Tuesday 27 February 2018

The Man who would be Cheops Part Two; Thomas Willson and Port Elizabeth

Most accounts agree that the putative pyramid builder Thomas Willson was born circa 1780. For most of his life he seemed slightly unsure of his age, giving numbers that, worked backwards, give possible dates of birth sometime between 1779 and 1785. His place of birth is likewise uncertain, on the 1861 census he says is from Fulham, but in 1819 he told the colonial office it was Chelsea. We don’t know the name of his parents or their station in life or indeed anything else about his family background or his childhood. The first documented fact we have about him is that he won the Royal Academy Gold Medal for Architecture in 1801 for a projected National Museum for Painting and Sculpture. It seems reasonable to assume from this that he attended the Royal Academy as a student and he certainly continued to exhibit there; in  1804 it was a 'Design for an entrance front to the Bank of Ireland from Foster Place, Dublin'. We know he married Mary Ann Ince on 13 August 1808 at St Botolph Aldgate; according to the register he was a resident of the parish. The couple went on to have four children; Percy, who was born in 1809, Mary Ann in 1811, Douglas in 1813 and Thomas in 1815. By his own account the young husband and father worked as an architect and land surveyor in the Horse Guards office of the commander in chief of the British Army, the Duke of York and Albany, Prince Frederick (the second son of George III) but by 1819 he may have been out of work as Britain stepped down from being on a more or less permanent war footing with the French.

After the defeat of Napoleon and the demobilisation of thousands of military personnel, unemployment and political unrest became a serious problem in Britain. One of the proposed solutions was to encourage emigration to the colonies and in 1819 Parliament allocated £50,000 pounds to the establishment of a colony on the Eastern Section of the Cape of Good Hope. A plan was circulated offering potential settlers one hundred acres of free land in South Africa plus free passage and food whilst on the ship though a £10 deposit was also required “to provide security for any advances which the Cape Government might be compelled to make for protecting the settlers against starvation”. The Government encouraged the formation of settler parties, the deposit to be collected by the party leader but paid over to the colonial authorities. A presumably unemployed and desperate Thomas Willson was one of the people attracted by the idea of leading a settler party to South Africa. On the 19th July 1819 from the family home of Bridge Cottage, Chelsea Water Works, he wrote to his old superior Henry, Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, soliciting employment in Cape Colony; “As your Lordship on a former occasion did me the honor to express a desire to serve me, having devoted the early years of my Life under Government, and possessing Testimonials highly honourable to my Character and professional fame and presuming upon the means of taking out 100 families to the Cape of Good Hope, may I in such a case be distinguished with an appointment as Colonial Secretary, Surveyor or any other respectable office in your Lordships gift or recommendation?” No offer of employment was forthcoming however and in fact later on the Colonial Office sheepishly admitted that Willson’s application to lead a party had been accepted in error and that they had actually meant to endorse a rival application from the similarly named Edward Webb Wilson who had applied to emigrate with the influential backing of Sir John Kynaston Powell of Ellesmere, the member of Parliament for Shropshire.

Old Chelsea Water Works from the Thames, 1829
Willson’s party consisted of 307 persons, 102 able bodied men and their dependants. Jumping the gun somewhat Willson collected an initial £5 deposit from them before the Colonial Office confirmed the success of his application. He went to collect a further £10 from each of his settlers to pay the Government deposit, the initial £5 would be used, he said, to buy ‘necessary stores’. He also decided to levy a 5% surcharge on the total amount paid by his charges as a personal fee for his efforts on their behalf. From the outset some of the potential colonists recruited by Willson were suspicious of his methods and his motives. A James Phillips of 3 Tann Street, Aldersgate, wrote to the Government wishing to confirm Willson’s bona fides as “being desirous of avoiding the possibility of becoming a dupe to an artifice, I respectfully request to be informed if what he states is the fact, as the terms proposed by him are that £5 be paid the first week of the current month into his hands without any security for its proper appropriation, £5 in Octr & £5 the last week in the same month, which last sum is for the purchase of stores of him on landing at the colony.”

