Friday, December 9, 2011

Where the blood ran like water...

London is and always has been the murder capital of Great Britain. The wonderfully gruesome Murder Guide to London claims that more than half the country's most celebrated murders have taken place in the capital. Some are well-known, others less so. Then there are those murders which have become emblematic. One of which enjoyed its 200th anniversary this week.

The Ratcliffe Highway murders are part of London lore. In December 1811 the city was a brutal place, the east end and Wapping in particular, full of dark alleys and dark deeds, but the murders shocked even those numbed by daily doses of death. An entire family was found murdered in their shop by the highway, their throats cut, among them a three-month-old baby. But it wasn't the barbarism that shocked Londoners. It was the fact they had been killed in their home. Being attacked and killed while out and about was merely a hazard of life, but an Englishman's home has always been his castle, so the idea that you and your loved ones could be killed in the only place one felt safe sent a frisson of terror throughout the entire city.

This was before any organised police force, and a combination of Bow Street Runners and the Thames River Police were charged with finding a killer. Eight days later people's worst fears were realised. A publican, his wife and elderly servant were all slaughtered in their inn. The city went into full-blown panic. So did the police. On the flimsiest evidence, they arrested John Williams, who was said to have held a grudge against Timothy Marr, the head of the household in the first set of murders, though no explanation was offered as to why he killed a second family. Before anyone could find out, Williams hanged himself in Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell, though there are those who believe he was killed to silence him or imply a guilty conscience, and neatly tie up such a vexing case in time for Christmas.

That's the boring bit. Now the story turns truly gruesome. By killing himself by his own hand, Williams was seen to have cheated justice. So the authorities arranged for his body to be dragged through the streets on the back of a cart with the alleged murder weapons. It was hauled past the scenes of both murders, as 10,000 lined the streets to pay their last disrespects. Then, to confuse his restless soul, should it return, it was buried at a crossroads in a small hole, a stake driven through his heart, to further prevent any chances of his spirit coming back to haunt the area. Then the earth was filled in and life continued. As Thomas De Quincy write in 1827, 'And over him drives for ever the uproar of unresting London.'

The cross roads where Williams was buried, and the pub where his skull was kept. Courtesy of

Or it did for almost a century, when workmen digging a gas trench, found his 'mouldering remains', the stake still plunged through his chest. The bones were then shared out among the locals as gruesome relics, and the skull was given pride of place at a pub nearby, the Crown and Dolphin. The pub is still there, though the whereabouts of the skull is uncertain.

PD James, crime writing doyenne, wrote about the murders - or had an army of serfs carve her words in stone, or however she work works these days - and concluded that Williams wasn't guilty. It's difficult not to agree, given all the evidence was circumstantial and the case against Williams wouldn't even reach court today. Which all makes it one of London's oldest unsolved cases, as well as one of its most macabre.


Dan - Friday


  1. Did I tell you how much I loved the "Blood Detective?" London sure has a lot to offer the murder mystery lover.

    But my real question is, have you received your Christmas card yet from the London Chamber of Commerce?

  2. Thanks Jeff. London sure does.

    Though I'm not sure the good burghers at the LCC will be wanting me to direct folk to the scene of the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. It's disputable whether it's got any more desirable in the past 200 years.