Chapter 7. Three Wise Magistrates
At St Paul’s Shadwell, where the murdered Williamson family were interred at Christmas 1811.
On Christmas Day, the three Shadwell magistrates paid a call upon Mr Vermilloe, the landlord of The Pear Tree, residing in Newgate Gaol where the Old Bailey now stands. The mysterious package they carried was not a gift, it contained the iron bar used to murder Mr Williamson and the maul found at the scene of the Marrs’ murder. Mr Vermilloe confirmed both items as originating from the tool chest of John Peterson kept at The Pear Tree. However, Mr Vermilloe, who was imprisoned for debt, had his eye upon the reward money and this must cast a shadow upon his testimony.
It is unlikely that John Williams, the principal suspect, now residing at Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell, could have committed these crimes alone. Two men were seen running up towards the Ratcliffe Highway from the King’s Arms at the time the alarm of the murder was given. The shorter of the two was lagging behind and the taller man remonstrated “Come along Mahoney (or Hughie), come along.” Consequently, a suspicious Irishman by the name of Maloney had been arrested and another Irishman by the name of Driscoll, who had the misfortune to lodge near to the King’s Arms, was being held after a pair of his trousers were found to be blood-stained.
On Boxing Day, as the court convened in Shadwell, it began to sleet. Most likely based upon a tip-off from Vermilloe, John Williams’ room-mate John Richter was examined on account of a pair of his trousers that had been found hastily washed yet still stained with blood. Richter was questioned about his relationship to two Irish carpenters, Cornelius Hart and Jeremiah Fitzpatrick. Hart was the subcontractor who had worked for Mr Pugh and requested the chisel to create the new window for Mr Marr’s shop. He had been seen calling on Williams at The Pear Tree a few nights before the Marr’s murder but he denied it. Richter said he had seen Hart, Fitzpatrick and Williams together on the Sunday following the Marr’s murder.
After an adjournment, John Cuthperson, the other room-mate at The Pear Tree, revealed that on the morning after the murder of the Williamsons, he complained that a pair of his socks had been worn by someone else and caked in mud. It was John Williams who then took them into the yard and washed them.
At the end of the second day, the accumulation of statements had not clarified the picture at all. The magistrates were by no means certain that John Williams was their man and it became apparent that the case might unravel like string around a Christmas parcel. The strategy for the third day was to question Williams in relation to the stories of his confederates and see if he would betray himself, revealing guilt through inconsistency with the new testimonies. But just at the point that the judiciary were beginning to establish control of the case, all their speculations were about to be confounded for ever by something entirely unanticipated – an appalling event that would be revealed next morning.
We shall continue tomorrow, reporting upon the second day’s court proceedings in Shadwell.
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.
You may like to read the earlier installments of this serial which runs throughout December