From Chelsea Willson fired off a salvo of correspondence during July and August to Lord Bathurst trying to clarify various details relating to return of the settler’s deposits once they were in South Africa. By October he issued a scheme for the governance of his party once they were settled in the Cape, his suggestion being that the ten individuals in the party with some pretensions to being gentlemen should form a 'Society', each contributing an equal amount of capital and five labourers, and constitute themselves a Committee of Management to oversee the building of houses and the cultivation of their land. In addition he proposed that every ten settlers should select a Director to represent them, who would assist Willson himself in 'the dispensation of benefits'. In the distribution of land to the members of his party he would be as generous as was consistent with 'the public good' and the preservation of his 'own individual rights as Lord of the Manor'. He was willing to give a written guarantee of his intention to grant land to any settler who was entitled to a share, and who would 'pay a stipulated sum towards a Fund of Indemnity' intended to go into his own pocket. This grandiose and rather confusing scheme aroused the resentment of his party and as a result never got off the ground.

Setting sail from Deptford, 1820
For some reason Willson left his 8 year old daughter Mary Ann in England with relatives whilst the rest of the family, including his two youngest sons who were just 6 and 4, joined the rest of the emigrating party in Deptford in early January 1820. There they all boarded the Belle Alliance for the voyage to the Cape only to find themselves miserably stuck in the ice bound Thames for over a month waiting for the unusually fierce winter frost to thaw. The ship finally struggled to the Kent Coast and set sail from the Downs on 12 February taking just under 3 months to reach Table Bay on 2 May. Willson immediately wrote to Lord Bathurst to let him of the party’s safe arrival:

We have made the passage (without   accident)  in eleven weeks from the Downs, and except in the cases of measles and small  pox which was brought on board  by some of the  settlers'  children, we have had excellent health, and it is my duty  to say that in general the Settlers  have  not only stated  themselves  to  be well satisfied but have expressed their gratitude for the excellent accommodation and  provisions which were furnished  for them  by your  Lordship's, direction, and I believe in so large and varied a party it would  be difficult  to  select  an  instance  wherein  greater  order  has  more generally  prevailed, with  the  exception  of  two  juvenile  thieves who, for example sake, I have found it necessary to have punished, but careful to avoid the character  of severity  on the  passage, not­withstanding  their  repeated depredations,  for the sake of example.

The 1820 settlers landing in Algoa Bay by Thomas Baines
Very few migrants on government transports in the 19th century felt that they were excellently accommodated and provisioned. Willson’s party may not have been as contented as he portrayed them to Lord Bathurst. Thomas Cock for one might have had something to say about the ‘excellent health’ apparently enjoyed by virtually everyone on board apart from his wife and three children, who all died during the passage. One the settlers with pretensions to being a gentleman, a Mr Wilmot, may also have taken issue with the statement having lost one of his servants. Two of the excellently accommodated and provisioned settlers demanded to be put ashore at Simon’s Town with their families and leave the party. On the final leg of the voyage to Algoa Bay Willson issued a circular to his party members demanding 'indemnification' for his efforts and expense on their behalf, claiming the sole right as 'Lord of the Manor' to hunt, fish and cut timber on the party's lands and to call on its members for labour. Almost the first thing the settlers did on disembarking at Algoa bay was to present a petition to Sir Rufane Donkin the acting governor of the colony asking him to intervene on their behalf with their leader. The governor called a meeting with Willson and his party and 'after explaining and exhorting, and deciding rather against Mr W', he believed that 'union was restored' and he despatched the squabbling settlers to their final destination on the Bush River.
Willson had ambitious plans for the new settlement. On the voyage out he had written to Lord Bathurst to explain his vision:

Taking  all things  into consideration  it  has occurred to me from the  great  influx  of population  in  the  district   I am  to  inhabit, foreseeing that  a number  of Artificers  and persons  of mechanical genius who have entered  themselves as farmers, will naturally  fall into their  former  occupations,  and   that   additional   towns  and villages  will  most  probably  grow out  of such  a  state  of things, I have suggested  a  plan for a Town which  can  be systematically and  progressively acted  upon: to express  its  origin  I have given it the name of Angloville, which name I have also inserted  in my printed forms for sub-grants; it will in the beginning simply  take the form  of a square, which with  your  Lordship's  permission,  in  token of my respect  and from a grateful  sense  of duty,  I must beg leave  to  call  Bathurst Square,  in  the  centre  of  which it  is proposed when  our  funds  will  admit  of  the  expence,  to erect  a Colossal Monument of  our  beloved  Sovereign  King  George the fourth, and as other  squares  and  streets  occur  in the  design, His majesty’s ministers  will not be omitted  in marking our gratitude for the  present epoch of our lives, with  the  natural  feeling and spirit we must ever have for our native and beloved Country.

