Tales of the Riverbank – Murder Most Foul.

For this tale we go from the 18th to the early 19th Century. The date is Saturday December 7th 1811, the time is about 11pm and the location is the Ratcliffe Highway, a street (now just called The Highway) that linked the City of London with the brand new system of commercial docks that were emerging to the East of London. To the South lies the River Thames, The London Docks and the areas know as “Sailor Town” “Wapping and Shadwell. To the North lies the area known as Whitechapel…..Ratcliffe Highway had a reputation and was known by some as ‘The Worst street in the World’. This then is the tale of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders and if you are squeamish or of a nervous disposition…..You might want to stop reading here!

Timothy Marr (an ex sailor) and his family lived above their Mercery business on the South side of the street in the shadow of St Georges in the East parish church. In the house that night were Timothy, His wife, Celia, their 3 month old baby boy, also called Timothy, an apprentice boy called James Gowan and a young serving girl named Margaret, aged about 13 years old.

It was coming to the end of the working day and Timothy was counting the day’s takings. Mrs Marr had been unwell since the birth of their son and Timothy decided to send young Margaret out to pay a few bills and to return with a meal of oysters which was a favourite food of the day…..She left at about 11pm….Anybody walking those streets at that time would have been witness to all manner of drunken, licentious and lewd behaviour, however, Margaret seemed to be completely unfazed by what she must have seen around her…. She could not however find any oysters to take home and at 12.15am she returned to her home.

On arrival she found the building now in darkness, the shutters down but remained unlocked and she could hear voices inside the building…..She knocked but the door was not opened….She knocked louder but still the door remained closed….This activity disturbed a drunk lying in the gutter who abused the young girl for disturbing his sleep…..She decided to sit in the kerb and wait for something to happen.

At 01.00am night watchman George Olney called the hour….He found Margaret and tried to raise the family inside but was unable to do so….. His actions woke up a neighbour and he was persuaded to try and gain access to the Marr’s abode by going through a rear entrance in Pennington Street, a very dark and gloomy alleyway adjacent to the London Docks…..He gained access to the back yard via a low wall and immediately noticed that the back door was wide open….He entered the building and found himself in the shop area which was very dimly lit by a guttering candle that cast eerie shapes around the room….He stumbled around in the darkness trying to locate the front door and suddenly tripped over a large soft object in the darkness on the floor, as he stood up his hands were covered in blood, this was the body of Celia Marr, her scull had been hit by a heavy, blunt object and her throat cut….In his panic he tripped over the second body, that of James Gowan. Once again his head had been hit by a heavy object and his throat cut…..In his panic he discovered the front door which he threw open shouting. “Murder murder, come and see what murder is here”! The people waiting outside then entered treading over this murder scene and they discovered the third body, that of Timothy Marr. Once again it seemed as if he had been struck on the head by a heavy weapon and his throat cut.

Finally they’re searched revealed baby Timothy, still in his crib in the basement but his skull had been crushed by a blow from a heavy implement and his throat cut so badly that his head remained attached to his body only by a thin piece of skin.

Then first police officer on the scene was PC Charles Horton of the Thames Marine police office at Wapping. He immediately searched the building in order to ascertain whether the murderers were still hiding somewhere inside the building. Having satisfied himself that the killers had left the scene (probably through the open back door) he searched for evidence. He immediately secured a large hammer like object called a ‘Pean Maul’ this was a large lump of metal, sharp at one end and blunt at the other attached to a wooden handle about 2ft long. This tool would have been used by a shipwright or carpenter for caulking the decks on wooden sailing ships…..This implement was covered in blood and other bodily material fluids and (not unreasonably) Horton assumed it was used in the murders.

Horton then cleared the building of all the living witnesses and secured the building as best he could, leaving the dead victims still inside….Over the next few days the building (with the bodies still inside) would be opened up for public viewing, as was the custom in those days.

Horton Rushed back to Wapping and handed his evidence over to the Resident Magistrate, still (since 1798) John Harriott. In those days criminal investigations would have been carried out on a parish basis and this murder was technically the responsibility of the St. Georges in the East police office…. However, Harriott was known as a man of action. He had evidence relating to the murders in his possession, he had the first police officer on scene in Charles Horton (and therefore a witness). Early the next day, Sunday December 8th Harriott attended the scene and (much to the annoyance of the local magistrates) and took control of the investigation. Harriott returned to Wapping with yet more pieces of possible evidence and immediately went into print, issuing circulars all over the area asking for information regarding these wicked murders.

Murder was not a rare event in Sailor Town of those days BUT the brutal slaying of a three month old child aroused the passions and fears of the locals and the Home Secretary, Richard Ryder feared there might be public disorder and wanted early arrests.

