East London's most infamous series of unsolved murders were undoubtedly those carried out in 1888 by Jack The Ripper, whoever he was. But before that, the benchmark for criminal notoriety was The RatcliffeHighway Murders. Two unexplained massacres took place, twelve days apart, with two families slaughtered in their homes overnight. Even in a part of London renowned for wrongdoing and felony, these murders shocked the populace. And the first took place two hundred years ago tonight, on Saturday 7th December 1811.
In the early 19th century Ratcliffe was an unsavoury neighbourhood lying between Shadwell and Limehouse, close to the docks, and sometimes known as "sailor town". Its slums stood alongside lodging houses, bars, brothels and opium dens, all of which appealed to the transient local population. Charles Dickens wrote of Ratcliffe that "the accumulated scum of humanity gathered here, washed, as it were, from somewhere else". Not somewhere you'd choose to live, but needs must.
Timothy Marr owned a linen shop at number 29 on the Ratcliffe Highway. He was only 24 but had already served time at sea, and had recently married and become father to a three-month-old boy. Work in the shop finished very late in the evening on 7th December, as it might on any normal Saturday back then. Timothy sent the maid Margaret Jewell out to buy some oysters for a late night snack, then on to the bakery to pay a bill. When she returned after midnight with her suppertime treat she found the shop locked and in darkness, and heard footsteps and more disturbing noises from within. She waited outside, then alerted the night watchman to her suspicions, until eventually a neighbour gained access at the rear to try to discover what had happened inside. By candlelight he discovered the dead body of Marr's young apprentice James, his skull smashed by repeated blows from a heavy object. Nearby lay Timothy's wife Celia, her head similarly bludgeoned, and with blood seeping out across the floor. When others gained entrance through the front door to assist, they soon discovered Timothy's mutilated body, then headed downstairs to find his son. They were shocked to find the baby lying in his cradle with his throat cut, his neck sliced and his head severely battered on one side. A chisel lay nearby, while a heavy shipwright's hammer had been discarded in the bedroom. But of the murderer himself, not a sign, he'd slipped clean away.
Ratcliffe Highway looks very different today. The docks have long gone, as of course have the slums. The Western Dock has been filled in and replaced by housing, apart from Tobacco Dock which lingers on as a failed mothballed shopping complex. Meanwhile News International's fortress-like Wapping HQ now covers the site of the North Quay's line of warehouses. I find it intriguing that Rupert Murdoch's tabloid bunker should have set up overlooking one of London's most notorious murder sites, within screaming distance across Pennington Street, but this is merely a macabre coincidence. As for Timothy's shop, you'll search for that in vain. The Highway is a street transformed, now a mix of bland modernity and repurposed heritage warehouses. The site where number 29 once stood has been swallowed up by an architecturally bereft Saab showroom, where salesmen in suits hang around behind plate glass windows - far too public a scene for any repeat crime to be possible. Alongside is the St George's Tavern, a rather better reminder of Ratcliffe's past, except it's currently being gutted to be reborn as a 24 hour hot food takeaway.
Another pub was the site of the second 1811 murder - The King's Arms in New Gravel Lane. The alarm was raised by a lodger at the tavern, late in the evening on the 19th December, scrambling from an upper window and screaming for help. A passing watchman gained entry from the front, which disturbed the murderer who quickly escaped via the rear. The body of publican John Williamson was discovered down in the cellar - battered, throat slit and hanging from a ladder. His wife Elizabeth and their barmaid Bridget had suffered a similar fate, this time in the kitchen, although daughter Kitty somehow remained asleep upstairs during all of this and therefore survived. A suspect for the murders was swiftly found and locked up - a seaman called John Williams - but he committed suicide in prison before his guilt could be confirmed.
New Gravel Lane has since been renamed Garnet Street, and there's properly no sign of the King's Arms or any of the buildings that surrounded it. One long brick dockyard wall survives, behind which are some very average Tower Hamlets townhouses, leading down to a bascule bridge at the entrance to Shadwell Basin. The neighbourhood's risen a long way in two centuries, from extreme slum to an unobjectionable residential backwater. And the crime rate's dropped too, from the days of press gangs, opium dealing and mass slaughter, to minor traffic offences, TV licence evasion and the occasional burglary.
The Ratcliffe Highway Murders remain officially unsolved to this day, even though the main suspects are well known. But the Home Secretary of the day agreed with local magistrates that sailor John was definitely to blame, if only to quell public concern that the series of deaths might continue. His body was paraded through the streets on New Year's Eve 1811, watched by an angry but well-behaved crowd of ten thousand. They watched as the corpse was staked through the heart, then dropped into a ready-dug grave in kneeling position. I'd like to tell you he's still there, near the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street, but apparently workmen rediscovered his body whilst laying some gas mains so John's long gone. Not a plaque, not a memorial, not a sign. Had not Jack come along later and killed fewer people more brutally, perhaps Ratcliffe's 200-year-old crimes might be more feared, and better remembered.