Willson’s dream of Angloville with its colossal monument to George IV in Bathurst Square never materialised. Within a few days of arriving at the place that would eventually come to be known as Beaufort Vale, a terrified Willson had abandoned his settlers and returned to Cape Town because the ‘wretched minded classes’ amongst them had threatened to put a bullet in his head. The cause of the discord, the non return of the deposit money, was exacerbated by Willson’s high handed manner and by misinformation spread by colony officials. The settlers had been told, incorrectly, that the deposit money had already been returned to Willson and assuming that he was trying to cheat them, furious party members threatened him and his family. In 1823, two years after his return to England, Willson wrote to Lord Bathurst outlining the events that led to him abandoning his charges: 

The Donkin Memorial with the 1861 lighthouse in the background
I was to be reimbursed in Money on my arrival at the Cape! It was the money only that could afford me the means of protecting myself from the petty debts of numerous Individuals, whose chief aim was to incur debt, and to rob me: and the money was the only means of reimbursing myself for monies advanced, in anticipation of such repayment! This is a serious loss to me, my Lord, and a serious grievance entailed upon me by His Majesty’s Government. And, from the blunders of the Irish Commandant at Algoa Bay, who insisted upon it, and assured the Settlers that I had received the whole of my Deposit money, my family were assailed with midnight violence, and I was threatened with Assassination! Nothing but clamor and discord followed, and I had afterwards to contend against no fewer than Twenty-five Actions at Law! which I have been informed since my return, that these several actions were secretly advised and supported at the expence of General Donkin! and proof has been tendered to me to establish it as a truth! My Lord, I can scarcely credit the possibility that the Honorable General could be guilty of such duplicity! which would be no less cruel and wicked than it proved altogether futile, unnecessary, and derogatory to the Abettors. What, my Lord, can compensate me for  such unheard of persecution? I was previously threatened by the rude Hibernian with ruin, nothing but my ruin could satisfy his lust of authority, he pursued me with still greater barbarity, at the very hour that my poor wife (whose education and family connexion ought to have been her protection, she is the only sister of Mrs. George Cowell of Fitzroy Square, a Lady who I believe is not unknown to your Lordship), when she, unhappily, was in a perilous state of life, and death, for 24 hours, at that critical time did this unfeeling Officer threaten, in braggart terms, to toss both me, and my baggage, into the waggons which he had planted before my door, and threatened to send us into the Interior under a Military Escort.

Sir Rufane Donkin and his wife Elizabeth
Willson never returned to the settlement and his place as leader was taken by the party’s clergyman William Boardman. For the next two years Willson and his family were stuck at the new settlement at Algoa Bay, arguing, by long distance correspondence, with the Colonial Office, for a grant of freehold land that he felt was his due as leader of a group of colonists. During this time the ramshackle harbour settlement started to grow in much the same way as Willson had once probably imagined the growth of Angloville. The most important figure in the colony was Sir Rufane Donkin, the Quarter Master General of the British Army and acting Governor at the Cape, veteran of the Peninsular War, where he had served under the Duke of Wellington, and of the campaign against the Mahrattas in India under Hastings. It was in India that Donkin suffered a devastating personal tragedy, the death of his young wife Elizabeth. Feeling unable to continue with his responsibilities as a senior officer in the army Donkin requested and was granted extended sick leave at the Cape. Whilst there he recuperated sufficiently to be given the relatively light duties of supervising the nascent East Cape colony. Although she was buried in India Donkin decided Cape colony was the right place to commemorate his dead wife, firstly by naming the new coastal settlement Port Elizabeth in her honour and secondly by commissioning the building of a prominent memorial to her on the summit of the hill that overlooked the town. Captain Moresby of the Royal Navy welcomed the building of the Donkin cenotaph, a 10 metre high “pyramid, about to be erected as a private memorial, half-a-mile to the South-East of Fort Frederick” as an aid to navigation that “will stand conspicuous to ships approaching the land.” The pyramid, built of local stone and bearing an inscription to “one of the most perfect of human beings who has given her name to the town below”, was declared a national monument in 1938. In her 1994 book Port Elizabeth: A social chronicle to the end of 1945 Margaret Harradine mentions that “settler draughtsman Thomas Willson made drawings for a pyramid similar to that of Caius Cestius in Rome, and William Reed supplied the stone. The builders were soldiers from the Fort”.

