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Chapter 2. Horrid Murder

December 10, 2021
by the gentle author

I am looking forward to welcoming readers to the BLOOMSBURY JAMBOREE this weekend, 11th & 12th December at Art Workers Guild, 6 Queens Sq, WC1N 3AT. My readings are sold out, but I shall be on hand each day and delighted to sign and inscribe books.

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


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.

You may like to read the first instalment of this serial which runs throughout December

1. The Death Of A Linen Draper

4 Responses leave one →
  1. Milo permalink
    December 10, 2021

    Curiouser and curiouser. To leave what would have been a goodly amount of dosh untouched. And the idea of holding an inquest down the pub seems so much more civilised than todays practise.

  2. John Price permalink
    December 10, 2021

    Wonderful stuff.

  3. December 10, 2021

    Impatiently waiting to hear more. The plot thickens.

  4. Saba permalink
    December 10, 2021

    Yes! The mystery during the holiday offers great fun for lovers of old England and of mysteries generally. I needed this during all the sentimentality, not to be confused with spirituality, during the holidays. So, thank you, GA.

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