It’s Halloween and I’ve done a number of related posts on the origins of Halloween, hauntings, the modern day Enfield Poltergeist and of course the infamous Jack The Ripper. Real life figures such as the Victorian poisoner Mary Cotton and figures that merge myth and reality such as Springheeled Jack.
Perhaps more horrendous than any of the above were the events that terrified East London a life-time before the dreaded Jack The Ripper, they happened just a mile away
The Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811 were the most notorious of their day. In the space of 12 days two families were butchered in their homes in such a terrible fashion that for weeks afterwards ‘terror was on every face’ as people barricaded their doors, bought guns and rattles and eyed every stranger they met with suspicion.
Not only that, but the failure to quickly catch the killers brought into question the entire system of policing the capital and contributed to the eventual formation of the Metropolitan Police force 18 years later. It must have been something even for the times and yet today few people have heard of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.
The name Ratfcliffe is a corruption on RedCliffe which described the local geographical feature that ran a little inland from the broad expanse of the Thames. Over the centuries, the name has changed again to simply The Highway, an old Roman road.
It all began shortly after midnight on Sunday, December 8, at Timothy Marr’s linen shop at number 29 on the Ratcliffe Highway.
Timothy Marr, 24, and his 14 year-old servant boy James Gowen had been clearing up after a day’s trading as they did at the end of each day. His wife Celia, also 24, was probably tending to their three month-old son Timothy Jnr.
At some point before 12.30am, all four were beaten about the head with a carpenter’s maul or mallet. The baby’s throat was also cut to the bone.
When servant girl Margaret Jewell returned from her unsuccessful errand to buy some oysters she found the door locked. Nobody answered the bell but she heard footsteps on the stairs and a baby’s cry. Then all was silent. It was not until 1am that she alerted a passing watchman.
Neighbour John Murray gained entrance through the back door only to find the body of James Gowen, his head caved in, surrounded by spattered blood and brains. Celia Marr was lying face down near the front door. Her husband was dead behind the counter. The child was the last to be found, dead in his cradle in the basement.
What few clues could be found at the scene included the bloodstained maul left resting against a chair in the Marr’s bedroom, marked with the initials JP. Interestingly for such an impoverished area, £152 was left untouched in a nearby drawer, a ripping chisel, not stained with blood, resting on the shop counter, and two sets of footprints leading from the back of the house.
Who would investigate in the times before the modern-era police? Those involved in the hunt for the killer included the River Thames Police and the unpaid constables and paid watchmen retained by the parish of St George’s-in-the-East, who offered a £50 reward. One of their first leads was a sighting of three men outside the shop that night, one described as tall and wearing a light-coloured coat. However the only significant arrest was of the carpenter employed by Marr to carry out improvements at the shop. His alibi bore out and he was released.
The first newspaper reports of the crime led to crowds of spectators attempting to visit the scene. By the time an even bigger crowd gathered the following Sunday for the funeral at nearby St George’s church, the Home Secretary Richard Ryder was taking an interest in the case and the rewards on offer had been increased to a total of £600.
Inquiries were still continuing when a second household was attacked in an equally brutal fashion. Some time after 11pm on December 19th the lodger at the King’s Arms at 81 New Gravel Lane was seen climbing down knotted sheets from a second-floor window. He was screaming “Murder, murder”.
Inside the pub, John Williamson, 56, was found lying on his back in the cellar, his head beaten in, his throat cut, his right leg fractured. Next to his body lay an iron bar. Injuries to his hand indicated he had tried to fend off blows before being overcome.
In the kitchen lay his 60 year-old wife Elizabeth and maidservant Bridget Harrington, her age somewhere between 50 and 60. Both their skulls were fractured and their throats slashed. Mercifully the couple’s 14 year-old granddaughter Kitty Stillwell was unharmed, asleep in her bed.
The lodger, John Turner, was to tell how he fled out the window after seeing a tall man in a long coat standing over Mrs Williamson’s body at the bottom of the stairs.
I went to bed about five minutes before eleven o’clock; I had not been in bed more than five or ten minutes before I heard the cry of “We shall all be murdered,” which, I suppose, was the cry of the woman servant. I went downstairs, and I saw one of the villains cutting Mrs Williamson’s throat, and rifling her pockets.
I immediately ran upstairs; I took up the sheets from my bed and fastened them together, and lashed them to the bed-posts, I called to the watchman to give the alarm; I was hanging out of the front window by the sheets; the watchman received me in his arms, naked as I was: a great mob had then assembled opposite the door: as soon as I got upon my legs, the door was forced open; I entered, and found the bodies lying as described.