The Donkin Memorial is Willson’s first recorded involvement with the design and construction of a pyramid. In fact it is his only known involvement with a finished building. Interestingly the design was based on the classical Cestius pyramid in Rome which was exactly the model chosen for the Metropolitan Sepulchre. As we shall see Willson’s sojourn in Africa had repercussions which lasted the rest of his life and he continued to refer to his adventure at the Cape as the source of the financial troubles that dogged him until the day he died. The only topic which seemed to obsess him more than Africa was the Pyramids and the proposal for the Metropolitan Sepulchre. But in his writings on the subject and the constant self publicity about it he never once mentioned the fact that he had been previously involved in the construction of a pyramid in South Africa. If he had played a significant role in the designing of the memorial surely he would have brought the subject up in later life? By the time Willson was making the proposal for the colossal pyramid on Primrose Hill Sir Rufane Donkin was also back in England, someone who would have known the true circumstances concerning the memorial overlooking Port Elizabeth. Perhaps Willson was, as Margaret Harradine says, purely the draughtsman but if so the production of the drawings were the seed which generated a lifelong obsession with the idea of pyramidal interment. 

Friday 16 February 2018

The Man who would be Cheops Part One; Thomas Willson and the Pyramid of Death

The Pyramid of Cheops (or the Great Pyramid of Giza as it is better known) in the ‘Description de l'Égypte’
One of the consequences of Napoleon’s invasion of the Ottoman Empire in 1798 was a wave of Egyptomania sweeping across Europe during the first two decades of the 19th century. Alongside his 40,000 troops Bonaparte took 167 savants with him to the land of the Pharaohs; engineers and artists, geologists, chemists, and mathematicians as well as philologists and antiquarians, who collectively formed the Institut d'Égypte, dedicated to studying the cradle of civilisation, Ancient Egypt.  Back in France, from 1809 until 1829, the Institut painstakingly produced and published under Napoleon’s patronage the nine folios of text and ten volumes of plates of the monumental ‘Description de l'Égypte’, fuelling the craze for all things Egyptian. In architecture the Egyptian revival look poised, for a while at least, to challenge the hegemony of neo-classicism. Gothic revival may have eventually became the prevailing taste of the Victorian age but the architecture of the Egyptian revival, with its fascination for mortuary culture, found its niche in the newly formed garden cemeteries of England’s major cities.  

Sir Frederick Trench's proposed pyramid to commemorate victory against Napoleon.  
Some of the greatest monuments of the Egyptian revival never made it beyond the planning stage. In 1815 a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, Sir Frederick William Trench MP, proposed building a pyramid to commemorate victory over the French.  His suggestion was for a 380 foot tall, 22 step ziggurat (one step for each year of the war and taller than St Paul’s) to be sited at the top end of Pall Mall where Trafalgar Square now stands. Sir Frederick’s pyramid scheme would, he calculated, provide employment for demobilised British troops for at least 10 years at a cost of just £1 million to the British taxpayer. No one took the proposal for a giant pyramid seriously and Sir Frederick eventually gave up on the idea, instead throwing his time and energy into pursuing a scheme to build a giant quay along the north bank of the Thames. But something about Pyramids appealed to the Zeitgeist and in the architect Thomas Willson’s proposal for the metropolitan sepulchre on Primrose Hill, a gigantic pyramid to be built to store up to five million corpses, it also happened to dovetail with the heated contemporary debate about what to do about London’s overcrowded and noxious churchyards. The 1828 edition of The London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, & Sciences dubbed Willson’s proposal the ‘pyramid of death’:

