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Chapter 4. New Sanguinary Atrocities

December 19, 2011
by the gentle author

Late on the night of 19th December 1811, events were to take an even more remarkable turn. Mr Anderson, the Parish Constable, who lived in New Gravel Lane opposite the King’s Arms in Shadwell, decided to cross the road after closing time to get a top-up for his pint-pot from his good friend Mr Williamson, the landlord. As he opened his front door, he saw a nearly-naked man suspended in mid-air by sheets knotted together from a garret window of the pub opposite screaming, “Murder! Murder!” Mr Anderson grabbed his sword and staff from his house and emerged again just as John Turner, the lodger, dropped the last eight feet into the arms of the watchman Shadrick Newhall.

Mr Anderson prised open the pavement flap that led to the cellar of the King’s Arms. Inside, on the cellar steps, the landlord’s dead body was visible in the darkness, lying upside down with its legs splayed in the direction of the bar room above. An iron bar smothered in blood lay alongside the corpse, Mr Williamson’s throat was cut to the bone, his head was beaten in and his right leg fractured. He had put up a courageous fight, revealed by the hand dreadfully hacked up as if in his last moments he had clutched at the knife that finished him off. One thumb dangled loosely in the blood trickling down the staircase.

As Mr Andersen stood transfixed  at his discovery, a cry came from the crowd gathering in the street, “Where’s the old man?” Startled from his reverie, Andersen made his way up the stairs, stepping carefully over the body. On the ground floor, he found the corpses of Mrs Williamson and the servant girl, Bridget Harrington, both slaughtered with equal cruelty. In the darkness of the first floor bedroom, he came upon the Williamson’s grandchild, Kitty Stillwell, lying in her bed asleep and unharmed. Overcome with powerful mixed emotions, he carried the sleepy little girl from the house into the street.

As John Turner recovered himself, he explained that he had seen a tall man in a long Flushing coat standing over the body of Mrs Williamson, corresponding to a description of a man seen outside the King’s Arms that night. A window at the back which had been used for escape was left open with bloodstains on the sill. It was discovered that Mr Williamson’s watch was missing.

That night, the wardens of St Paul’s Shadwell gathered in the vestry in incredulous horror, realising that they were caught up in events so chillingly macabre as to be entirely beyond control of any mortal. No-one could say how many more murders were yet to come or predict where these disquieting events might lead. They did all they could, which was to issue a reward of one hundred guineas.

Earlier that day, a critical discovery had been made concerning the maul which had been used in the slaying of Timothy Marr and his family. Although a handbill had been published requesting information as to the origin of the maul, it was only now that the blood and hair were removed from the maul to reveal the owner’s intials I.P.

As the feast of Christmas came closer and innocent children lay sleepless in their beds listening for the tinkle of St Nicholas’ sleigh bells, all across London their parents lay awake in terror craning for any sound  that might presage the imminent invasion of unknown intruders with violent murderous intent.

Below you can see the site of the King’s Arms today. The building was swept away with the expansion of the London docks in the nineteenth century, now these walls that weave through Wapping are mere remnants of the docks that survived the bombing of World War II to be closed down in the late twentieth century, and behind this wall is a housing estate of recent date.

Reports will be posted as there is further news of these escalating occurrences.

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 spitalfieldslife@gmail.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 earlier installments of this serial which runs throughout December

Chapter 1, Two Hundred Years Ago Tonight …

Chapter 2. Horrid Murder

Chapter 3. The Burial of the Victims

5 Responses leave one →
  1. T Eakin permalink
    December 19, 2011

    Another great blog .
    I live in Belfast but read your posts every day. … brilliant stuff. Even inspired me to visit Spitalfields this summer on holiday – so you are developing a market for tourists! Has that ever happened in Spitalfields before?
    At this time of year, everybody should re-read your Christmas in the City walking story from last year. A real gem.
    Will you be out on the streets again this Christmas morning?
    Merry Christmas, keep up the good work and above all never stop blogging; what you are slowly producing is a priceless record of a forgotten section of our society.

  2. Ree permalink
    December 19, 2011

    Love this blog…Always interesting…One of the best things on the Net…

  3. Jill permalink
    December 19, 2011

    My ancestors were jewellers in Ratcliff Highway in the early 19th century so it’s been fascinating to read about the Highway Murders.

  4. CornishCockney permalink
    December 19, 2011

    Chillingly compulsive!

  5. Susan Omine permalink
    December 22, 2011

    Thanks so much for your blog. So well done.
    I’m a Chicago-based Anglophile, and love getting my email links.

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