This year is the 200th anniversary of the Ratcliffe Highway murders, when seven people were killed in a gratuitous frenzy in the space of 12 days. But while 19th century Londoners would have recoiled at the mention of John Williams and his crimes, they probably mean little to the city’s present day inhabitants.
Likewise the scenes of the murders are vastly different to how they were in December 1811. At that time, Ratcliffe Highway ran east from Tower Hill through Wapping and Shadwell to Limehouse. To the south were the docks where ships brought in tobacco, tea and sugar (and sailors), while to the north was the church of St George’s-in-the-east, Cable street and Whitechapel.
In those days the highway was lined either side with shops, pubs, tenements and narrow, dark alleyways. The expansion of the docks and the blitz did their part to reshape the road and now it is known simply as ‘The Highway’. The cramped dwellings have been replaced with trees, small industrial units, grassland, a building site, and a warehouse dating from 1882, now converted into flats. To the south lies the fortress of News International, former home of the now-defunct News of the World.
The scene of the first murder was the home and business of linen draper Timothy Marr at number 29 on the south side. The numbering of the street has changed with the name but the road roughly opposite the location, Betts Street, remains. At the time of the publication of P.D. James’ book about the murders, Marr’s house had been replaced by a block of flats. It seems the site of Marr’s shop is now a Saab dealership.
The second murder scene, at which a husband and wife and their maid were battered to death 12 nights later, was at the King’s Arms pub at 81 New Gravel Lane. This road, which is further east down the Highway, is now called Garnet Street.
The King’s Arms would have been somewhere on the west side of Garnet street (pictured above, heading south). It was knocked down in the 1830s for the extension of London Dock. The dock wall remains today, but behind it you now find blocks of post-war flats.
Heading down Garnet Street takes you towards Wapping and the site of the Pear Tree lodging house which became the centre of the police investigation. It was there where a bloodied knife was found hidden in a closet. The carpenter’s maul used by the killer had also been previously kept there in a locker.
Pear Tree Alley, which was said to run off Cinammon Street, no longer exists but seems to have run parallel to what is now called Clegg Street. In the 1960s it was still a derelict bomb site but it is now the site of a small block of flats and a children’s playground.
There is however a ‘Pear Tree Lane’ which it is claimed was named after the pub, located to the east of St Paul’s Shadwell and the west of Glamis Road and the Shadwell Basin.
The final location to visit is the burial site of John Williams, who committed suicide before facing trial. He was dumped in a hole at the crossroads of Cannon Street Road and Back Lane (now Cable Street). His body was dug up again 100 years later by workmen installing new mains. According to legend the skull was kept by the owner of the Crown and Dolphin pub at the corner.