Stepney Murders  

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders

In 1811 several murders in two houses took place and became known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders. The bodies of the victims were buried at St George's in the East.

The victims of the first murders which took place at 29 Ratcliff Highway were Timothy Marr, a 24 year old linen draper and hosier, who had served the East India Company on the 'Dover Castle' from 1808 to 1811, his wife Celia and their son Timothy who had been born on 29 August 1811 and was only three and a half months old and James Gowan, a shop boy. Margaret Jewell, a servant of the Marrs was out at the time and escaped being killed.

At The Kings Arms in Old Gravel Lane (now Wapping Lane) the victims of the second murders were John Williamson, a publican, 56 years old, who had been at the Kings Arms, New Gravel Lane for 15 years, Elizabeth, his wife, aged 60 and Bridget Anna Harrington in her late 50's, a servant. Also living at the King's Arms at the time were Catherine (Kitty) Stillwell, 14 year old grand-daughter of the publican, John Williamson, and John Turner. Turner was a lodger and a Journeyman and when he discovered the murders and realised the murderer was still in the house leapt out of an upper window.

The area was in an uproar over the murders. Living, visiting nearby or working in the area were various people who gave evidence. John Hall, a baker; George Olney, a night watchman; at 29 John Murray, a pawnbroker. Living in Ratcliffe Highway were William Day, a Home Office Clerk; Skirven, a printer. Working at 29 Ratcliffe Highway were a Master carpenter named Pugh who was employing: a carpenter, Cornelius Hart; a joiner name Towler or Trotter; Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, a joiner.

Employed by Messrs Sims, Ropemakers of Sun Tavern Fields was one eyed Thomas Knight who had been born at Portsmouth; George Judd was a corporal in Lt. Col. Cooks company of the 2nd Batt. Coldstream Guards. Other involved were Richard Patch, (1770-1806) who owned property in Devon and worked for a West India merchant, Benjamin and Sarah Herring who had been convicted for coining, and John Turner a journeyman was employed by Scarlett & Cooke.

Lee was the landlord of the Black Horse in New Gravel Lane and one of his customers was Henry Johnson of St Pauls, Shadwell. Samuel Phillips was a customer of the Kings Arms and a lodger in New Gravel Lane was Sylvestor Driscoll, a married Irishman. Another resident in New Gravel Lane was George Fox, the Steward of the Universal Medical Institute.

There were various lodgers at the Pear Tree public house, Old Wapping. One of whom, John Williams alias Murphy, was Scots or Irish, 27 years old, a seaman and he was found to be the murderer. He had a grievance against Marr but this does not explain the murders at the King's Arms.

Other lodgers were John Peterson, a German sailor from Hamburg; John or Michael Cuthperson (or Colberg) another seaman; John Harrison a sailmaker on the 'Roxburgh Castle' and John Frederick Richter, a foreign seaman.

Michael Harrington, William Austin, William Emery, Patrick Neale, all Irish seamen on the ship 'Astel', were lodging with a Mr Smith at 25 Angel Court, St Martins Le Grand, (a lodging house).

Mrs Orr was the owner of a chandlers shop next door to the Pear Tree. Robert Lawrence was the landlord of The Ship and Royal Oak and John Cobbett, coal heaver, was a lodger there.

Margaret Relay was a prostitute from the Gravel Lane area. William Ablass, a seaman from Danzig and John Fitzpatrick were customers of the Ship and Royal Oak.

Robert Capper, from Hertfordshire, Edward Markland and George Story, were magistrates at the Public Office, Shadwell.

John Clement was the vestry clerk of the parish; Aaron Graham, 58, a Bow Street magistrate; E.W. Symons, the chief clerk to the Thames Police magistrates; Shadrick Newhall, a watchman for St Pauls, Shadwell and Thomas Barnes, the vestry clerk; Joseph Moser, a magistrate of Worship St Public Office, Spital Square, aged 63.

The murderer, John Williams, committed suicide by hanging himself the night before he was arrested and was buried with a stake through his heart at the junction of Commercial Rd and Cannon Street Rd.

(Bibliography: The Maul and the Pear Tree by P D James and T A Critchley, Strictly Murder by Tom Tullett, Inquest by S Ingleby Oddie and other books)

It is understood that a memorial to this family was erected at St George in the East church or churchyard.

In August 1886 The skeleton of John Williams (with a stake driven through it) was discovered during the excavation of a trench by a gas company. It was 6 feet below the surface of the road where Cannon Street and Cable Street cross at St George in the East.