Another remarkable design is “the project of a pyramidal metropolitan sepulchre By Thomas Willson Architect. The edifice is to consist of brick work to be faced with square blocks of granite. The base of it would, according to the project, occupy an area of 40 acres (about as large as Russell Square) the length of the ground line being 1200 feet. The height of it is intended to be 1500 feet, (nearly four times the height of St Paul's). The projector has published a prospectus of the work, which will be found annexed to the painting exhibited in the gallery”. This monstrous piece of folly, the object of which is to have generations rotting in one vast pyramid of Death, instead of being quietly mingled with their parent earth and forgotten, is perhaps the most ridiculous of the schemes broached in our scheming age. The desire to accomplish that which every wise and philosophical mind must wish not to have accomplished is indeed worthy of a professor of that art or science Architecture, which is at so low an ebb in this country, as to stand at the bottom of the whole list.
Willson's blueprint for the Metropolitan Sepulchre
Willson’s proposal required no public funding; it was in fact ‘practical, economical and remunerative’ and would, he believed cost, £2,583,552 to build but make a profit of £10,764,800 once the sepulchre was completely filled (which he estimated would take about 125 years, at a rate of 40,000 interments a year). Freehold vaults, “which are to closed up and sealed for ever when interment lakes place, with stone tablets on the face, explanatory of name, place, age, &c.”, were to cost between £100 and £500, depending on the size and location, and there would be a steady income stream from vaults leased to the various parishes of London. The gigantic structure would hold 215,219 vaults on 94 stories, accessed by sloping ramps and hydraulic powered lifts and would cover 18 acres of Primrose Hill but hold as many bodies as a 1000 acre cemetery.   His clever design would, Willson wrote “go far towards completing the glory of London.” It isn’t clear if the 1500 foot height of the Metropolitan Sepulchre included the 200 feet elevation of Primrose Hill or not. Either way the brooding bulk of the Sepulchre, at almost 460 metres tall, would have dominated the London skyline; the obelisk at the summit of the pyramid would have been at twice the height of Canary Wharf and 250 metres higher than the Shard. Being almost as wide at the base at it was tall it would have hung over the capital like a manmade mountain, blocking out sunlight for long periods of the day to huge swathes of north London. One of the main concerns about the scheme was that the weight of the millions of tons of bricks and granite used would crush Primrose Hill.

Willson first proposed his scheme in 1824 when it caught the attention of barrister George Frederick Carden, the garden cemetery pioneer, who was beginning to take an interest in burial reform.  Carden was intrigued but not convinced and Willson was enrolled into the burgeoning burial reform movement.  He became one of the early members of Carden’s General Cemetery Company and attended the historic meetings held in the Freemason’s Tavern in June and July 1830, chaired by Andrew Spottiswoode MP. After Carden had opened the meeting by outlining his vision for a London garden cemetery along the lines of Père Lachaise, open to all denominations and all religions, Willson was the first person to respond. According to the Oxford Journal of 10 July 1830, “Mr. Wilson (sic) coincided generally in the sentiments expressed by the last speaker, but he did not think the plan of Pere-la-Chaise suitable for a general cemetery in this country. He had a plan by which he should be able to make 50 or 100 acres of land as available for the purpose of burial as 1,000 could be by any other method.” 

Perhaps spurred on by the momentum around the General Cemetery Company Willson published his plans in 1830 under the title “The Pyramid, a general metropolitan cemetery to be erected in the vicinity of Primrose Hill” including drawings of his proposed designs.  The publication attracted the attention of another notable figure in the burgeoning cemetery movement, John Claudius Loudon, whose correspondence with the Editor of the Morning Advertiser was published in the newspaper on 19 January 1830. As with other members of the cemetery movement, Loudon applauded Willson’s desire to abolish burials in churchyards but objected to the pyramid proposal “first, because I think the risk of mephitic exhalations would be greatly increased; secondly, because the expenses of burial of the poor would be greatly increased by such agglomeration of corruption; and, thirdly, and in this perhaps I am peculiar, because I hate the idea of interment in a vault, or in any way which prevents the body from speedily returning to its primitive elements, and becoming useful by entering into new combinations—vegetable, mineral, or even animal, in aquatic burial.” He also had an geometrical objection to the proposed form of the metropolitan sepulchre; “a pyramid recalls to me an age of darkness and superstition; and not being guilty of what Mr. Bentham calls, ancestor worship, and thinking that in this country there is by far too great a veneration for antiquity in things mental as well material, I prefer looking forward.” After encouraging Willson to “push his scheme as far it will go, by which, at least, public attention will be called to the subject,” he went on to make an alternative proposal, a garden cemetery, to be built on 500 acres of the cheapest land available within a 50 mile radius of London, somewhere like Bagshot Heath he suggests. That the dead be conveyed there by public hearse which “ought to leave London every other day, at a certain hour” though “a rail-road and steam loco-motive engine might in time be employed in this business, for poorer classes —and the rich, or those who ride when alive in private carriages, might bury by private hearses.” This sounds remarkably prescient of Brookwood Cemetery, which is a mere 6 or 7 miles from Bagshot Heath.

