John Williams and the Ratcliffe Highway Murders
First Draft Feb 2016
This page interleaves researched family tree information with speculation and background, so I have used red for speculation and black for what I believe to be authenticated facts about my family.
In December 1811 there occurred two horrible murders in Wapping, generally referred to as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. A lot has been written on the subject but I would mention particularly 'The Maul and the Pear Tree' by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley (which is currently in print and I am currently reading), and
'The Ratcliffe Highway Murders of December 1811' by PC Bob Jeffries of the Thames River Police Museum. I recently had the pleasure of visiting this excellent museum, where Bob talked about the murders as part of his presentation. The relevance of all this is that the alleged murderer was a sailor named John Williams! He was variously reported as being Scottish or Irish, but it seems
with little evidence.
I believe I have established that I have an ancestor with the right name, lived in the right area, came from a family with sailing connections, and was about the right age.
I do not intend to write my own version of the event because much has been said, but here is the short version ...
Two brutal murders took place in Shadwell in December 1811, leaving seven dead, including a baby. The forces of law were extremely disorganised, and the press and local populace became desperate for someone to blame. After several failed attempts the authorities arrested a John Williams, variously described as Irish or Scottish. Williams was found hanged in his cell on the morning of the trial, December 28th 1811 - job done and no questions asked. On New
Years Eve his body was paraded around the area
in front of huge crowds. Estimates of the numbers vary enourmously, but the authorities expected 10,000 and it seems likely that actual numbers may have been higher.
Because John Williams had committed suicide he could not be buried in hallowed ground. Until the ancient act of burial at crossroads was repealed in 1823 the law required that the body should be buried at night at a crossroads with a stake through the body. He was accordingly buried with a stake through his heart at the junction of the Ratcliffe Highway and Back Street (just North of Saint George in the East Church, now named Cable Street and Cannon Street Road E1 2QP). The origins of this law date back to the canon of King Edgar in the year 967. The aim was to dishonour the corpse, and there are two reasons commonly given for siting the burial at a crossroads; either that the crossroads was always busy, so the devil wouldn't be able to secretly take away his body, or when his soul left the body it wouldn't know which road to take. There are many reference to this practice on the internet, but my source is in 'Life, Death and the Law' by Norman St. John Stevas.
The corpse isn't at the crossroads now for reasons as mundane and yet bizarre as could be imagined, but I will leave
of the story for the reader to investigate!
There is plenty more to be found on internet search engines, but the two sources mentioned at the top of the page are amongst the best.
I will however attempt to spell out my family's connection - I doubt if there will ever be any definitive proof, but if they weren't involved they were almost certainly in the crowd silently watching John Williams' body being paraded around the town.
According to the baptism records of his son William my fifth great grandfather was William Williams, born 1714. His Parish Church was Poplar, and he appears in several places in the Parish register as 'William Williams of Poplar, lighterman', and married to Margaret. His first son was William Williams born 1739.
William Williams born 1739 appears in the baptism record of his son John as 'of Poplar'. His occupation is slightly unclear but looks like 'labourer'.
John Williams was the first-born son of William, born in December 1780. He was my great-great-great-geat uncle. I have so far found no reference to him other than his baptism. According to the records of the Ratcliffe Highway murders he should be Irish or Scottish, but the P.D. James book, which is generally very thorough, finds little or no first hand evidence for this.