Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Ratcliffe Highway Murders

Today is the 200th anniversary of a particularly grisly crime: the Ratcliffe Highway murders. In what was then one of the seediest dockland districts, draper Timothy Marr and his wife Celia, their baby son and their apprentice James Gowan were all found brutally murdered in their home. Only the family's maid survived, having been out trying to buy oysters. Less than a fortnight later, another family would be brutally killed.

The murders were never solved. When suspect John Williams hanged himself (or was hanged) in his cell, the case was officially closed but in fact it is unlikely he killed alone. He may not even have been involved at all. Nonetheless, he was paraded through the streets before being buried with a stake through his heart.

Rather than rehearse the facts in more depth, I'm happy to be able to suggest a rich assortment of further reading. The case was investigated by the Thames Police, who have a full account on their website. IanVisits has revisited the locations (now utterly changed) and also draws some modern parallels. For a map and more photos, see Londonist.

For more depth, there is a book-length account of the crime by PD James, The Maul and the Pear Tree. Alternatively, you can explore the scene yourself with a guided walk by Spitalfields Life on 28 December, or get a flavour of what the area was like in the reconstructed Sailortown at the Museum of London Docklands.

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