Shortly before midnight on Saturday the 7th December 1811 Timothy Marr, a draper of 29 Ratcliffe Highway (a “public thoroughfare in the most chaotic quarter of eastern, or nautical, London,” according to Thomas de Quincy) sent his serving girl Margaret Jewell out to buy him some oysters and to pay a bakers bill whilst he and his apprentice James Gowan were shutting up the shop. Margaret’s errands were a waste of time – she couldn’t find any oysters for sale at that time of night and the bakers too were closed. When she returned back to the drapers the door of the shop was closed and the shutters down. Margaret heard the Marr’s three month old baby crying as she rapped on the door but it quietened, presumably when Celia Marr picked up her son and comforted or fed him. No one answered Margaret’s increasingly frantic knocking. A passing drunk began to harass her and she had to quieten down until the parish night watch passed by at 1am. Even he couldn’t rouse the Marrs, even though his shouting and banging on the door woke all the neighbours, including John Murray a pawnbroker who lived and worked next door. He went to the rear of his property and climbed over the wall into the Marr’s back yard. From here he was able to get into the shop where he almost tripped over the body of James Gowan, who was lying on the floor with his head smashed to a bloody pulp and his throat gashed open. By the light of his candle the shocked Murray could also see the body of Celia Marr, her head similarly staved in and still leaking blood into a large pool on the floorboards. Murray ran to the front door and pulled it open yelling "Murder, murder. Come and see what murder is here!" The small crowd of neighbours and passersby, led by the night watchman poured into the shop where they soon located the body of Timothy Marr. Someone yelled "What about the baby?" and the crowd pushed into the Marr’s bedroom where they found the baby still in its crib, its throat cut so deeply that the head was almost severed and the left hand side of the head battered with a blunt instrument.
The murder of the Marrs caused national outrage. A mass killing of this sort, taking place in the victims own home was unusual and terrified everyone. A hundred guinea reward was posted for information leading to the identification of the killer or killers. The only tangible clue the police had to go on was a maul, a heavy shipwright’s hammer that had been found at the scene of the crime clotted with blood and human hair and obviously one of the murder weapons. Then on the 19th December the murderer struck again, at the King’s Arms Tavern in New Gravel lane (now Glamis Road). A night watchman had been passing the public house in the small hours when he found a half naked man trying to climb down a rope of knotted sheets from the top storey of the building. The man turned out to be a lodger in the pub by the name of John Turner and he started yelling that there was murder being committed inside. The door of the cellar was quickly broken open and inside the bodies of the landlord, John Williamson, his wife Elizabeth and a barmaid Bridget Harrington were all discovered with their heads battered in and their throats cut, in the same manner as the Marrs. The Williamson’s 14 year old granddaughter survived – she slept through the attack and the murderer or murderers probably did not realise she was in the house.
|Postmortem sketch of|
On the 21st December a seaman by the name of John Williams was arrested at the Pear Tree Inn after information was received from an anonymous source naming him as the murderer. He had been seen drinking at the Kings Arms on the night of the murder and there were other circumstantial details too which linked him to the crimes. He was remanded at Cold Bath Fields Prison to appear before the Shadwell magistrates to answer questions on his possible involvement in the shocking crimes. On the day of the hearing the magistrates were sat waiting in their packed court room when a messenger appeared from the prison – Williams had committed suicide, hanging himself in his cell. The magistrates went ahead and heard the testimony of the other witnesses in what now appeared to be an open and shut case. Their verdict, hotly disputed to this day, was that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders.
To appease public opinion and In lieu of a public execution the Home Secretary Sir Richard Ryder, accepting the conclusions of the Shadwell Magistrates that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, ordered that his body be publically paraded around the streets at the scenes of his crimes. Once the local residents were satisfied that the monster was indeed dead he was to be interred at a crossroads with a stake through his heart. The crossroads chosen were at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, close by the Crown and Dolphin public house. The photograph above looks from the railway bridge on Cannon Street Road to the cross roads where Williams was buried with the Crown and Dolphin still standing on the corner and the tower of St Georges’-in-the-East showing above the roof tops of the houses.