Laura Haines recreation of the Sepulchre as it would look on today's London skyline
Willson assiduously followed Loudon’s suggestion to ‘push his scheme as far as it would go’ as we will see later, but despite 30 years of unstinting effort on his part and the lure of the potential millions to be made in burial fees no one really took the Metropolitan Sepulchre proposal seriously. In time memory of the scheme survived only as a paragraph in scholarly histories of the burial reform movement and as footnotes in accounts of the architecture of the English Egyptian Revival. But in the last six or seven years interest in the ‘pyramid of death’ has revived and dozens of websites have given posting space to an account based very heavily on the London Literary Gazette article of 1828 and it frequently features in lists such as ‘The landmark buildings that never were’ (BBC News 24 Jul 2012) and ‘The TopTen: Unrealised and unfinished buildings’ (The Independent 09 May 2015). The graphic artist Laura Haines completed her project ‘Metropolitan Sepulchre: ACounterfactual History of London’ in 2016, imagining what Willson’s pyramid would be like today if it had actually been built; the answer, of course, is that it would be a tourist attraction.
Laura Haines again - this time recreating the Sepulchre during the blitz.
In 2012 Radio 4 broadcast ‘A Pyramid For Primrose Hill’, Jonathan Glancey’s look at the Metropolitan sepulchre, the Egyptian Revival and the cemetery movement (still available on BBC iplayer). One of Glancey’s  interviewees was Ralph Hyde former librarian of the Guildhall Library. As they leaf through a copy of Willson’s plans Glancey asks do we know much about Thomas Willson? “Not very much,” says Hyde, “he was born about 1780, and he went to the Royal Academy schools, and he was given some prizes, so he started off as a serious architect by the sound of it. He did various schemes for national monuments, victory monuments, but none of them seem to have been built. But in the 1820's he came up with this idea for a pyramid for London….” And there, in less than a hundred words, we have the sum total of virtually all the biographical data available on Willson. No one seemed to know anything about him; his pyramid may be one of London’s favourite unbuilt buildings but the man himself was a total mystery. I could not believe that anyone in the public eye for an outré proposition like the Metropolitan Sepulchre could really leave no trace in the records. There had to be something, somewhere. And so I started to work through birth, death and marriage records, census returns, newspaper archives and even the records of the Cape Colony in South Africa and eventually started to piece together a biographical outline of the man who would be Cheops. 

See also posts on Willson's adventures in South Africa in Part Two and his later years in Part Three  

Wednesday 7 February 2018

London's Malign Geometery; A Hawksmoor Tour (Part 3 Whitechapel to Limehouse)

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 Quincy) sent his serving girl Margaret Jewell out to buy him some oysters and to pay a bakers bill whilst he and his apprentice James Gowan 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. Margaret heard the Marr’s three month old baby crying as she rapped on the door but it quietened, presumably when Celia Marr picked up her son and comforted or fed him. 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 rear 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 light of his candle the shocked Murray could also see the body of Celia Marr, her head similarly staved in 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 passersby, led by the night watchman poured into the shop where they soon located the body of Timothy Marr. Someone yelled "What about the baby?" and the crowd pushed into the Marr’s bedroom where they found the baby still in its crib, its throat cut so deeply that the head was almost severed and the left hand side of the head battered with a blunt instrument.

The murder of the Marrs caused national outrage. A mass killing of this sort, taking place in the victims own home was unusual and terrified everyone. A hundred guinea reward was posted for information leading to the identification of the killer or killers. The only tangible clue the police had to go on was a maul, a heavy shipwright’s hammer that had been found at the scene of the crime clotted with blood and human hair and obviously one of the murder weapons. Then on the 19th December the murderer struck again, at the King’s Arms Tavern in New Gravel lane (now Glamis Road). A night watchman had been passing the public house in the small hours when he found a half naked man trying to climb down a rope of knotted sheets from the top storey of the building. The man turned out to be a lodger in the pub by the name of John Turner and he started yelling that there was murder being committed inside. The door of the cellar was quickly broken open and inside the bodies of the landlord, John Williamson, his wife Elizabeth and a barmaid Bridget Harrington were all discovered with their heads battered in and their throats cut, in the same manner as the Marrs. The Williamson’s 14 year old granddaughter survived – she slept through the attack and the murderer or murderers probably did not realise she was in the house.

