Tonight, at around midnight, will be the 200th anniversary of something particularly nasty which I’ve been living inside for ?a few years now. Either just before midnight on 7th December 1811, or just after midnight (so on 8th December), Timothy Marr, a sailor-turned-linen draper, and his young family were wiped out in an attack so bloody and so mysterious that it haunted the country for months and led (it could be argued) to the eventual establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force more than twenty years later.
I’m talking about the Ratcliffe Highway murders. These events formed the narrative engine for my first book, The English Monster, and tomorrow night I’ll be talking about them with a bunch of booksellers and critics in Wapping. I first read about the murders in Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper epic From Hell, but it wasn’t until I read The Maul and the Pear Tree?that I fully understood how awful the killings were, and how they resonated through the months and years that followed. That book was written by PD James and TA Critchley, a retired Metropolitan Police inspector, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of policing and investigation. As I read my way into the story, I became more and more interested in what kind of Monster could have done such awful things (more murders followed eleven days later), and imagining around that led to the book I wrote.
If you want to know more about the murders, Spitalfields Life are doing a truly excellent thing: a day-by-day dispatch of the events as they happened. They’ve even produced a fabulous map of the area in 1811, at the centre of which is another obsession of mine which figures in The English Monster: the London Dock, now the base for News International and some very ordinary 1980s housing. In other words, forgotten, but still there in the tracing of ancient walls and half-remembered waterways. If you can, go and have a wander yourself in the coming days, and imagine a community vivid with life but terrifyingly dark by night, the sounds of shipping in the dock an eerie counterpoint to the noise of steel on bone and skin. Tomorrow night, I’ll be taking a shivering (from the cold, but hopefully from the story, as well) group of literary types around the scene of one of London’s most brutal – if not the most brutal of all – slaughters.