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William Payne 1738-1781

By Julie Smith              

On 2nd May 1804, under the instruction of the Corporation, the last gibbet in Yarmouth was taken down on North Denes. It contained the body of William Payne a Pirate who had been “hanging about” for the last 23 years!

Payne, (alias Penn) a Norfolk man, was a notorious pirate who had long been the terror of all vessels navigating this coast.  When he was captured he was captain of a French Privateer which was classed as Piracy as England had been at war with France since 1778. (The Anglo-French War 1778 – 1783).

Franch Cutter

A Privateer was like a private contractor. They would have received a Letter of Marque from their nations Admiralty (although in the case of Payne from his Countries enemies), which granted them permission to raid enemy ships and keep a percentage of the spoils, so long as they paid a cut of that bounty to the government.

On 19th April 1781 the Stamford Mercury printed extracts of letters relating to the capture of William Payne.

The first was from Lieut. Berkley, Commander of the Liberty Cutter, to Mr Stephens, dated Yarmouth Roads April 10th 1781. –

“I beg you will be pleased to inform their Lordships that I yesterday chased and run on shore near Southwold where it is soft a small French privateer, called the “Cerf Volant” mounting two carriage guns, five swivels and some blunderbusses, manned with 18 people.”

The second was extracts from a letter from Yarmouth dated 12 April –

“On Sunday last, Captain Berkley, of the Liberty Cutter, drove a French Cutter privateer on shore near Southwold, commanded by William Paine (sic) of North Repps in Norfolk who sailed from this place several years ago. She mounted two guns and carried 18 men, several of who are English, they all got on shore and fled into the country, but Captain Berkley pursued them, and took Paine and 14 of his men, who were on Monday last conveyed to our jail. If it had not been for the very spirited behaviour of several of the Militia Officers, Paine must have been killed by the populace who were greatly enraged against him: two of the men who escaped were English, their names are Buxton and Martin, the other a foreigner, his name is Dear. She had been four days at sea and had taken a sloop belonging to Feversham, which they ransomed for 200L. Paine and all the other Englishmen are heavily ironed.”

On 3rd November 1781 the Norfolk Chronicle published an article relating to the capture of trial of William Payne held by the Admiralty Sessions.

It appeared from the opening which was made by Dr Wynne, that the prisoner Payne had been Master of the “Cerf Volant” a privateer commissioned by the Lord High Admiral of France, and that the other prisoner had been one of the “Cerf Volant’s” crew. Dr Wynne stated also that the prisoner had with several others in the said “Cerf Volant” taken the “Endeavour” sloop belonging to Feversham on the 5th of April 1781 and ransomed for 200 guineas, taking a hostage for the payment of the ransom. He further stated that it would be proved in evidence, that both the prisoners were born in England, the one in Norfolk, the other in Southwark, which circumstance added to the Acts of Hostility committed by them against their fellow subjects (though under the authority of a commission from a foreign power) would bring them, he said, under the description of Piracy, laid down by the statute of the 11th and 12th of William the Third.

The first evidence called was Lieutenant Berkley, Commander of the “Liberty” cutter. He said that on 9th August1781, he chased the “Cerf Volant” and drove her onshore at South Moulton on the coast of Suffolk. When he came up with the chase, he found her abandoned by the crew. He went in pursuit of them up the country and saw the prisoner Payne smoking a pipe at a fire-side in a public house and found in his pocket a commission from the Duke of Penthievre, Lord High Admiral of France, appointing Payne master of the “Cerf Volant” of two guns and six swivels. There were no colours flying on board the privateer when she was chased but there was found on board of her an American Antient and a French Jack. The commission was read and translated.

The second witness was John Allen, master of the “Liberty” cutter. He proved that seeing one of the men on shore who had escaped from the “Cerf Volant”, when she ran aground, he was going to shoot him mistaking him for a Frenchman, but the man cried for mercy and said he was a ransomer who had been taken in the “Endeavour” sloop by the Cerf Volant. The witness proved that he knew Payne, and immediately challenged him as an Englishman, and called him by his name.

