The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

In 1811, William James Tickell was recorded living at 136 Ratcliffe Highway in the East End of London. This is the story of a notorious series of murders that took place on the Highway that same year.

Ratcliffe Highway, also called Ratcliff Highway, ran from west to east through Wapping and Shadwell. To the south were docks where ships brought in goods such as tobacco, tea and sugar. Numerous sailors roamed the streets and took lodgings in the area. North of the highway was the church of St George-in-the-East (where several Tickells were christened) and Whitechapel.

In the 19th century, the highway was lined either side with small shops, pubs, tenement buildings and narrow, dark alleyways. At night, the area was rife with vice and crime. ‘Ratcliffe Highway‘ is a traditional song with lyrics containing a warning to any sailors who plan to go for a drink at an alehouse on Ratcliffe Highway.

In December 1811, a series of brutal murders took place in the Ratcliffe Highway area. Like everyone in the East End, William James and his family would have been caught up in the drama, which caused panic amongst the local population and made the news across the country.

Seven people were murdered altogether. Although a possible suspect was eventually apprehended, he hanged himself before he could be properly questioned, and the murders were never conclusively solved.

The first murders took place in a small house at 29 Ratcliffe Highway, Shadwell. Timothy Marr, a 24-year old draper and hosier, his wife, Celia, their 3-month old son, and their shop assistant, James Gowan, were all brutally killed. The bodies were discovered in the early hours of 8th December by a fifth member of the household, Margaret Jewell, along with a neighbour and the local night watchman.

There were no obvious suspects or motive. The only clues were a bloodstained maul ( a type of mallet) marked with the initials ‘IP’ or ‘JP’, which had been left at the scene of the crime, a chisel, and some bloody footprints. The custom at the time was for the bodies to be left at the scene of the crime and people from the neighbourhood traipsed in to look at them and to leave money for the funeral, which took place several days later. The image at the top of this post is a painting of the Marrs’ funeral.

The seaman’s maul used in the first murders

Various people were arrested for the murders but released due to lack of evidence. The case became a huge scandal and the local population were gripped with fear that the perpetrator could strike again. The government offered increasing rewards to help catch the murderer or murderers.

Twelve days after the first murders, on 19th December, the fears of the neighbourhood were realised. Another three people were killed in the King’s Arms public house at 81 New Gravel Lane, a little further along Ratcliffe Highway. The publican, John Williamson, his wife, Elizabeth, and a servant, Bridget Anna Harrington, were all murdered during the night in a similarly violent manner to the Marrs. There was no apparent link between the two households and the local people were terrified the murderer might strike again, perhaps killing a family at random. More rewards were offered and the murders made national news.

A few days later, a young man called John Williams was arrested on somewhat dubious evidence. He was a slightly shifty character, obviously well-educated but living as a poor seaman with a room at another public house called the Pear Tree Inn, in Wapping. He was rumoured to have held a grudge against Timothy Marr from a time when they were at sea together. There was also a circumstantial connection to the supposed owner of the mallet used in the first murders. Williams was arrested and confined to jail in Clerkenwell. A week later, on the day he was due in court, he was found hanging in his cell, having apparently taken his own life.

The Home Secretary ordered Williams’ body be paraded through the streets (a common practice at the time). His corpse was eventually buried at a junction of two roads with a stake driven through his heart, as was usual for suicides. His skull was placed behind the bar at the Crown & Dolphin pub on the corner, although it has since disappeared.

Parading John Williams body through the East End streets

Below is the first of three videos about the crimes with more details about the grisly murders and the inadequate police investigations. The videos are well narrated and include interesting maps, drawings and photographs (including the church of St George-in-the East). Unfortunately, you’ll have to skip past the annoying adverts and load the subsequent two videos after this one, but I think you’ll find it worthwhile as the story is very engaging and informative, especially if you had ancestors who lived in the East End.

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