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Thursday, 11 August 2011

“…Four Killed and Forty Wounded was the Tally, and Indignation Raged….” Or: The Clerkenwell Prison Explosion of 1867:


On 12th December 1867, the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, banned all political demonstrations in London in an attempt to put a stop to the weekly meetings and marches that were being held in support of the Fenians. He anticipated a public backlash. The government silencing political protests in a country famed for its democracy? There would be outrage.

Little did he know that in less than twenty-four hours time, public opinion would be dramatically spun in his favour…

In his excellent book, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties’, Alfred Rosling Bennet remembers the incident:

“On the afternoon of December 13th I was on Threadneedle Street, near the Royal Exchange, about 4 o'clock, when a loud dull bang rose above the din of the traffic. Wayfarers paused and looked interrogatively at each other, but nobody proffered any explanation, not even the Royal Exchange beadles, wise as they looked and doubtlessly were. Later, the evening papers disclosed quite a modem gunpowder plot. With the object of freeing Fenian prisoners, a barrel of black gunpowder had been exploded against the wall of the Clerkenwell House of Detention in Corporation Row by two or three Irishmen, with the result that several inoffensive persons, including a little girl, had been killed and many injured. Further particulars disclosed considerable method in the murder. The barrel had been placed under cover on the end of a costemmonger's barrow and wheeled to the site just as the prisoners were known to be exercising in the yard adjacent to the street. The truck was turned across the pavement, tipped up and the cask rolled off against the prison. While two men took the barrow rapidly away, a third lighted a fuse on the barrel and likewise decamped. A big slice of the wall went down, but the warders were not demoralised and were able to prevent any escapes. Four killed and forty wounded was the tally, and indignation raged….”
"Fenian explosion at Clerkenwell Prison" By J. Wood

So, first of all, who, or what, is a ‘Fenian’?

The Fenians were members of the Fenian movement in Ireland. An organization dedicated to the establishment of an Irish Republic, independent of Britain. The Great Famine of Ireland, in 1845, had been almost apocalyptic for the country. Two million Irish men, women and children either emigrated or died, roughly 25% of the population, with many there believing that the British government could have helped, but chose not to, initially citing that Ireland had suffered famine before and survived, and should now have the necessary experience to help themselves. When this did not happen, and it became apparent that the famine was extremely serious, the government corn to Ireland – a country with virtually no mills in which to grind the corn to flour.
In Ireland, many believed that the government had deliberately stood by, and even secretly been happy that the famine had swept away a huge chunk of the Irish population, as it may go some way to solving the 'Irish Problem' (Ireland wanting to become independent) The Irish saw the actions of the government as a form of genocide, and certain people there decided that the only hope Ireland had for its future was a complete separation from Great Britain. If London was unwilling to grant this, then they would fight for it. These people formed a group in order to set about their independence, and came to be known as the Fenians.

So, the explosion at Clerkenwell Prison was the work of the Fenians. It was the most serious terrorist action by Irish Republicans in Britain in the entire 19th century, but why did they do it? In November of 1867, a senior Republican arms dealer to the Fenians, Richard O’Sulivan-Burke, was arrested. He had planned the prison van escape in Manchester a few months earlier, in which a police officer named Charles Brett was shot and killed as the police van containing Irish Republicans William Philip Allen, Michael Larkin, and Michael O'Brien was attacked by thirty to forty Fenians, in order to free the prisoners. O’Sulivan-Burke was consequently arrested, and sent to Clerkenwell Prison, London.

The Fenian threat as depicted by Punch

On the 13th of December 1867, the Fenians attempted to rescue O’Sullivan-Burke by blowing a hole in the prison wall whilst the inmates were taking exercise in the yard. The idea was that O’Sullivan-Burke would be able to escape through the hole and be carried to freedom. A poke in the eye for the British judicial system and government and a victory for the Fenian movement. The explosives were placed in a costermonger’s barrow and leaned up against the wall, the fuse was lit, and the plotters ran from the scene.

But the explosion did not go according to plan. True, a large section of the prison wall was blown away, but there were other casualties. The houses opposite, on what is now Corporation Row, but was then Corporation Lane, were rickety tenements housing the poor; some of these were destroyed in the blast, leaving families homeless. Twelve innocent members of the public were killed by the explosion and another fifty suffered injuries of varying natures.

The man charged with causing the explosion was twenty-seven year old Irish republican Michael Barrett. Months earlier he had been arrested in Glasgow for illegally discharging a firearm, but was subsequently freed.

His trial took place in April 1868 at the Old Bailey, in which a witnessed gave Barrett an alibi, testifying that the accused was in Scotland at the time of the explosion. The prosecution called their own witness, a Patrick Mullany, who told the court that Barrett had informed him that he triggered the explosion with an accomplice named Murphy. Despite a lack of corroboration and no further evidence or witnesses – along with the fact that Mullany had given false testimony to a court in the past – the jury (seemingly intent on seeing someone punished) found Barrett guilty of murder after two hours of deliberation.

After being found guilty, Barrett was asked if he had anything to say before his sentence was passed. He gave an emotional speech from the dock, which ended:

…I am far from denying, nor will the force of circumstances compel me to deny my love of my native land. I love my country and if it is murderous to love Ireland dearer than I love my life, then it is true, I am a murderer. If my life were ten times dearer than it is and if I could by any means, redress the wrongs of that persecuted land by the sacrifice of my life, I would willingly and gladly do so.”

