Violent crime — especially violent crimes perpetrated on innocent, law-abiding members of the middle-class – have long had a hold over the public imagination. There is fascination in the macabre and the horrific that compels us to examine it even as it repels us. We are like monkeys peeking at a snake under our tree; we want it to go away but we can’t NOT look.
The so-called “penny press” of the Georgian Era and the Regency seems to have fostered the taste for murder and other depravities in the reading public, but the availability of cheap print media merely fed a beast that was already there. What was once word of mouth or tavern ballads could now be transmitted in scandal sheets and newspapers. Even if the journalism was yellow, the blood was still red.
On Saturday 7th December 1811 at around 1130pm, Timothy Marr, the owner of a drapers shop at 29, Ratcliffe Highway, was preparing to close his business for the night. Inside the premises were four other people apart from himself: his wife Celia and their three and a half month old baby, also called Timothy, and two non-family members-their apprentice, James Gowan and Margaret Jewell, their serving girl … At about 1150 pm Timothy Marr dispatched Margaret Jewell on a double errand. She was first to go to a shop and purchase some oysters, a late night snack for the hard working owner of the drapery store and a treat for his young wife who was only slowly recovering from the birth of their only child. She was then to go to a nearby bakery at John Hill and pay an outstanding bill. Although the hour was late, this would not have been seen as unusual, businesses tended to remain open late into the night particularly on a Saturday which would have been the busiest trading day of the week. Jewell arrived at the oyster shop only to find it shut for the night. She returned to Marr’s store at approximately midnight and saw her master still working in the lights of the shop. She then went to the bakery, but again found it closed. Jewell decided to go to another shop in a final attempt to find some oysters but again, she found the shop closed and she eventually returned home empty handed arriving at the store at around twenty minutes past midnight. This time the building was in darkness and she rang the bell. When Jewell could not get any response from anyone inside she continued to ring the bell. As she rang the bell she could hear noises from inside the premises, she heard footsteps… she heard the baby give a low cry… …then she heard nothing more. Once again she tried to attract the attention of those inside, ringing the bell and kicking the door so vigorously that she received abuse from a passing drunk. Not wishing to attract any more unwanted attention she stopped trying to gain access at around half past midnight and waited outside, doubtless in a state of some confusion … Some thirty minutes later George Olney, the parish night watchman was calling the hour at 1am. Jewell explained her problem to him and Olney must have been suspicious. He had checked the shutters of the shop an hour earlier and had found them closed but unlocked. He had called to those inside that the shutters were still insecure and had heard a voice (which he failed to recognise) telling him that they were aware of that fact. Olney thought no more about the matter and continued on his round. Now, he too attempted to rouse those inside. His efforts alerted John Murray, a pawnbroker who was the Marr’s neighbour. Murray had heard some unusual noises at about midnight through the walls of the terrace where they lived….but had thought little of it. Now his suspicions were also aroused and he too decided to lend assistance. Murray went to the rear of the block in Pennington Street and approached the shop from the back. He found the back door open and entered the house calling out as he went. He stood outside the Marr’s bedroom door but decided not to enter. He went downstairs and there found the body of James Gowan, the apprentice. His skull had been smashed by repeated blows from a heavy object, his head reduced to a bloody pulp. Murray stood transfixed, completely petrified by fear. Then, by the dim light of his candle, he saw the body of Celia Marr. She was lying face down on the floor, blood still coming from her battered skull. At last Murray was able to open the front door and raise the alarm. “Murder, murder. Come and see what murder is here!” By now a small crowd had gathered and as light came into the shop the body of Timothy Marr was discovered. By now Margaret Jewell was screaming and everybody present must have been in severe shock at the sheer horror of the scene… Only then did someone shout “What about the baby?” They ran downstairs to the living quarters and there found the child, still in its cradle… … Its throat had been cut and its head had almost been severed from its body. Also, the baby’s head had been severely battered on its left side.
As you can imagine, all of London was horrified and disgusted by this slaughter. Even from the distance of two centuries, the idea that Margaret Jewell may have actually heard the baby cry out as it was beaten to death is enough to make you shudder. In the immediacy of the time it was bone-chillingly close to home.
Londoners had become hardened to the “criminal classes” offing each other in territorial disputes and drunken fights, but no one was blasé about this killing spree. This had been a tradesman’s family butchered in their own home. This was the deliberate murder of a woman, a young boy, and a small infant in its crib. This was terror beyond the terrible.
The news spread, if you will forgive the cliché, like wildfire through the popular media. Public sympathy for the victims was overwhelming. Masses of Londoners viewed the bodies (a grotesque form of respect to the modern mind) and thousands lined the streets to see the funeral procession.
Worse, a second crime of a like nature occurred a few days later … probably by the same monster that slew the Marrs and their apprentice: “the second set of murders occurred, at The King’s Arms, a tavern at 81 New Gravel Lane (now Garnet Street). The victims were John Williamson, the 56-year-old publican, who had run the tavern for 15 years, Elizabeth, his 60-year-old wife, and their servant, Bridget Anna Harrington, who was in her late 50s.”
Again, the murderer just missed being captured. A lodger in the tavern, John Turner, fled out of a second story window via knotted sheets to alert the neighbors that a murder was occurring.
Turner later testified that: “he had entered The King’s Arms at about 10:40 that night and had gone to his room on the upper floor. He had heard Mrs Williamson lock the door, then heard the front door bang open “hard” and Bridget shout, “We are all murdered!”. Williamson then exclaimed, “I am a dead man.” As he lay in bed listening, Turner heard several blows. He also heard someone walking about, but so quietly that he believed their shoes had no nails. (The shoeprint outside was made by a shoe with nails.) After a few minutes he left his bed and went to investigate. As he crept down the stairs, he heard three drawn-out sighs and saw that a door stood open, with a light shining on the other side. He peered in and caught a glimpse of a man he estimated was six feet tall, wearing a dark flushing coat, leaning over Mrs Williamson and going through her pockets. Turner saw only one man before going back up the stairs. Rather than become a victim as well, he then tied two sheets together in his bedroom and lowered himself out of the house.”
Several suspects were arrested and one, John Williams, was later determined to have been guilty after he committed suicide while imprisoned before trial. However, the description of the killer and the evidence do not provide strong evidence for the man’s actual guilt. Nonetheless, the public mind was largely put at ease by the idea that the fiend was no longer roaming London looking for victims and that was good enough for the Home Secretary, Richard Ryder, who wanted no more said of the matter.
Williams’s body was paraded through London, with a long pause in front of the Marrs’ house and The King’s Arms (I assume to shame the corpse and to let any ghosts know they were avenged and could rest now), before being buried at the crossroads of Cannon Street Road and Cable Street at St. George’s.
Burial at the crossroads was to ensure that if Williams’s unhallowed shade started wandering in the night it would have difficulty finding its way back to its former haunts (forgive me that pun, oh Lord). Moreover, they buried Williams facedown and with a stake through his torso to keep him in his unhappy resting place. In a final act of vengeance, the gravediggers made the hole too small for the body, so that Williams could never lay comfortably in his earthen bed.
Too bad that the real killer is more likely to have been William “Long Billy” Ablass, a sailor who had served with both Marr and Williams and who was a much better fit for the eye-witness description of the murderer. Ablass possibly committed the crimes with the aid of another former seaman, Cornelius Hart, who had done some work for Marr on the day of 7 December.
Like Jack the Ripper, the London killer that would make headlines in Queen Victoria’s day, the Ratcliffe Highway murders are doomed to go conclusively unsolved for perpetuity.