An extract from my new book, The 19th Century Underworld, published by Pen & Sword Books…
The Ratcliffe Highway was an ancient road running east out of the City to Limehouse, dating back to at least Roman times, close to the new London Docks and forming the unofficial Wapping boundary. Cutting its way through Tower Hamlets in the heart of the East End, the road had long held a bad reputation, being close to the old Execution Dock in Wapping where pirates were left hanging to rot. It is listed in Stow’s 1598 Survey of London as ‘a continual street, or filthy strait passage, with alleys of small tenements, or cottages … inhabited by sailors’ victuallers, along by the river’ (1) – ‘a most dangerous quarter’ according to Thomas De Quincey (2). Just before midnight on Saturday, 7 December 1811, Timothy Marr shut up the family draper’s shop at number twenty-nine while his wife nursed their baby, having just sent the maid, Margaret Jewell, out for oysters. Margaret had gone from shop to shop trying to find shellfish and returned later than intended to a locked and darkened house. Hearing footsteps behind her, she panicked and hammered on the door with such violence that the watchman and the Marrs’ neighbour, the pawnbroker John Murray, both came to her aid. Murray noticed that the back door in the adjoining yard was hanging open and went to investigate. What he found was a scene of hellish slaughter. The entire family and their apprentice had been murdered, their throats cut, and their heads beaten with such savagery that, he told the examining magistrate at Shadwell police office, brains were ‘knocked out, and actually dashed, by the force of the murderous blow, across the ceiling’ (3). Nothing appeared to have been stolen; there was cash in the till and £152 untouched in a bedroom drawer. The River Police were summoned, and the first officer on the scene, Charles Horton, found a heavy maul – a long-handled shipwright’s hammer – leaning against a chair, covered in blood and hair. There were two sets of bloody footprints at the back of the shop. The trail went cold at Pennington Street, which ran parallel to the Highway off Wapping Lane. The family were known to be quiet, well liked and honest, and the crime felt all the more horrific for the lack of obvious motive.
The shock of the brutal crime travelled far beyond the East End, stoked by lurid reports in the penny press. As De Quincey later wrote, ‘It would be absolutely impossible adequately to describe the frenzy of feelings which, throughout the next fortnight, mastered the popular heart, the mere delirium of indignant horror in some, the mere delirium of panic in others’ (4). Then, twelve days later, on Thursday, 19 December, the killer or killers struck again, bludgeoning and cutting the throats of John and Elizabeth Williamson, the landlord and landlady of the King’s Arms in New Gravel Lane, and their servant, Bridget Harrington. Witnesses claimed to have seen two men running up Ratcliffe Highway, one with a limp. Again, the reason for the attack was unclear. John Williamson was robbed of a watch, but that could hardly have been the motive for such brutality.
The age of the modern serial killer was dawning with the new century. There were questions in the House, while lurid accounts of the murders circulated widely through balladmongers, chapbooks and broadsides. Not since the days of the plague and the fire had Londoners felt so vulnerable. The watchmen of Shadwell were all sacked and replaced with younger men, sales of rattles went through the roof, and local parishes offered rewards of between fifty and a hundred guineas for information. Not only did the murder grip the public imagination to an extent not seen again until the ‘autumn of terror’ in 1888, it exposed the desperate need for a proper police force, a cause quickly picked up by the Morning Chronicle. Responding to the mood of the times, a Parliamentary Select Committee was established to examine the ‘State of the Watch’. Although the Government failed to act on its damning findings, the 1812 Committee became another significant step on the long and winding road that led inexorably to Robert Peel’s 1829 Metropolitan Police Act, a turning point that prefaces the Victorian age as much as the Great Reform Act of 1832.