Postmortem sketch of
John Williams
On the 21st December a seaman by the name of John Williams was arrested at the Pear Tree Inn after information was received from an anonymous source naming him as the murderer. He had been seen drinking at the Kings Arms on the night of the murder and there were other circumstantial details too which linked him to the crimes. He was remanded at Cold Bath Fields Prison to appear before the Shadwell magistrates to answer questions on his possible involvement in the shocking crimes. On the day of the hearing the magistrates were sat waiting in their packed court room when a messenger appeared from the prison – Williams had committed suicide, hanging himself in his cell. The magistrates went ahead and heard the testimony of the other witnesses in what now appeared to be an open and shut case. Their verdict, hotly disputed to this day, was that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. 

To appease public opinion and In lieu of a public execution the Home Secretary Sir Richard Ryder, accepting the conclusions of the Shadwell Magistrates that John Williams was solely responsible for the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, ordered that his body be publically paraded around the streets at the scenes of his crimes. Once the local residents were satisfied that the monster was indeed dead he was to be interred at a crossroads with a stake through his heart. The crossroads chosen were at the junction of Cable Street and Cannon Street Road, close by the Crown and Dolphin public house. The photograph above looks from the railway bridge on Cannon Street Road to the cross roads where Williams was buried with the Crown and Dolphin still standing on the corner and the tower of St Georges’-in-the-East showing above the roof tops of the houses.

On New Years Eve 1811 accompanied by the Thames Police and the Bow Street Mounted Patrol as well as local constables and watchman John Williams’ body was arranged on an open cart along with the maul, a chisel and a crowbar that he had used in committing his crimes and driven slowly through the streets of Wapping and Shadwell, stopping outside the Marr’s shop at 29 Ratcliffe Highway and the Kings Arms Tavern. 10,000 spectators lined the route and the normally unruly east end crowd was unusually subdued. When the procession reached the crossroads the grave had already been dug. The driver of the cart whipped Williams’ body three times in an unscripted act of revenge and then it was removed from the cart and placed on its knees in the open grave. A stake was placed at the point of his back judged to be above the heart and then driven through it with a mallet before the earth was piled over the corpse.

In 1902 gas mains were being laid in Cannon Street North and Cable Street. The labourers digging the trenches uncovered a skeleton with a wooden stake driven through the ribcage and adjourned to the Crown and Dolphin while their bosses debated what to do. They probably left carrying John Williams’ skull which rumour has it was then exchanged for a few pints when the landlord took an interest in it. Certainly by the time the authorities arrived to take Williams’ remains away the skeleton was headless and once the mains had been laid, the road repaved and official interest in the site had waned a skull purportedly belonging to John Williams’ went on prominent display in the saloon bar.

The Marrs, the first victims of the Ratcliffe Highway Murderer, were buried in the churchyard of Hawksmoor's St Georges'-in-the-East. A large headstone was set up which disappeared when all the headstones were cleared and lined up against the churchyard wall to allow the graveyard to be converted into a park. It was assumed the headstone was gone forever but the historian Sarah Wise (author of a trio of excellent books on London, including one on grave robbing in Bloomsbury) was rooting around some broken fragments of stone in the park when she came across pieces of the lost memorial.

The funeral of the Marr family, held at St George's in the East

There has been a flurry of activity centred around the Ratcliffe Highway Murders because of the 200th anniversary. On the 28th December there is a Highway Murder Walk starting at 3.00pm at St George's (just as it is getting dark - obviously for the atmosphere) and taking in all the key sites in an hour and a half stroll. There isn't that much to see - the Marrs' shop is now a SAAB dealership for example - but that is the nature of these East End walks. As there are few physical traces of the places the events happened you have to attune yourself to picking up on the non physical force fields that are still in place, the lines of energy that tell you that you are standing on the spot where the ghastly deeds happened. A £10 fee is payable and booking in advance recommended. Call me a philistine but I don't understand why anyone would pay a tenner to be shown a SAAB dealership that is perfectly easy to locate all by yourself. And if you want to hear the story or know more, PD James book 'The Maul & the Pear Tree' will give you a lot more for your ten quid then you will get out of a tour guide.  