Peregrine Usher proved that the “Endeavour” sloop of Feversham had been taken by the “Cerf Volant”, and that he had been detained as a hostage for 200l; he proved Payne to have been master of the “Cerf Volant” at that time, but he could not prove the signature of the ransom will to have been in his handwriting, that when he was taken there was no hostility actually commenced against the “Endeavour”, Payne admitted all that had been sworn and only asked the last witness, if, while he was on board the “Cerf Volant” he had been treated as well as while he was on board his own vessel? The prisoner readily replied in the affirmative.

Robert Gibson the next witness swore he had taken Payne; but that neither he nor any preceding witnesses knew anything of Strange.

John Boulter of Northrips (sic), in Norfolk knew the prisoner, Payne’s father and mother at Northrips, and also the prisoner himself since he was a boy whose birth he remembered in the same Parish. The witness was 63 years of age and swore the prisoner to be about 42.

John Watson produced a copy of the register of the births in the parish of Northrips and swore it was a true copy of the register. It stated William Payne to be the son of Elizabeth and Richard Payne and have been christened on 23rd of April 1731.

 The year may be a typing error as a date of 1731 would make Payne almost 50 and not 42 as stated by the witness. I have checked the original parish registers and found the baptism of a William PAIN, son of Elizabeth and Richard Pain christened on 23rd April 1738. I believe this to be the same person as his surname is also spelt as Paine in other reports.

Pain Northrepps Register_LI

Payne pleaded in his defence that he was not born in England but at Boston, America and that he was brought to England at the age of nine years, but he had no witnesses to prove the truth of his defence.

Mr Justice Willes who tried the prisoners summed up the evidence and explained the law and without hesitation the Jury found Payne guilty. He was sentenced on 31 October for Piracy and would be executed on Tuesday 4th December 1781.

Although Matthew Knight and James Sweetman would hang alongside Payne they were not part of his crew and had in fact been serving aboard the “Count de Guichen”. They were tried for high treason – in feloniously adhering to his Majesties enemies and whilst serving on board the “Count de Guichen” and capturing a British ship called “The Spooner”, which was ransomed for 1800 guineas.

Payne would be taken by cart from Newgate Prison to Execution Dock at Wapping to be executed.

Executions had been carried out for piracy, smuggling and mutiny for 400 years at Wapping Dock. The exact position has often been disputed but it was probably located between Wapping Old Stairs (off Wapping High Street) and Wapping Dock stairs in East London. The last hanging would take place on 16th December 1830 when two men were hanged for piracy.

Execution Dock Possible - 1746

The gallows were erected on the foreshore at low tide and executions were timed to fit in with low tide. Once dead the bodies were held in place until three tides had washed over them. The bodies were then moved and normally hung along the Thames to dissuade other pirates.

The Newcastle Chronicle published the following “This morning were executed at Execution Dock, pursuant to their sentence, Wm Payne, Matthew Knight and James Sweetman who at the last Admiralty Sessions were convicted of felony and piracy on the high seas. The bodies of Knight and Sweetman are to be hung in chains at Execution Docks, but the Mayor, Corporation and Merchants of the town of Yarmouth have applied to the Admiralty board for their orders, that the body of Payne may be delivered, after execution to the Bailiff of Yarmouth, in order to be hung in chains on their sea coast, which request the board had complied with, that by his example others may be deterred from committing the same piratical depredations.

A vessel waited to take the body of Payne to Yarmouth, however, no London trader would consent to carry the corpse and it was therefore sent by wagon with “Glass, with care” written on the wooden case.

 On Tuesday 11th December 1781, Payne’s body was gibbetted on a mound of sand and hung on a 48 foot high gibbet in chains on the coast near the town which later became known as Paine’s Hill and there he stayed for the next 23 years.

Gibbet (2)

Julie Smith © 2020 


3 thoughts on “William Payne 1738-1781

  1. A fascinating story of piracy and warnings to others to avoid it! Would you be happy for us to discuss this in a live podcast for the sinister side of Norfolk?


      1. Thank you! We are going to discuss it this evening on Facebook live at 8pm on the sinister side of Norfolk group


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