Two Hundred Years Ago Tonight…
The site of the atrocity of 7th December
Late on 7th December 1811, on the site where this Saab dealership now stands, Timothy Marr, a twenty-four-year-old linen draper was closing up his business at 29 Ratcliffe Highway – a stone’s throw from St George’s-in-the-East. In the basement kitchen, his wife – Celia – was feeding their three-and-a-half-month-old baby, Timothy junior. At ten to midnight on the last night of his life, the draper sent out his servant girl, Margaret Jewell, with a pound note and asked her to pay the baker’s bill and buy some oysters for a late supper.
Timothy Marr made his fortune through employment in the East India Company and had his last voyage aboard the Dover Castle in 1808. With the proceeds, he married and set up shop just one block from the London dock wall. Already, Mr Marr’s business was prospering and in recent weeks he had employed a carpenter, Mr Pugh, to modernise the old place. The facade had been taken down, replaced with a larger shop window and the work had been completed smoothly, apart from the loss of a chisel.
When Margaret Jewell walked down the Highway she found Taylor’s oyster shop shut. Retracing her steps along the Ratcliffe Highway towards John’s Hill to pay the baker’s bill, she passed the draper’s shop again at around midnight where, although Mr Marr now had put up the shutters with the help of James Gowen, the shop boy, she could see Mr Marr at work behind the counter.
“The baker’s shop was shut,” Margaret later told the Coroner, so she went elsewhere in search of oysters and, finding nowhere open, returned to the draper’s about twenty minutes later to discover it dark and the door locked. She jangled the bell without answer until – to her relief – she heard a soft tread inside on the stair and the baby cried out.
But no-one answered the door. Panic-stricken and fearful of passing drunks, Margaret waited a long half hour for the next appearance of George Olney, the watchman, at one o’clock. Mr Olney had seen Mr Marr putting up the shutters at midnight but later noticed they were not fastened and when he called out to alert Mr Marr, a voice he did not recognise replied, “We know of it.”
John Murray, the pawnbroker who lived next door, was awoken at quarter past one by Mr Olney knocking upon Mr Marr’s door. He reported mysterious noises from his neighbour’s house shortly after twelve, as if a chair were being pushed back and accompanied by the cry of a boy or a woman.
Mr Murray told the watchman to keep ringing the bell while he went round the back through the communal yard to the rear door, which he found open with a faint light visible from a candle on the first floor. He climbed the stairs in darkness and took the candle in hand. Finding himself at the bedroom door, he said, “Mr Marr, your window shutters are not fastened” but receiving no answer, he made his way downstairs to the shop.
It was then he discovered the first body in the darkness. James Gowen was lying dead on the floor just inside the door with his skull shattered with such violence that the contents were splattered upon the walls and ceiling. In horror, the pawnbroker stumbled towards the entrance in the dark and came upon the dead body of Mrs Marr lying face down in a pool of blood, her head also broken. Mr Murray struggled to get the door open and cried in alarm, “Murder! Murder! Come and see what murder is here!” Margaret Jewell screamed. The body of Mr Marr was soon discovered too, behind the counter also face down, and someone called out,“The child, where’s the child?” In the basement, they found the baby with its throat slit so that the head was almost severed from the body.
When more light was brought in, the carpenter’s lost chisel was found upon the shop counter, but it was perfectly clean.
Later this week and over the coming Christmas season, you may expect further reports upon the development of this extraordinary case.
Timothy Marr’s shop.
Click on Paul Bommer’s map of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders to explore further
The Maul & The Pear Tree - P.D. James’ breathtaking account of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, inspired me to walk from Spitalfields down to Wapping to seek out the locations of these momentous events. Commemorating the bicentenary of the murders this Christmas, I am delighted to collaborate with Faber & Faber, reporting over coming weeks on these crimes on the exact anniversaries of their occurrence.
The Map of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders – In collaboration with Faber & Faber, Spitalfields Life has commissioned a map from Paul Bommer which will update throughout December as the events occur. Once you have clicked to enlarge it, you can download it as a screensaver or print it out as a guide to set out through the streets of Wapping.
Ratcliffe Highway Murder Walk – Spitalfields Life will be hosting a dusk walk on Wednesday 28th December at 3pm from St Georges in the East, visiting the crime scenes and telling the bone-chilling story of Britain’s first murder sensation. The walk will take approximately an hour and a half, and conclude at the historic riverside pub The Prospect of Whitby. Booking is essential and numbers are limited, so please email firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up. Tickets are £10.
Thanks to the Bishopsgate Institute and Tower Hamlets Local History Archive for their assistance with my research.