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Epilogue To The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

January 5, 2022
by the gentle author

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In the months after the burial of John Williams at the crossroads in Shadwell on 31st December 1811, some further evidence came to light. A search of The Pear Tree revealed a jacket with a bloodied pocket, blood stained trousers abandoned in the privy and a bloody French knife hidden in a mouse-hole – the knife that could have been used to slit the victims’ throats. However none of these items could be incontrovertibly connected to John Williams.

Most interesting was the testimony of the Captain of the Roxburgh Castle upon which Williams and William Ablass had sailed together out of Rio de Janeiro. They were a very bad crew, with Ablass – a violent character among the very worst of them, imprisoned in Surinam for leading a mutiny. Ablass was held in chains on suspicion of being Williams’ accomplice to the Shadwell murders but released without sufficient evidence to charge him. The two men escaping up New Gravel Lane after the murder of the Williamsons were described as one short and one tall, but both Williams and Ablass were tall, which means if Williams was guilty then Ablass must be innocent, it was concluded. The converse deduction was not addressed.

In writing these episodes over the last month retelling the story of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, I am primarily indebted to the conscientious work of P.D.James and T.A. Critchley in their shrewdly written book The Maul and the Pear Tree published by Faber & Faber, which stands as the definitive account, and I strongly recommend it to all who wish to learn the fuller story. In 1811, the systematic approach to crime solving that we recognise today – of suspects, clues, motive and alibi – was simply not in existence. Yet P.D.James and T.A. Critchley succeed in organising the arbitrary random scraps of evidence that survive into a coherent picture on the lines of our modern approach, and creating an exciting narrative in the process. They suggest that John Williams himself could have been an eighth victim – despatched by the killers in a staged suicide to shut him up and prevent their detection. Though to my ears this sounds overly contrived, after studying this story, I understand that it is irresistible to speculate upon a mystery that remains one of the greatest unsolved crimes in our history. You must read the book and draw your own conclusion.

Both multiple murders were on commercial premises within a quarter mile of each other and there is sufficient evidence to confirm more than one culprit. Immediately, this excludes the notion of a random diabolic psycho-killer on the loose and instead suggests organised crime, a protection racket of intimidation – which is entirely credible in such a bad neighbourhood with a high proportion of transients and little policing.

It is likely that Mr Marr knew that the oyster shop and bakers would be shut when he sent Margaret Jewell, the servant girl, out on 7th December, because he needed privacy for whatever negotiation was to take place with his expected guests at midnight. And in doing so, Mr Marr saved the girl’s life. It is possible that Mr Marr took the chisel himself – when it went missing – to keep it as self-defence from persons unknown. This would explain its re-appearance on the night of the murder and why it was clean and untouched with blood. It is established that Mr Marr was in debt and sailed on the Dover Castle with Cornelius Hart, the carpenter who used the chisel to construct the new shop window and who was connected to the Pear Tree through John Williams. To me, there is the hint of a hidden narrative here weaving these characters together, and maybe of the resurgence of some old grievance from Mr Marr’s seafaring days.

Intimidation alone cannot account for the extremity of the violence, but it could if  the negotiation had turned bad and led to the killing of Mr Marr and his shop assistant, and then Mrs Marr too as witness. If there happened to be an unhinged individual with a violent murderous tendency among the group  – someone like William Ablass – that alone can explain the murder of the baby. In this context, the Williamsons’ subsequent murder may be comprehended as damage limitation, if somehow they had learnt the truth of the earlier killings.

It appears that a principal witness, Mrs Vermilloe, the landlady of the Pear Tree, had been intimidated or threatened and also that she was convinced of the innocence of John Williams. To me, John Williams’ suicide speaks of his expectation of the outcome of any trial, irrespective of whether he was guilty or innocent. He took his own life rather than live through the ordeal that he knew lay ahead.

This fascinating tale – of which we shall never know the truth – speaks of a Britain not so long ago when the metropolis grew rapidly and the first national media had come into existence but there was no police force yet. Nowadays, Mr Marr’s financial dealings and phone records could be scrutinised, and the maul analysed for fingerprints and DNA, and the Ratcliffe Highway (now known simply the Highway) has CCTV cameras installed.

It was the widespread public unease generated by this case, driven by the universal terror of killers in the night and encouraged by the press reports that turned the Ratcliffe Highway Murders into the first national crime sensation, which contributed directly to the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Such was the association with violence that the name of “Ratcliffe” was dropped from maps over time.

John Williams’ body was exhumed a hundred years later when a water main was installed in Cable St and his skull was kept for many years as a curiosity behind the bar in the public house at the crossroads. In recent years, The Crown & Dolphin has been converted to flats but I have not been able to discover what became of  the skull. Does anyone know?

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

5. Indescribable Panic

6. The Prime Suspect

7. Three Wise Magistrates

8. A Verdict

9. A Shallow Grave

5 Responses leave one →
  1. January 5, 2022

    It’s been ages since I’ve read anything of P.D. James, but I shall follow your recommendation and order the book today. Thank you for such an interesting (albeit gruesome) account. It seems impossible that the bloodied jacket, the knife in thej mouse hole were not found right away… But what seems obvious today may not have been so obvious then. Thank you again, and regards to Schrödinger.

  2. January 5, 2022

    In Ed Glinnert’s East End Chronicles page 70 he writes “In 1911, a hundred years after the murders, workmen laying a mains …accidentally dug up his corpse. One criminologist took Williams’s arm while the owner of the nearby Crown and Dolphin Public House kept the skull as a souvenir. When the skull was exhibited at the Three Bells pub it was stolen by the French Ocultist Mina Bergson, who was trying to create a golum…”

    Hope that helps

    Max

  3. paul loften permalink
    January 5, 2022

    Alas we will never be certain that John Williams was guilty of the crime . It’s very strange that the items of clothing and knife associated with the crimes should turn up in a privy in The Pear Tree so long afterwards. Surely a privy is a well frequented place and the perpetrator would have had to been carrying a change of clothes at the time and walked in there covered in blood. It looks as though they were disposed of later on .

  4. Ben Cater permalink
    January 5, 2022

    Thanks for telling this interesting story and thanks also for the epilogue which casts some light on what may have happened

  5. PaulineSparks permalink
    January 9, 2022

    Dear Gentle Author
    I was enthralled by your writing of this account and, as usual, sorry when it came to an end (but usually replaced by something equally interesting.)
    I thought you might like to glance at the case of Nicholas Steinberg , another unbelievable and gruesome murder. You can find most details on a site http://www.geriwalton.com. This murder took place in a home in Southampton Row but I will leave you to investigate.
    Nothing to do with it whatsoever but Grimaldi lived just around the corner at the time.
    My very best wishes to you for a happy New Year and perhaps this year I will be able to visit Spitalfields once more, regards Pauline Sparks

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