Over the next fortnight many man were arrested and questioned but none were charged. By about December 19th it was considered by the local population that although nobody had been charged….Perhaps they might be able to return to normality…..Many of them thought that foreign sailors were to blame and if that was indeed the case, they could be almost anywhere in the world by now, having fled London immediately after the murders… On December 19th that notion was cruelly removed when three more murders were committed close by at the Kings Arms Tavern, New Gravel Lane….The publican, John Williamson, his wife and their serving girl were all brutally murdered in a way that echoed the first set of murders….The suspects made their escape via a rear entrance, however, on this occasion the killings had been witnessed by a resident in the tavern who had managed to conceal his presence from the murderers before climbing stark naked down knotted bed sheets to raise the hue and cry.

Also around that date Wapping Magistrate, John Harriott was re-examining the shipwrights hammer that was used in the first set of murders…When he had first received the weapon it had been soaking wet and covered in fresh blood…..Now the blood had dried and congealed and as he handled the metal head of the hammer some dried blood flaked away…revealing the initials JP scratched into the metal….This was the first real clue the police had uncovered.

Harriott immediately went back into print with more circulars asking witnesses to come forward who might be able to identify the hammer….Mrs Anne Vermiloe ran the Pear Tree Tavern close to the Wapping Police Office and she claimed that the hammer belonged to one of her residents (Jan Petersonn)…..However, he could not be a suspect as he was away at sea and not expected back for some time….She was merely storing his belongings while he was away…..The police attended the Pear Tree Tavern and immediately carried out a thorough search….In that search they discovered a blood stained knife hidden in a wall cavity, blood stained clothing concealed in a privy toilet area and also the pocket watch belonging to publican John Williamson from the Kings Arms Tavern….. The police questioned residents but quickly concentrated on one particular suspect, a sailor named John William (alias Murphy). When questioned, Williams denied any wrong doing but could not provide convincing answers as to why he had a pocketful of money despite him having been ashore for an unusually long period of time, neither could he give a satisfactory account of his whereabouts on the two nights in question…. Williams was taken before the magistrates and was still unable to convince them of his innocence….. Williams was remanded in custody until December 27th when he would be re-examined by the magistrates….He was to be held in Cold bath fields Prison (Clerkenwell) pending that hearing….Apparently he was quite certain that when he was re-examined he would be able to convince everybody of his innocence in these murders…In the meantime the magistrates would make further enquiries.

During that further investigation it was discovered that Williams (the suspect) had served as a sailor alongside Timothy Marr (first set of murders) and there was no love lost between the two men…..It also emerged that on the night of the second set of murders Williams was drinking late into the night at the Kings Arms Tavern with a most insalubrious looking group of associates.

On the morning of his re-examination the court room at St Georges in the East was packed with people waiting to hear his answers to the new questions…. The prison wagon arrived however Williams could not be questioned any further regarding his possible involvement in the murders…..Because he had died himself the previous night, it appeared by strangling himself in his cell with a scarf.

The magistrates considered this apparent suicide an admission of guilt and decided to hear all the evidence in the case in the absence of the accused….They would then offer their final verdict.

Having heard the evidence the magistrates decided that Williams was without doubt the Ratcliffe Highway murderer…. despite having no previous convictions or any history of violence and despite it already being known that the second set of murders had been committed by a gang of suspects….. The verdict was sent to the Home Secretary who apparently agreed with it…. Now all that remained was for the citizens of Sailor Town to have their fears regarding further murders quietened by seeing the corpse of this wicked murderer paraded through the streets and then to be able to observe his ultimate destruction.

It was on New Year’s Eve that Williams’ body was paraded on a cart through the streets before a huge crowd of onlookers….The Home Secretary feared possible public disorder and had a large police presence of Marine Police, Bow St. Horse Patrol and local watchmen….In fact the whole event took place in almost complete silence.

Having stopped the parade outside each of the two murder locations for fifteen minutes for respects to be paid to the innocent dead, the body of Williams was taken to the nearest crossroads, Cannon Street Road and Cable Street. The body was taken from the cart and a wooden stake driven through his heart….This was the usual fate for those committing the crime of Suicide. The body was then unceremoniously dumped in a narrow grave in a kneeling position…..The body was then covered over….And there he would have remained forever….Until his body was uncovered about a century later by some gas workers.

The body was removed for research but the skull was acquired by the Crown and Dolphin pub which stood on that street corner (and still does to this day although the building is no longer a public house)

And there ends the tale of John Williams the Ratcliffe Highway Murderer….Except he wasn’t! ….. John Williams may well have been involved with the murders but he most certainly did not commit seven such violent killings…. Indeed, He may well actually have been the eighth victim of the real Ratcliffe Highway Murderer and silenced on the eve of his re-examination to prevent him from possibly implicating others who may well have been far more guilty than Williams…..It would be extremely difficult for anybody to strangle oneself whilst chained and manacled to a wall…… It may well be that John Williams was assisted into the Hereafter.

Further Reading…The Maul and the Pear Tree by P.D James.

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