I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.
Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight. Various locals were arrested and questioned at length until, in desperation, a certain John Williams was identified as the prime suspect. He appeared to commit suicide while in custody, and though he was neither accused in open court, let along judged guilty of the crimes, in the dying days of 1811 his body was paraded through East End streets before being buried at a crossroads with a stake to pin it in place.
Even at the time it was not universally accepted that Williams was the murderer or had even acted on his own. 160 years afterwards two colleagues at the Home Office, Dr Thomas Critchley and P D James (who had by then begun her crime-writing career), undertook a review of contemporary documents related to the murders and concluded that not only was Williams framed but may have even been murdered while in custody by one or two of the original perpetrators of the crimes. The authors’ review was as forensic as was possible given the passage of time, the wholescale loss of much of the contemporary landscape and the lack of any material evidence; and yet their careful presentation, unsensational analysis and dispassionate discussion of what documentary evidence there remained allowed the careful reader to form their own impressions and guesses before the authors suggested their own conclusions. It is a fascinating and vivid read, though it requires close attention to events and details (the cast list alone numbers nearly eighty persons). It throws a bright light not only on the inadequacies of policing in Regency England (one of Critchley’s areas of interest at the time) but also the lack of political will to reform; even the assassination of Spencer Percival, the Prime Minister, in 1812 was not a sufficient wake-up call to prompt a re-think.
This recent edition includes a new introduction by James and her tribute to the late Critchley, with a fine cover illustration in imitation of a contemporary engraving. A little problem with this paperback is that a key thoroughfare is obscured on the two-page map showing the localities which would only be revealed by breaking the spine; but these days just a little internet research easily provides the missing details. And, in deference to James’ deserved popularity, her name now appears over Critchley’s.