Work started on Hawksmoor’s St George’s in the East in 1714 (on land acquired for £400) and was completed in 1729 (unexpected delays were caused by bad bricks, incompetent workmen and the theft of building materials ‘especially on Sundays’ according to one of the contractors). It is a large church, designed to seat 1230, and cost £18,557 3s 3d. At the time the church was built Shadwell was a rather prosperous suburb of maritime London – it was only much later that it became an East End slum district. In 1795 Daniel Lyson his ‘Environs of London’ described the area as built up ‘apart from a few grass fields’ in the north of the parish and the residents were “employed, for the most part, in rope-making, and the manufacture of other articles for the rigging of ships.” His list of burials in the church yard includes 14 ships captains, 2 Royal Navy Lieutenants, a pair of surgeons, a merchant, a sprinkling of Esquires and ‘John Abbott, Gent (1787).  In the late 1850’s the church became the scene of serious disturbances when the Low Church Bishop of London appointed a militant protestant clergyman as a Sunday afternoon  preacher in what was a church and congregation dominated by High Churchmen. According to a parliamentary report the congregation retaliated to the appointment by “hounds let loose in the aisles; hassocks thrown at the altar; boys and clergy kicked and tripped; boys supplied with peashooters and fireworks; a pew used as a privy; and a Protestant League which met every week to plan the next weeks assault.”

The church suffered a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in 1941 and was completely gutted. The shell stood empty for 20 years until it was restored in the early 1960’s. By then the parish had no requirement for such a large church so, in a very unusual arrangement, a new, smaller church was built inside the walls of the old.  Hawksmoor’s design is as idiosyncratic and eclectic as ever – the tower is topped by six copies of a Roman sacrificial altar. 

From Shadwell you can walk down the Commercial Road to Limehouse or you can take a slightly longer route which takes you down to and along the Thames. Canary Wharf, 1 Canada Square which can can be seen intermittently along your route from Bloomsbury to Shadwell is always in view once you reach the river side. Iain Sinclair would have made much of the Pyramid that tops the building if it had been built in 1975 when he was writing 'Lud Heat'. As it wasn't, other fevered imaginations have had to extract every last ounce of symbolic meaning from what is London's most prominent building......

“London still sees more than its share of buildings which seem to owe more to the occult than to strict practicality. Number One Canada Square, better known as Canary Wharf, is topped with a conspicuous pyramid with a flashing light at its apex. It could hardly be a more graphic embodiment of the familiar image of a pyramid topped by an eye, a symbol familiar from the back of the US dollar bill.

The architect of One Canada Square was Cesar Pelli, who is quoted as saying that the tower was intended to be a simple geometric form. “Of the four different roof shapes available from the World Financial Center, he chose the pyramid because he found it to be common in most cultures,” according to one source.

Pyramids are not exactly common in our culture – although Hawksmoor certainly added a few. The height of the Canary Wharf pyramid happens to be 130ft (40m), which some have suggested makes it an embodiment of the 13 steps of the Masonic pyramid.

“This is the clearest symbol yet. Screw the Washington Monument, I think I’ve found the biggest Obelisk and Eye of Horus yet. This has got to be down to the Masons,” writes one excited blogger as he demonstrates how the Canary Wharf complex can be mapped on to Masonic symbols. Of course, conspiracy theories do not need much of a launch pad, and others skilled in the art have managed to link Pelli to the Freemasons, the Skull & Bones Society, the Order of Death and much, much more…”
David Hambling in the Fortean Times

The foundations of Hawksmoor’s St Anne’s were laid in 1712 and the church was completed in 1724. For some reason however the building wasn’t consecrated until 1730. There is a Pyramid in the church yard which was originally meant to be placed at the top of the tower (see the photograph below).

The Limehouse pyramid by Guy Vaes
Daniel Lyson’s, in his ‘Environs of London’ (1795) said that the parish “contains about 150 acres of land not covered by buildings: of these about 10 are market-gardens; the remainder pasture, occupied by cowkeepers, whose stock of cattle amounts to about 180…. The principal manufactures in the place are Mrs. Turner's of sailclothes, and Mr. Hall's of pot-ashes. The late Charles Dingley, Esq. erected a saw-mill of his own invention, which still exists, but has not been employed for many years. There are three dock-yards in the parish used principally for repairs. A navigable canal communicating with the river Lee at Bromley joins the Thames in this parish. It was made about the year 1769, pursuant to an act of parliament, and is called the Limehouse-cut.” He notes the birth of triplets as a curiosity from the Parish Registry; "John, Thomas, and Eleanor, sons and daughter (at the same birth) of Thomas Carnell, fisherman, and Susanna his wife, baptized Nov. 21, 1739,” but then goes on to mention almost as an afterthought “they were all buried on the 7th of December.”  

This piece was originally written and published on Flickr in November/December 2011.