In late 1811, decades before Jack the Ripper claimed his first victim, London’s East End was gripped by a series of murders that caused panic amongst the local population. Seven people were killed, and though a suspect was eventually apprehended, he died before he could be properly questioned, and the murders were never conclusively solved.
They occurred in Ratcliffe, a name that has now long disappeared but, in the early 19th century, was one of the many insalubrious pockets of crime along the banks of the River Thames. Below is a map showing the area in 1799 (the map is taken from Time Travel Explorer); you can see a modern view on Google Maps.
The area has changed beyond recognition in the intervening centuries. The photos in the gallery below show the streets around The Highway, as it is now known, which neatly divides Wapping and Shadwell. Suburban as they may seem now, 200 years ago these streets bore witness to a series of grisly crimes.
In the early hours of 8th December, 1811, in a small home at 29 Ratcliffe Highway, 24-year-old linen draper and hosier Timothy Marr, his wife Celia, their three-month old son and the shop assistant, a young man by the name of James Gowan, were found dead; the three adults each had their skull caved in with a blunt instrument, while the baby’s throat had been cut. A fifth member of the household, Margaret Jewell, had been out on an errand to buy some oysters. It was Jewell, alongside the local parish night watchman, George Olney, who discovered the gruesome scene and raised the alarm.
The lack of any suspect, and the apparent absence of any motive, left the authorities with little to work on. The only clues were a carpenter’s bloodstained maul left at the scene, marked with the initials ‘JP’, an unstained chisel, and some bloody footprints. The amateurish nature of the local investigations, headed up by sleuths bankrolled by the church, led to a number of baseless arrests, while the Government offered a reward to help catch the murderer. The case became a huge scandal across London, and the local population was gripped by the fear that, with the crime unsolved, the perpetrator could strike again.
Their concerns were soon realised. On 19th December, John Williamson, a publican at The Kings Arm on New Gravel Lane, a little further east along Ratcliff Highway, his wife Elizabeth and a servant named Bridget Anna Harrington were murdered during the night.
At this point the investigation was widened, with the Bow Street Runners and the River Thames Police lending their assistance. A few days later, a man by the name of John Williams was arrested in connection with the case on some dubious evidence, and sent to Cold Bath Fields prison in Clerkenwell. Williams was a shifty character with a shady back story. He resided at a Wapping pub called the Pear Tree Inn, and rumours abounded that he held a grudge against Timothy Marr from their time at sea together. Having cooled his heels in Clerkenwell for a week or so he was summoned to Shadwell Magistrates on 27th December, but instead of the prisoner, the court was instead visited by a guard, who had the unfortunate duty of informing all present that Mr. Williams had been found hanging in his cell, having apparently taken his own life.
Such was the outpouring of rage and fear in east London, that the Home Secretary ordered Williams’ body be paraded through the streets (a common practice at the time; in fact Williams was one of the last to receive such a dubious ‘honour’). The corpse was eventually deposited into a hole in the ground at the junction of what is now Cable Street and Cannon Hill Road with a stake driven through the heart. It was disinterred a century later during roadworks, and the skull was placed behind the bar at the Crown & Dolphin pub on the corner, although it has since disappeared.
The Ratcliffe Highway murders brought to public attention the limited abilities of London’s fragmented police forces, and were one of the factors that led toward the formation of the Met in the years to come. Two hundred years later and Ratcliffe itself has disappeared (although, in another of Google Maps’ curious quirks, it’s still listed as an area of East London). Yet in a city that often seems fixated on the macabre, the brutal nature of these crimes, and their unsolved nature, has propped the mystery up over the centuries.
For more on the murders, there is a very detailed account on the Thames Police Museum website. The Murder Map also has a good report, while prolific author P.D. James’ one and only work of true crime, The Maul and the Pear Tree, was published in 1971 (SPOILER ALERT: James reckons that Williams wasn’t the guilty party). And Diamond Geezer has also been out wandering the area, as has Ian Visits.
Finally, here’s a short video clip of Iain Sinclair discussing the murders in 1999 whilst wandering around St George in the East: