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The Maul and the Pear Tree Paperback – 1 Apr 2002
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One December night in 1811 an intruder entered the Marrs Draper store and murdered all the occupants including Timothy Marr the owner’s baby son. The only member of the household to survive was the servant Margaret Jewell who had been running an errand for oysters at just before midnight. Ratcliffe Highway was in the East End which led to the intersection between two other main roads. The area was watched by the night watchmen but he missed the entry of the intruder and help was only called when Margaret, having returned empty-handed, was locked out of her home.
This murder alone caused enough consternation between the locals, particularly as anyone with stained or torn clothes were arrested and seemingly just as quickly released by the complicated separate three police forces that had responsibility for the area. When another household were slain action and more importantly reform was called for.
The authors wrote this book in 1971 when interestingly T.A. Critchley, a Police Historian, name preceded that of the now much loved writer P.D. James. This book isn’t of the ilk of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, the writing coming across as much more scholarly in the more traditional format of the known facts being presented with the alternative solution to the murderer being presented in the latter part of the book. Despite extensive research it appears that not a lot of the facts survive although there are plenty of contemporary accounts as the murders fed the imagination of the population well outside the East End of London. In addition there were no detectives and those charged with enforcing the police were by all accounts open to bribes or pressure from those far more powerful than them. In order to proceed to the conclusion the reader needs to wade through quite a dense prose which isn’t written with the lightest of touches. There was a feeling that some points were overly emphasised in order to persuade the reader of their truth and to be honest I don’t believe there are enough facts to accurately surmise what happened that night.
What makes this book worthwhile is the social history that accompanies the dreadful facts. The authors do a fantastic job of describing this area of Wapping with its shipyards and shadowy streets where the shops and public houses opened well into the night. The boarding houses that were temporary homes for the sailors when they were on shore and the petty rivalries and jealousies that breed in such situations. The women who when making statements were perhaps carrying out their husband’s bidding were carrying out their pre-ordained roles, the fact that those who should have been depended upon in such an event were perhaps sleeping (or worse) while earning their pittance of a wage all played a part on those December nights.
So what did I make of the author’s conclusion? It seemed plausible based on the little known facts and I concur that the murderer probably wasn’t the man who was blamed for the crimes. But of course the lasting legacy was the recognition that England needed something a bit more substantial and accountable than those currently policing the country.
I’m glad I know more about this oft referenced crime, I now understand why it is still mentioned so frequently and as a bonus I finally have an idea where The Ratcliffe Highway is, why the maul was important, and what a maul is!!
The strength of the book is as an historical record of how primitive were the processes of detecting crime and the paucity of protection for people accused of a crime.
Reads like the best fiction but is, in fact wholly factual.
London is a rare city indeed to have 2 such landmark crime cases: the Ratcliffe Highway murders and the Ripper murders.
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