Wednesday 11 June 2014

The Ratcliffe Highway Murders (1); The Marr family, St George in the east churchyard, James Gowen, the Baptist Burial Ground, Goodman Fields

A contemporary print of the Marr funeral cortege making its way to St George in the east.

Parish clerks rarely record anything but the bare essentials of name, age and address when making entries in the burial register. Whoever completed the register for James Gowen at the Baptist burial ground at Goodman’s Fields felt outraged enough to  break with professional tradition and note something of the general circumstances which led to the sudden death of the apprentice: “Dec 11 Master James Gowen, Aged 14 years, barbarously murdered on ye 8th December 1811 in ye house of Mr Timothy Marr, Mercer, Ratcliff Highway, when Mr Marr, Mrs Marr and an infant Boy of 14 weeks old were all four, most savagely Massacred.”   

Four days earlier, shortly before midnight on Saturday the 7th December 1811 Timothy Marr, a draper of 29 Ratcliffe Highway (a “public thoroughfare in the most chaotic quarter of eastern, or nautical, London,” according to Thomas de Quincey) sent his serving girl Margaret Jewell out to buy him some oysters and to pay a bakers bill whilst he and his apprentice James Gowen were shutting up the shop. Margaret’s errands were a waste of time – she couldn’t find any oysters for sale at that time of night and the bakers too were closed. When she returned back to the drapers the door of the shop was closed and the shutters down. She heard the Marr’s three month old baby crying as she rapped on the door but the noise suddenly stopped, leaving an ominously silent house Margaret thought, a minute or two later. No one answered Margaret’s increasingly frantic knocking. A passing drunk began to harass her and she had to quieten down until the parish night watch passed by at 1am. Even he couldn’t rouse the Marrs, even though his shouting and banging on the door woke all the neighbours, including John Murray a pawnbroker who lived and worked next door. He went to the back of his property and climbed over the wall into the Marr’s back yard. From here he was able to get into the shop where he almost tripped over the body of James Gowan who was lying on the floor with his head smashed to a bloody pulp and his throat gashed open. By the trembling light of his candle the shocked Murray could also see the body of Celia Marr, her skull similarly shattered and still leaking blood into a large pool on the floorboards. Murray ran to the front door and pulled it open yelling "Murder, murder. Come and see what murder is here!" The small crowd of neighbours and passers by, led by the night watchman poured into the shop where they soon located the battered body of Timothy Marr. Someone yelled "What about the baby?" and the crowd pushed into the Marr’s bedroom where the baby still lay in its crib, its throat cut so deeply that the head was almost severed and the left hand side of the head crushed with a blunt instrument.

On 10 December a coroner’s inquest was held on the first four victims of what came to be known as the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. As soon as the inquest was over James Gowen’s family took away his body and held his funeral next day at the dissenter’s burial ground in Goodman Fields. The Marr’s funeral was delayed for a further four days until Sunday the 15th December. Whilst James Gowen was interred quickly and quietly the Marr’s funeral became a major public event. From early Sunday morning spectators began to line the route between the Marr’s and St George in the east where a single grave had been dug in the churchyard to receive the three bodies. The Sunday morning service at the church was particularly well attended that day, with many more people cramming themselves in than the 1200 the church was built to accommodate. Once morning worship was over the vast majority of the congregation refused to budge from their pews, as they were now ringside seats for the afternoon funeral service. The church was so packed in fact that the funeral cortege experienced some difficulty getting in. There were two coffins, the first contained Timothy Marr, the second Mrs Marr and the baby, both were draped in velvet palls and were carried on foot by 6 pall bearers from the Ratcliffe Highway to the church. Behind the coffin walked the mourners in strict order of precedence, Mr Marr’s parents first as principal mourners, Mrs Marr’s mother and then her four sisters, Mr Marr’s brother and then other relatives of lesser degree and finally friends who would have included the traumatised Margaret Jewell. The service was read by the Reverend Farringdon and the crowded congregation behaved with utmost decorum according to the newspapers “though they could not refrain from the utterance of strong language in the universal prayer of vengeance of Heaven upon the heads of the unknown murderers.”

A large headstone was placed over the grave with the following inscription:   

Sacred to the memory of Mr Timothy Marr, aged twenty-four years,
also Mrs Celia Marr his wife, aged twenty-four years,
and their son Timothy Marr, aged three months,
all of whom were most inhumanely murdered in their dwelling house,
No. 29 Ratcliffe Highway, Dec.8, 1811

Stop, mortal, stop as you pass by,
And view the grave wherein doth lie
A Father, Mother and a Son,
Whose earthly course was shortly run.
For lo, all in one fateful hour,
O'er came were they with ruthless power;
And murdered in a cruel state -
Yea, far too horrid to relate!
They spared not one to tell the tale:
One for the other could not wail
The other's fate in anguish sighed:
Loving they lived, together died.
Reflect, O Reader, o'er their fate,
And turn from sin before too late;
Life is uncertain in this world.
Oft in a moment we are hurled
To endless bliss or endless pain;
So let not sin within you reign

Sarah Wise's photo of the Marr
gravestone fragment
The memorial was still standing in the churchyard in the early 1970’s when PD James was researching “The Maul and the Pear Tree,” her book on the murders,  despite most headstones having been cleared away and stacked against the churchyard walls. She specifically mentions the fact that it still stood and gives the impression that it was intact and undamaged, as well as providing details of the inscription. Twenty five years later the memorial seemed to have disappeared completely. While germinating her excellent book “The Italian Boy” in the mid 1990’s historian Sarah Wise found a couple of large fragments of headstone with a partial inscription which she immediately recognised as coming from the lost Marr memorial. According to Winston Ramsey the vicar put the remains of newly identified headstone into the church boiler room for safekeeping and that was the last anyone saw of it. Presumably it is still gathering dust in the basement and quite possibly, because St George’s has had at least three changes of clergy in the last 20 years, the new incumbent does not realise that it is even there.

St George in the east, from the churchyard

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