Furtive & Festive | John Williams

Unwrap some more of Clerkenwell with these three seasonal secrets


The build-up to Christmas is so evocative in Clerkenwell. But, for centuries, there were some “residents” for whom it always lacked cheer, to say the least the inmates of the many prisons here.

For one of them, incarcerated at Coldbath Fields Prison (now Mount Pleasant) in 1811, it was full of scandal and nightmarish notoriety, and culminated in his untimely death on 28 December.

His name was John Williams, and he was the prime suspect in one of the most publicised murder cases of all time. In fact, it was one of the first to spark a media frenzy and grip the nation. Was he the Ratcliffe Highway serial killer?

To most people hew as – despite unreliable witnesses and inconclusive evidence. Detective work w as not up to much back then. And when the 27-year-old finally hanged himself in his cell, that was all the “proof” of his guilt everyone needed.

The Ratcliffe Highway murders took place over 12 days. On 7 December, draper Timothy Marr, his wife Celia, their baby son and their shop boy James were all killed in their house behind their linen shop on the Ratcliffe Highway (now The Highway, near Wapping). Their servant Margaret was the only one spared – she had been sent out to buy oysters at the time.

Then on 19 December, the publican of The King’s Arms in New Gravel Lane, now Garnet Street, was murdered, along with his wife and servant. His 14-year-old granddaughter Kitty, however, survived, having slept, undiscovered, throughout the attack.

The East End was known for being full of criminal activity but the seven murders shocked Britain because they took place not in the street but in people’s own homes. Williams’ body was dragged past the two scenes of crime in a cart and he was buried, with a stake driven through his heart, as was the custom for murderers at the time.

The tale has continued to survive and intrigue over the centuries. It is the subject of PD James’s book The Maul and the Pear Tree and provides inspiration for author and Clerkenwell historian Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. Books for your stocking this year?





Christopher Wren had many talents. When young, he invented an instrument for writing in the dark and a pneumatic machine. He loved maths and science. He was made professor of astronomy at Oxford University. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Society. Architecture was just an after-thought, really.

When much of medieval London was consumed by the Great Fire of 1666, he spotted an opportunity and came up with grand plans to rebuild it. These were rejected – the landowners objected – but that didn’t stop him from doing his bit on 51 churches across the city.

There are five within striding distance of Clerkenwell: St Andrew Holborn, off Holborn Circus; St Anne and St Agnes in Gresham Street; St Martin-within- Ludgate on Ludgate Hill; St Paul’s, naturally; and St Bride’s on Fleet Street.

For the latter, Wren took some persuasion. In 1671, the churchwardens tried bribing him with dinner in a local tavern but it was still another year before he signed up. And even when the church reopened – on 19 December, 1674, just in time for Christmas – it was missing one crucial element: a steeple.

Again, the churchwardens tried sweet-talking Wren into finishing his masterpiece. But the now-knighted architect kept them waiting 20 years more.

At least, when he did get round to it, he gave it his talented all. St Bride’s’ famous tiered steeple is Wren’s tallest, at 226 feet, and said to be the original inspiration for the wedding cake.

St Bride’s has been fundraising to restore the steeple. Visit www.stbrides.com





Clerkenwell does a good line in Christmas show. Eschewing the pantomime, it offers a much classier type of festive entertainment, in the form of the Matthew Bourne ballets that are put on most years at Sadler’s Wells. This year, it’s Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty.

If ballet isn’t your thing, however, and you actually like the ribald traditions of panto, you should remember Sadler’s Wells’ much more colourful, much less refined past (see Post, Issue 3). The theatre only really became known for its dance in the last 60 years or so, by which time it had come a very long way from its origins in late 16th century.

Topping the bill in 1699 was The Hibernian Cannibal. He would come on stage wearing a buffoon’s cap (who needs Widow Twankey?) and devour a large cockerel, feathers and all. He would wash it down with a pint of brandy while the audience cheered.

Later on, in the late 18th century, the stage shows apparently included two horses dancing a minuet, a singing duck and a pig who could tell the time.

Incidentally, it is Clerkenwell clown and Sadler’s’ star Joseph Grimaldi who is credited with creating the panto format we know today, with drag-act dames and audience participation. Oh, yes he is!

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