Regency murders


P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

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 corpse 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.

Review first published May 2012. Reposted to mark five years of Calmgrove.
The Ratcliffe Highway murders provide a sharp contrast with the imaginary crimes that fascinate the young heroine of Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, and with the fright provided by the encounter with ‘trampers’ in Emma.
P D James also set her Pride and Prejudice sequel Death Comes to Pemberley in this period: Jane Austen’s original appeared in 1813

10 thoughts on “Regency murders

  1. I don’t think Catherine’s imagination ever managed to get to the depths of those murders! As for the policing and scapegoat-seeking, much the same is seen today in spite of our pride in modern methods.


    1. No, her imagination was fixed in some lurid past, not the realities of the present. And as for policing and scapegoat-seeking, human nature is not really going to change, for all our advances in technology, forensic science and psychological profiling.

      Do look out for my review of Northanger Abbey, which I hope to post very soon!


        1. Well, I enjoyed it, not least because I used to live not far from Bath and worked almost within sight of Blaise Castle. It wasn’t the Gothic parody I had been led to expect but was certainly the comedy of manners that Austen is famous for. So, were you jaundiced against it or in its favour…?


  2. Fascinating review of what sounds like a fascinating book. Reminds me of Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, her take on the Road Hill House murder of 1860, which apparently shocked the nation at the time, largely because the victim was the young son in a well to do couple.

    These killings must have been so alarming at the time, back in the days before there was any kind of organised police force or method of investigation. Poor John Williams. Sounds like a terrible miscarriage of justice.
    Great review, Chris.

    Have you read Death Comes to Pemberley? Only saw the BBC adaptation the other year, but I do fancy reading some PD James


    1. Yes, I have read Death Comes to Pemberley (review here: and thought the adaptation was pretty close to the book. I’ve got the Summerscale book on my TBR pile, though heaven knows when I’ll get round to it! I caught a couple of episodes in the BBC radio adaptation, but never completed it — no staying power, me!

      Anyway, glad you enjoyed the review, Lynn, it was a fascinating story, especially hearing about the gruesome end of the supposed murderer’s corpse. And there was still some doubt about Williams’ complicity as some incriminating evidence was found afterwards at his lodgings. Was he guilty, or was he framed?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Really interesting review of ‘Pemberley’ especially concerning the language and how you felt the styles of James and Austen gelled. Still intrigued to read it. These past crimes are fascinating – distant enough to be intellectual exercises as much as we realise they were horrific crimes. I don’t read real crime as a rule, but historical ones … tempted

        Liked by 1 person

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