Chapter 2. Horrid Murder
The River Thames Police Office occupies the same site today on the Thames beside Wapping New Stairs as it did in 1811. Once news of the murders on the Ratcliffe Highway reached here in the early hours of December 8th, Police Officer Charles Horton who was on duty at the time, ran up Old Gravel Lane (now Wapping Lane) and forced his way through the crowd that had gathered outside the draper’s shop. He searched the house systematically and, apart from the mysterious chisel on the counter, he found five pounds in Timothy Marr’s pocket, small change in the till and £152 in cash in a drawer in the bedroom – confirming this was no simple robbery.
In the bedroom, he also found the murder weapon, a maul or heavy iron mallet such as a ship’s carpenter would use. It was covered in wet blood with human hair sticking to it. At least two distinct pairs of footprints were discerned at the rear door, containing traces of blood and sawdust – the carpenters had been at work in the shop that day. A neighbour confirmed a rumbling in the house as “about ten or twelve men” were heard to rush out.
Primary responsibility for fighting crime in the parish of St George’s-in-the-East lay with the churchwardens who advertised a £50 reward for information, including the origin of the maul. The Metropolitan Police was only established in 1829 – in 1811 there was no police force at all as we would understand it and, as news of the mystery spread through newspaper reports, a disquiet grew so that people no longer felt the government was capable of keeping then safe in their own homes. Indicative of government concern at the national implications of the case, the Home Secretary offered a reward of £100.
Meanwhile a constant stream of sightseers passed through the Marr’s house, viewing the bodies laid out on their beds, and some left coins in a dish because Mr Marr had only left sufficient capital for his creditors to be paid nineteen shillings in the pound. The bill for the renovation of the shop was yet to settled.
Three days after the crime, on 10th December 1811, when the inquest was held at the Jolly Sailor public house just across the Highway from Marr’s shop, a vast crowd gathered outside rendering the wide Ratcliffe Highway impassable. Walter Salter, the surgeon who had examined the bodies, Margaret Jewell the servant, John Murray the neighbour and George Olney the watchman all told their stories. The jury gave a verdict of wilful murder.
For two centuries the Ratcliffe Highway had an evil reputation. Wapping was the place of execution for pirates, hanged on the Thames riverbank at low water mark until three tides had flowed over them. Slums spread across the marshy ground between the Highway and the Thames, creating the twisted street plan of Wapping that exists today. This unsavoury neighbourhood grew up around the docks to service the needs of sailors and relieve them as completely as possible of their returning pay. Now it seemed that these murders had confirmed everyone’s prejudices, superstitions and fears of the Highway – sometimes referred to as the Devil’s Highway.
Whoever was responsible for these terrible crimes was still abroad walking the streets.
Expect further reports over coming days as new developments in this case occur.
River Police Headquarters, Wapping New Stairs
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 email@example.com to sign up. Tickets are £10.
Thanks to the Bishopsgate Institute and Tower Hamlets Local History Archive for their assistance with my research.
You may like to read the first installment of this serial which runs throughout December