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Chapter 5. Indescribable Panic

December 22, 2021
by the gentle author

At Dove Cottage in Keswick, three hundred miles north of London, Robert Southey and Thomas de Quincey were reading the national newspapers with feverish excitement, as – like thousands of others – they followed every turn in the saga of the murders in Shadwell in December 1811. Southey declared  it a rare example of “a private event of that order which rose to the dignity of a national event.” De Quincey wrote “the panic was indescribable. One lady, my next neighbour, whom I personally knew, living at that moment, during the absence of her husband, with a few servants in a very solitary house, never rested until she had placed eighteen doors (so she told me, and indeed satisfied me by oracular proof), each secured by ponderous bolts, and bars, and chains, between her own bedroom and any intruder of human build.”

In London, the question was raised how John Turner, the lodger at the King’s Arms, could have seen the murderer and then abandoned the infant Kitty Stilwell to her fate in seeking his own escape from the building. But De Quincey, having read the newspaper reports, launched into a powerful imaginative identification with the lodger. In justification of leaving the child sleeping, De Quincey surmised that the lodger “felt sure that sure that the murderer would not be satisfied to kill the poor child whilst unconscious. This would be to defeat his whole purpose in murdering her at all – to be an epicure of murder.” A startling creative leap.

At the inquest, Turner explained in his own words, “I went to bed and had not been there above five minutes before I heard the front door being banged to: very hard. Immediately afterwards I heard the servant exclaim ‘We are all murdered’ or ‘shall be murdered’ two or three times, I cannot be exactly sure which of the expressions she made use of. I had not been asleep. I heard the sound of two or three blows, but with what weapon I cannot say. Shortly afterwards, I heard Mr Williamson cry out, ‘I’m a dead man.'”

Although he knew of the murders a week earlier, astoundingly, Turner unlocked his door and crept downstairs where he spied through a doorway upon the murderer in the dark rifling through the pockets of a victim. “I did not see his face, and I only saw that one person. I was fearful and I went upstairs as quick but as softly as I could. I thought first of getting under the bed, but was fearful I should be found. I then took the two sheets, tied them together, tied them to the bed post, opened the window and lowered myself down by the sheets.”

No-one knew where the murder or murderers would strike next. “Many of our readers” wrote Thomas Macaulay years later, “can remember the state of London just after the murders of Marr and Williamson – the terror which was on every face – the careful barring of doors – the providing of blunderbusses and watchmen’s rattles. We know of a shop keeper who on that occasion sold three hundred rattles in ten hours.”

Regular reports will be forthcoming here during the Christmas holidays.

Robert Southey

Thomas de Quincey

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


I am indebted to PD James’ ‘The Maul & The Peartree’ 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 earlier instalments of this serial which runs throughout December

1. The Death Of A Linen Draper

2. Horrid Murder

3. The Burial Of The Victims

4. New Sanguinary Atrocities

6 Responses leave one →
  1. December 22, 2021

    Such panic indeed!

    Query: Were the two poets staying at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage at the time? If so, Dove Cottage is in Grasmere, near Ambleside, then in the old county of Westmoreland, rather than Keswick, which was then in the old county of Cumberland. A mere twenty miles difference.

    Forgive my pendantry but being a woman of the North West, I can get a bit fussy about these things.

  2. December 22, 2021

    Impatiently waiting for further developments.

  3. Mary permalink
    December 22, 2021

    As grisly as they are, I am really enjoying these accounts.
    I am not sure I believe the lodger. Would someone in the process of being murdered really say “I am a dead man”, as he reports? I think counsel for the prosecution could make mincemeat out of him.
    You have us on the edge of our seats G.A.

  4. Lorraine permalink
    December 22, 2021

    Thoroughly enjoying this fascinating series of articles. This is my home turf – St George in the East my church – but I knew nothing about the case until now. Can you please tell me where I can lay my hands on a copy of the publication for which you show the cover in this episode 5 ‘full account of the horrid murders etc’ ? Thank you.

  5. December 23, 2021

    Brilliantly written can not wait for the next episode

  6. December 24, 2021

    I was intrigued to learn that some 16 years after Ratcliffe, Thomas DeQuincey published an essay, “On Murder As One of the Fine Arts”. The beginnings of ‘true crime’ armchair analysis rather than purely sensationalist accounts? Bravo for your fascinating posts, GA.

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