The Ratcliff Highway murders
were two vicious attacks that resulted in multiple fatalities, and occurred over twelve days in the year 1811
, in homes half a mile apart near Wapping
The first attack took place on December 7
, at 29 Ratcliffe Highway, in the home behind a linen draper's shop, on the south side of the street, between Cannon Street Road and Artichoke Hill. Ratcliffe Highway is the old name for the road now called The Highway
, in the East End of London
. The victims of the first murders were Timothy Marr, a 24 year old linen draper and hosier, who had served the East India Company
on the Dover Castle
from 1808 to 1811, his wife Celia and their 3 month old son, Timothy (who had been born on 29 August 1811); and James Gowan, their shop boy. Margaret Jewell, a servant of the Marrs, had been sent to purchase oysters, and escaped. This murder caused the government to offer a reward of 500 guineas
for the apprehension of the perpetrator.
Twelve days later, the second incident, on December 19th, was at The Kings Arms in New Gravel Lane (now Wapping Lane) the victims of the second murders were John Williamson, a publican, 56 years old, who had been at the Kings Arms for 15 years, Elizabeth, his wife, aged 60 and Bridget Anna Harrington in her late 50's, a servant. Also living at the King's Arms at the time were Catherine (Kitty) Stillwell, 14 year old granddaughter of the publican, John Williamson, and John Turner. Turner was a lodger and a Journeyman and when he discovered the murders and realised the murderer was still in the house leapt out of an upper window.
The victims' bodies were buried in the cemetery of the local parish church, St George in the East.
Accused and accursed
A principal suspect in the murders, John Williams (also known as Murphy), was a lodger at the nearby Pear Tree
public house in Old Wapping. He was a 27 year old, Scots, or Irish, seaman. He had nursed a grievance against Marr from when they were shipmates, but the subsequent murders at the Kings Arms remain unexplained.
Williams was arrested, but committed suicide by hanging himself, in Coldbath Fields Prison. His corpse was dragged through the streets, in a cart, that paused by the scene of the murders. His body was pitched into a hole and was buried, with a stake through its heart, at the junction of Commercial Road and Cannon Street Road. In August 1886, the skeleton of John Williams (with a stake driven through it) was discovered during the excavation of a trench by a gas company. It was six feet below the surface of the road where Cannon Street and Cable Street cross at St George in the East. The landlord of the Crown and Dolphin public house, at the corner of Cannon Street Road, retained the skull as a souvenir.
Londoners were familiar with violent attacks in the street at night, and Ratcliff Highway had a particularly bad reputation for robbery. Yet, these murders shocked London and much of England, because they took place inside people's homes.
The saying "An Englishman's home is his castle" indicates how safe people felt inside their homes, once their door was locked and the window shuttered. The first murders took place after the premises had been locked up, according to witnesses interviewed afterward, so the murderer(s) must have already been hiding inside.
The thriving cheap newspapers spread the news round the country, as the gruesome details of the violence leaked out over the days after the two incidents. This became one of the first national shock stories to circulate in Britain. Speculation on who killed the innocent families, and why, kept the story alive right through to the burial of the eventually accused man.
Recent reviews of the evidence suggest he was not the murderer.
In 1811, two of the world's first police forces were in London
. One was the City-based Bow Street Runners
, whose remit was confined to the West End
. The other was the Marine Police Force
, founded in 1798
to tackle theft and looting from ships anchored in the Pool of London
and the lower reaches of the river. Its base was (and remains) in Wapping
High Street, it is now known as the Marine Support Unit
. This police station is only a few minutes walk from the crime scenes, and a detective, based there, helped to investigate the events.
Before modern approaches to crime detection had been developed, finding a culprit to account for a crime depended mostly on character testimonies. Hence much factual information that could have excluded several suspects was ignored by the inexperienced decision-makers.