Examination of the scene revealed Mr Williamson’s watch was missing, and blood on the windowsill by an open window at the back of the pub.
While a footprint was found at the back of the house, witnesses also saw two men running up Ratcliffe Highway. The shorter one appeared lame while the taller one was heard to say something like ‘Come along Mahoney.’
These murders fell to the parish of St Paul’s in Shadwell to investigate, and a handbill offering a 100 guinea reward was posted less than an hour later. As panic rippled through London, other constables from Whitechapel and Wapping became involved in the hunt, as well as members of the Bow Street Runners and the River Thames Police.
Their efforts bore fruit with the arrest of John Williams on the same day the Williamson household was buried at St Paul’s Church, December 22, 1811. Williams, 27, had sailed with Marr in the ship the Dover Castle three years earlier and was lodging at the Pear Tree in Old Wapping. He had been seen at the King’s Arms a few hours before the murders but claimed to have been drinking elsewhere at the time they took place.
Two days later it emerged that the maul had previously been kept in a locker at the Pear Tree, having been left by a German sailor by the name of ‘John Peterson’ when he returned to sea. A laundress also claimed to have seen blood on two of Williams’ shirts, one before the Marr murders and the other four or five days afterwards.
The examination of the case by the Shadwell Magistrates was still in progress when Williams was found hanging by a handkerchief in his cell on December 27 at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell (now the site of the Royal Mail sorting office at Mount Pleasant). He had not yet been committed for trial but his suicide was taken as an indication of his guilt.
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’).On New Years Eve, Williams was placed on a tilted cart, the maul, chisel and iron crowbar placed above his head, and carried in public view down the Ratcliffe Highway. Crowds watched in silence as he was taken past Marr’s shop to the Pear Tree and then up to the King’s Arms before heading back down Ratcliffe Highway.
Whilst we might think this a little gory, it allowed people to vent their anger and more importantly, give some re-assurance that the monster who perpetuated the crimes was dead and so could no longer hurt them.
The body 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.
A century later during road improvement works, the corpse was disinterred and the skull was placed behind the bar at the Crown & Dolphin pub on the corner though in recent years it has since disappeared.
Although Williams was seen by some as the sole perpetrator, investigations into other possible suspects continued. Then on January 14, 1812, a full search was made of the Pear Tree. Blood was found in the inside pocket of a blue jacket said to belong to Williams. In a closet a bloodstained clasp knife was found concealed in a mousehole.
Even with this new evidence, it was still felt the investigation had failed to catch all the culprits. Four days later a motion was made in parliament that a committee should examine the system of the Night Watch. As reported in Hansard, The Home Secretary “felt himself justified in stating, that if the expediency of the measure rested upon the late horrible murders alone, by which two whole families had been completely exterminated, the atrocity of those crimes would in themselves have afforded a sufficient ground. It was true that no system of police could prevent the commission of such murders, while there were persons vile and abandoned enough to commit them, under such circumstances of dextrous depravity; but as a better regulation of the Nightly Watch must have a tendency to diminish the chances, it was right that it should be resorted to.” Other speakers in the debate took the view the committee should go further and look into the ‘state of the police’ as a whole.
The investigation came to an end in early February with the release of two other suspects – the tall and possibly lame William Ablass, who was said to have been involved in a mutiny aboard the Roxburgh Castle along with John Williams, and the carpenter who had worked at Marr’s shop, Cornelius Hart.
Three months later focus turned from the ‘horrible murders’ to a new atrocity – the assassination of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, at the House of Commons itself.
It took another 17 years, and the reports of three further committees, before the Metropolitan Police was set up by Robert Peel in 1829. But while the Ratcliffe Highway murders did not directly lead to reform of the state system of policing, they convinced many that it was necessary. They also ushered in a new, more insecure era in which crime appeared to be increasing year upon year and no one was truly safe, not even in their own homes. This attitude remains prevalent today.
Although the prime suspect committed suicide before facing trial, his name was immortalised in print and inspired the English writer Thomas De Quincey’s essay ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.’
Foreshadowing the modern exploitation of murder for entertainment in book, theatre and film, De Quincey wrote: ‘Mr Williams made his debut on the stage of Ratcliffe Highway and executed those unparalleled murders which have procured for him such a brilliant and undying reputation. On which murders, by the way, I must observe, that in one respect they have had an ill respect, by making the connoisseur in murder very fastidious in his taste, and dissatisfied with anything that has been since done in that line. All other murders look pale by the crimson of his.’
The village of Ratcliffe and the old Ratcliffe Highway has almost vanished with the old Ratcliffe Cross Stairs which I visited in this recent post being one of the few reminders.