The Highway: another London murder street

Photo courtesy of streatsoflondon.com

Another murder street but first, a small diversion. I am still struggling my way through the TV series ‘Whitechapel’ but it is living up (or down) to my fears that, like ‘Ripper Street’, it will degenerate from a police drama with some interesting history snippets into a kind of soap opera with policeman. (It hasn’t helped that one of the senior policemen was a serial killer in another series I watched recently so I keep expecting him to show his true colours.)

I see that the next episodes are centred around the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, which I know a bit more about than I did about the Kray brothers, who featured in the last few episodes. My mother was an avid reader of true crime so I read quite a few books on that subject while I was growing up.

And now, on to murder. The Highway in East London was once a Roman road that ran from London to the east and has been renamed twice: from Ratcliffe Highway to St George Street and now The Highway. The original name came from the nearby red cliffs.

Even by the early 19th century it was a centre of East End crime and largely inhabited by sailors and those catering to the seamen’s needs. According to Walter Thornbury in Old and New London, it was: “The Regent Street of London sailors, who, in many instances, never extend their walks in the metropolis beyond this semi-marine region.”

The early 19th century also saw the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, which pre-dated the activities of Jack the Ripper and caused the Wapping area as much error and confusion.

The first incident occurred on 7 December 1811 when a draper and respectable family man, Timothy Marr, sent his maid Margaret Jewell out to buy oysters. Upon her return, she was unable to get back into the shop upon her return and summoned help.

The house was finally broken into, revealing the bodies of Mr Marr and the shop boy downstairs, and Mrs Marr and their child upstairs. They had been murdered with a maul and a ripping chisel that were found on the floor of the shop.

Less than a week later the landlord of a nearby pub, his wife, and their maid were all found with fractured skulls and cut throats. There was a public outcry, rewards were offered by the government, and over 40 people were arrested for the crimes before the finger of suspicion for these murders pointed at John Williams, who was staying at the nearby Pear Tree Inn in Cinnamon Street.

A sketch of Williams’ corpse along with the murder implements. The sketch does not match the physical description of Williams.

Williams, an acquaintance of Timothy Marr, had been seen returning to his room late on the night of the second murders. He maintained his innocence but was sent, along with two other suspects, to Coldbath Fields Prison. There was a good deal of circumstantial evidence against him for the second murders but, before he could go to trial, Williams was found dead in his cell, having apparently hanged himself.

There are theories that he did not commit suicide but was murdered so the authorities would look no further and reassure an uneasy public that the murderer was no longer at large. The pre-trial hearings continued despite the death of the major suspect, and Williams was eventually deemed to be guilty of both murders, despite the fact that he had not been considered a suspect in the first killings.

Williams was buried with a stake through his heart; some years later, during the excavation of a gas company trench, a skeleton was unearthed with the remains of a wooden stake through its torso. The landlord of a nearby pub was reported to have taken the skull as a souvenir but the whereabouts of the grisly souvenir are unknown.

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