On New Years Eve 1811 accompanied by the Thames Police and the Bow Street Mounted Patrol as well as local constables and watchman John Williams’ body was arranged on an open cart along with the maul, a chisel and a crowbar that he had used in committing his crimes and driven slowly through the streets of Wapping and Shadwell, stopping outside the Marr’s shop at 29 Ratcliffe Highway and the Kings Arms Tavern. 10,000 spectators lined the route and the normally unruly east end crowd was unusually subdued. When the procession reached the crossroads the grave had already been dug. The driver of the cart whipped Williams’ body three times in an unscripted act of revenge and then it was removed from the cart and placed on its knees in the open grave. A stake was placed at the point of his back judged to be above the heart and then driven through it with a mallet before the earth was piled over the corpse.
In 1902 gas mains were being laid in Cannon Street North and Cable Street. The labourers digging the trenches uncovered a skeleton with a wooden stake driven through the ribcage and adjourned to the Crown and Dolphin while their bosses debated what to do. They probably left carrying John Williams’ skull which rumour has it was then exchanged for a few pints when the landlord took an interest in it. Certainly by the time the authorities arrived to take Williams’ remains away the skeleton was headless and once the mains had been laid, the road repaved and official interest in the site had waned a skull purportedly belonging to John Williams’ went on prominent display in the saloon bar.
The Marrs, the first victims of the Ratcliffe Highway Murderer, were buried in the churchyard of Hawksmoor's St Georges'-in-the-East. A large headstone was set up which disappeared when all the headstones were cleared and lined up against the churchyard wall to allow the graveyard to be converted into a park. It was assumed the headstone was gone forever but the historian Sarah Wise (author of a trio of excellent books on London, including one on grave robbing in Bloomsbury) was rooting around some broken fragments of stone in the park when she came across pieces of the lost memorial.
|The funeral of the Marr family, held at St George's in the East|
There has been a flurry of activity centred around the Ratcliffe Highway Murders because of the 200th anniversary. On the 28th December there is a Highway Murder Walk starting at 3.00pm at St George's (just as it is getting dark - obviously for the atmosphere) and taking in all the key sites in an hour and a half stroll. There isn't that much to see - the Marrs' shop is now a SAAB dealership for example - but that is the nature of these East End walks. As there are few physical traces of the places the events happened you have to attune yourself to picking up on the non physical force fields that are still in place, the lines of energy that tell you that you are standing on the spot where the ghastly deeds happened. A £10 fee is payable and booking in advance recommended. Call me a philistine but I don't understand why anyone would pay a tenner to be shown a SAAB dealership that is perfectly easy to locate all by yourself. And if you want to hear the story or know more, PD James book 'The Maul & the Pear Tree' will give you a lot more for your ten quid then you will get out of a tour guide.
Work started on Hawksmoor’s St George’s in the East in 1714 (on land acquired for £400) and was completed in 1729 (unexpected delays were caused by bad bricks, incompetent workmen and the theft of building materials ‘especially on Sundays’ according to one of the contractors). It is a large church, designed to seat 1230, and cost £18,557 3s 3d. At the time the church was built Shadwell was a rather prosperous suburb of maritime London – it was only much later that it became an East End slum district. In 1795 Daniel Lyson his ‘Environs of London’ described the area as built up ‘apart from a few grass fields’ in the north of the parish and the residents were “employed, for the most part, in rope-making, and the manufacture of other articles for the rigging of ships.” His list of burials in the church yard includes 14 ships captains, 2 Royal Navy Lieutenants, a pair of surgeons, a merchant, a sprinkling of Esquires and ‘John Abbott, Gent (1787). In the late 1850’s the church became the scene of serious disturbances when the Low Church Bishop of London appointed a militant protestant clergyman as a Sunday afternoon preacher in what was a church and congregation dominated by High Churchmen. According to a parliamentary report the congregation retaliated to the appointment by “hounds let loose in the aisles; hassocks thrown at the altar; boys and clergy kicked and tripped; boys supplied with peashooters and fireworks; a pew used as a privy; and a Protestant League which met every week to plan the next weeks assault.”
