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Chapter 1. The Death Of A Linen Draper

December 7, 2021
by the gentle author

Late on 7th December 1811, on the site where this former car 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 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 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 when he was twenty-one. 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 recently he had employed a carpenter, Mr Pugh, to modernise the premises. 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 midnight, 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 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.

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 more reports from me upon the Ratcliffe Highway Murders as further incidents take place…

Timothy Marr’s shop

Click on Paul Bommer’s map of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders to explore further

I am indebted to PD James’ ‘The Peartree & The Maul’ which stands as the authoritative account of these events. Thanks are also due to the Bishopsgate Institute and Tower Hamlets Local History Archive.

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 7, 2021

    Oooooh – scary stuff! Looking forward to hearing whodunnit, the possible motive etc.

    Also interesting that the Ratcliffe has disappeared as a named district (it appears on older maps). I wonder if it was because of the association with the murders?

  2. December 7, 2021

    Great stuff! I can’t wait to read more. Thanks, dear G.A.

  3. Milo permalink
    December 7, 2021

    Well that certainly gave me the heebie-geebies. Glad they found the chisel though. It’s so annoying when ones tools go missing.

  4. Peter Hart permalink
    December 7, 2021

    What a story. Can’t wait for the more. Thanks GA.

  5. December 7, 2021

    Thank you Milo, a correct sense of keeping things in perspective ?

  6. December 7, 2021

    Great read but awful story. I look forward to reading more reports. Thanks.

  7. Jennifer Newbold permalink
    December 7, 2021

    Oh, this is tantalising! Something along the lines of a Christmas Eve ghost story without the ghosts…! (There aren’t ghosts, are there…?)

    And serialised, to boot! I can’t wait for the next instalment!

  8. Jo N permalink
    December 7, 2021

    I took to driving home down the Ratcliffe Highway – now just signed as The Highway – from my job at Sutton House, and I must admit its history was part of the fascination. Thanks for pointing out the sad locations – I know this spot exactly as it’s also marked by a speed camera.

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