There was one survivor of the King’s Arms massacre – the lodger John Turner, who had escaped from an upstairs window and raised the alarm. His testimony suggested more than one assailant was involved, and he got a decent look at one of them. ‘I went downstairs, and I saw one of the villains cutting Mrs. Williamson’s throat, and rifling her pockets,’ he told the Shadwell magistrates, describing the man as ‘about 6 feet in height, dressed in a genteel style, with a long dark loose coat on’ (5). Although he did not fit this description, nor could Turner positively identify him, suspicion fell on John Williams, a lodger at the Pear Tree public house on Cinnamon Street. Williams was a regular in the King’s Arms and also connected with Timothy Marr, both men having served together on the East India Company ship Dover Castle. The evidence was largely circumstantial. The original murder weapon – the maul – had been traced to the sea chest of a sailor called John Petersen, who had left it at the Pear Tree while away at sea, and Williams was deemed to have had access to it. He was also reported as having money after the attacks but not before (although he had pawned some clothes and had a ticket to prove this), and his washerwoman claimed to have received torn and bloodstained shirts that Williams ascribed to a brawl after a card game. Despite his protestations of innocence, he was remanded to Clerkenwell Gaol, where he apparently committed suicide on 28 December, the night before he was to again appear before the Shadwell magistrates, by hanging himself with his scarf. The hearing proceeded without him, and clearly eager for a swift resolution, the court declared Williams the sole perpetrator of both crimes, taking his suicide as an admission of guilt. Followed by great crowds, his body, along with the recovered murder weapons – the maul, a ripping chisel and an iron crowbar – was drawn by cart along the Highway, past the scene of both murders, to the crossroads of Back Lane and Cannon Street Road. There, as De Quincey described, ‘in obedience to the law as it then stood, he was buried in the centre of a guadrivium, or conflux of four roads (in this case four streets), with a stake driven through his heart. And over him drives for ever the uproar of unresting London!’ (6).
The profane burial – which has notable parallels with vampire folklore – was medieval. Suicide was deemed an affront against the laws of God and man, and the self-murderer could not thus be buried in consecrated ground. Crossroads were intended to confuse the unquiet spirit, which would be unable to choose a path, while the stake served to both desecrate the corpse and prevent its soul from rising on Judgement Day. But as De Quincey understood, the ritual meant more than that. As Peter Ackroyd explained, ‘Williams became part of London; having marked a track through a specific locality, his name was buried in the urban mythology surrounding “the Ratcliffe Highway murders”. He became instead the city’s sacred victim, to be interred in a formalised and ritualistic manner’ (7). Just as the Metropolitan Police Act seems to herald the coming of the Victorians, the end of the Regency and the tone of the century to come, so does the Ratcliffe Highway murderer, although as P.D. James and T.A. Critchley have demonstrably argued, Williams almost certainly didn’t act alone, if he acted at all.
‘As the story developed,’ they wrote, ‘it became clear that the system of 1811 had done no more than pronounce a confident, convenient and ghoulish judgement on a corpse, while leaving the core of the Ratcliffe Highway murders wrapped in continuing mystery’ (8). There are two other notable persons of interest. Cornelius Hart, who knew Williams (though he denied it), had done some carpentry work for Marr on the day of the murders, and claimed to have lost a chisel. Margaret Jewell confirmed that her master had searched the shop at Hart’s request that night but had not found it, although John Harriot spotted it at the scene in the morning and logged it as evidence. Hart was concerned enough about Williams’s arrest to enquire about it at the Pear Tree, although whether this was the act of a concerned friend or a worried accomplice remains a mystery. Evidence and eyewitness accounts also suggested there were two perpetrators, and James and Critchley believed that one of them was very probably a seaman called William Ablass, who had sailed with Williams on the Roxburgh Castle, another East India ship, and was briefly detained as a suspect. Both had been implicated in a failed mutiny, and as Marr, Williams and Ablass had all sailed together at various times, it has been suggested that there was some bad blood; Ablass was also known to be a violent man. Ablass and Williams were drinking together at the King’s Arms on the night of the second murder, and Ablass fit Turner’s description of the killer much more than Williams. He also walked with a limp, thus fitting the description of one of the men seen running along the Highway after the Marrs were slaughtered, and had no alibi for either murder.
Either way, for Londoners, the nineteenth century began in earnest not with victory at Waterloo but in another orgy of blood and horror, just as it would close.
- Stow, John, A Survey of London, William. J. Thoms (ed), Whittaker & Co, London, 1848 (original work published 1598), p.167.
- De Quincey, Thomas, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, 1854 Postscript, in The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey, David Masson (ed), 14 vols, A. & C. Black, Edinburgh, 1889, XIII, p.76.
- Borrow, George, Celebrated Trials and Remarkable Cases, 6 vols, Knight & Lacy, London, 1825, VI, p.90.
- De Quincey, Works XIII, p.74.
- Borrow, VI, p.94.
- De Quincey, Works XIII, p.124.
- Ackroyd, Peter, London: The Biography, Vintage, London, 2001, p.274.
- James, P.D. & Critchley, T.A., The Maul and the Pear Tree, Faber & Faber, London, 2010 (original work published 1971), pp.xviii–xix.