shedding it. God forgive them, and I forgive them,
John Madder

The above speech is from “The case of the Owners and Freighters of the ship Worcester etc “by Thomas Bowrey – a contemporary publication.


  1. A full version of the trial and execution of the English pirates can be found in Sir Walter Scott’s “Tales of a Grandfather”

    • Yes, there are several copies of the trial avaiable online.
      And in my opinion, they were not pirates!

  2. […] year, on the anniversary of the death of John Madder, I wrote about his execution and the reasons behind it. This year I thought I would write about some of the […]

  3. […] To find out about the real John Madder see my post Death on the Leith Sands […]

  4. […] is the anniversary of the death in 1705 of John Madder. I have written about this event before here and here. I am finding it even more relevant this year, in the run up to the vote on Scottish […]

  5. […] piracy, of which he was almost certainly innocent? I’m grateful to Christine Hancock, who has written about the case, for alerting me to this story in a comment on an earlier […]

  6. I am currently writing the biography of Captain Thomas Bowrey, one of the freighters of the Worcester. If you are interested in John Madder’s story, you may wish to follow my progress on my blog at:

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