The church suffered a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in 1941 and was completely gutted. The shell stood empty for 20 years until it was restored in the early 1960’s. By then the parish had no requirement for such a large church so, in a very unusual arrangement, a new, smaller church was built inside the walls of the old. Hawksmoor’s design is as idiosyncratic and eclectic as ever – the tower is topped by six copies of a Roman sacrificial altar.
From Shadwell you can walk down the Commercial Road to Limehouse or you can take a slightly longer route which takes you down to and along the Thames. Canary Wharf, 1 Canada Square which can can be seen intermittently along your route from Bloomsbury to Shadwell is always in view once you reach the river side. Iain Sinclair would have made much of the Pyramid that tops the building if it had been built in 1975 when he was writing 'Lud Heat'. As it wasn't, other fevered imaginations have had to extract every last ounce of symbolic meaning from what is London's most prominent building......
“London still sees more than its share of buildings which seem to owe more to the occult than to strict practicality. Number One Canada Square, better known as Canary Wharf, is topped with a conspicuous pyramid with a flashing light at its apex. It could hardly be a more graphic embodiment of the familiar image of a pyramid topped by an eye, a symbol familiar from the back of the US dollar bill.
The architect of One Canada Square was Cesar Pelli, who is quoted as saying that the tower was intended to be a simple geometric form. “Of the four different roof shapes available from the World Financial Center, he chose the pyramid because he found it to be common in most cultures,” according to one source.
Pyramids are not exactly common in our culture – although Hawksmoor certainly added a few. The height of the Canary Wharf pyramid happens to be 130ft (40m), which some have suggested makes it an embodiment of the 13 steps of the Masonic pyramid.
“This is the clearest symbol yet. Screw the Washington Monument, I think I’ve found the biggest Obelisk and Eye of Horus yet. This has got to be down to the Masons,” writes one excited blogger as he demonstrates how the Canary Wharf complex can be mapped on to Masonic symbols. Of course, conspiracy theories do not need much of a launch pad, and others skilled in the art have managed to link Pelli to the Freemasons, the Skull & Bones Society, the Order of Death and much, much more…”
David Hambling in the Fortean Times
The foundations of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s were laid in 1712 and the church was completed in 1724. For some reason however the building wasn’t consecrated until 1730. There is a Pyramid in the church yard which was originally meant to be placed at the top of the tower (see the photograph below).
|The Limehouse pyramid by Guy Vaes|
Daniel Lyson’s, in his ‘Environs of London’ (1795) said that the parish “contains about 150 acres of land not covered by buildings: of these about 10 are market-gardens; the remainder pasture, occupied by cowkeepers, whose stock of cattle amounts to about 180…. The principal manufactures in the place are Mrs. Turner's of sailclothes, and Mr. Hall's of pot-ashes. The late Charles Dingley, Esq. erected a saw-mill of his own invention, which still exists, but has not been employed for many years. There are three dock-yards in the parish used principally for repairs. A navigable canal communicating with the river Lee at Bromley joins the Thames in this parish. It was made about the year 1769, pursuant to an act of parliament, and is called the Limehouse-cut.” He notes the birth of triplets as a curiosity from the Parish Registry; "John, Thomas, and Eleanor, sons and daughter (at the same birth) of Thomas Carnell, fisherman, and Susanna his wife, baptized Nov. 21, 1739,” but then goes on to mention almost as an afterthought “they were all buried on the 7th of December.”
This piece was originally written and published on Flickr in November/December 2011.