The next day the Daily Telegraph reported that Barrett had:

“... delivered a most remarkable speech, criticising with great acuteness the evidence against him, protesting that he had been condemned on insufficient grounds, and eloquently asserting his innocence.”

He was hanged on Tuesday, May 26th, 1868, outside Newgate Prison before a “vast concourse of a crowd.” Indeed, two thousand people turned up to watch the hanging. They booed, jeered and sang ‘Rule Britannia’ as Barrett was hanged. His death was the last public execution to be witnessed in Britain.

Queen Victoria was outraged that only one man went to the gallows. She urged that in future, instead of being brought to trial, Irish Republican suspects should be lynched on the spot. This, however, did not happen.

On May 27, following the execution, Reynold’s News summed up the feeling of many people who believed Barrett had been made a scapegoat, saying:

Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”

Following the Clerkenwell explosion, security measures in London were increased Special constables were appointed to assist the police and show a greater presence of law on the streets. Scotland Yard set up a secret service department to gather intelligence on Fenian activity.

Alfred Rosling Bennet attempted to become a special constable in the wake of the bombings, but failed:

“A man named Barrett was executed the following May for this cruel outrage. He had been brought from Glasgow specially to fire the barrel. His was the last public hanging in London. Fenianism had been rampant throughout the year and it was deemed judicious, in view of the many deeds of violence – the famous attack on the police van at Salford and the murder of Sergeant Brett had been one of them – to swear in special constables in London. I was considered too young to be enrolled, but two friends of mine were accepted and duly provided with badges and batons.”

Despite making a number of arrests leading to Fenians being tried and convicted, Michael Barrett remains the only one to have been executed.
His body was buried in Newgate gaol for thirty five years until 1903, when the prison was torn down, and his remains exhumed and buried in the City of London Cemetery. A plaque marks his grave today.

As an addition, below is part of the article from The Times newspaper the day after Barrett’s execution, which gives a detailed description of the event:

The Execution of Barrett

The execution differed little from other similar exhibitions. On Monday the barriers were put up, and on Monday night a fringe of eager sightseers assembled, mostly sitting beneath the beams, but ready on a moment’s notice to rise and cling to the front places they had so long waited for. There were the usual cat-calls, comic choruses, dances, and even mock hymns, till towards 2 o’clock, when the gaiety inspired by alcohol faded away as the publichouses closed, and popular excitement was not revived till the blackened deal frame which forms the base of the scaffold was drawn out in the dawn, and placed in front of the door from which Barrett was to issue. Its arrival was accompanied with a great cheer, which at once woke up those who had been huddled in doorsteps and under barricades, and who joined in the general acclamation. The arrival of the scaffold did much to increase the interest, and through the dawn people began to flock in, the greater portion of the newcomers being young women and little children. Never were there more numerous than on this occasion, and blue velvet hats and huge white feathers lined the great beams which kept the mass from crushing each other in their eagerness to see a man put to death. 

The crowd was most unusually orderly, but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust. It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield—a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralizing even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.

With the first sound of the bells came a great hungry roar from the crowd outside, and a loud, continued shout of “Hats off,” till the whole dense, bareheaded mass stood white and ghastly-looking in the morning sun, and the pressure on the barriers increased so that the girls and women in the front ranks began to scream and struggle to get free. Amid such a scene as this, and before such a dense crowd of white faces, Barrett was executed. His clergyman came first. Barrett mounted the steps with the most perfect firmness. 


This may seem a stereotyped phrase, but it really means more than is generally imagined. To ascend a ladder with one’s arms and hands closely pinioned would be at all times difficult, but to climb a ladder to go to certain death might try the nerves of the boldest. Barrett walked up coolly and boldly. His face was as white as marble, but still he bore himself with firmness, and his demeanour was as far removed from bravado as from fear. We would not dwell on these details, but from the singular reception he met as he came out upon the scaffold. There was a partial burst of cheers, which was instantly accompanied by loud hisses, and so it remained for some seconds, till as the last moment approached the roars dwindled down to a dead silence. To neither cheers nor hisses did the culprit make the slightest recognition. He seemed only attentive to what the priest was saying to him, and to be engaged in fervent prayer. The hangman instantly put the cap over his face and the rope round his neck. Then Barrett turning spoke through his cap and asked for the rope to be altered, which the hangman did. In another moment Barrett was a dead man. After the bolt was drawn and the drop fell with the loud boom which always echoes from it, Barrett never moved. He died without a struggle. It is worthy of remark that a great cry rose from the crowd as the culprit fell—a cry which was neither an exclamation nor a scream, but it partook in its sound of both. With the fall of the drop the crowd began to disperse, but an immense mass waited till the time for cutting down came, and when 9 o’clock struck there were loud calls of “Come on, body snatcher!” “Take away the man you’ve killed!” &c. The hangman appeared and cut down the body amid such a storm of yells and execrations as has seldom been heard even from such a crowd. There was nothing more then to be seen, so the concourse broke up with its usual concomitants of assault and robbery.



The body on being taken down was placed in a shell and removed to an adjoining building in the presence of the Sheriffs and Under-Sheriffs, the Governor, the prison surgeon, and the Ordinary. There the rope having been removed from the neck, and the leathern straps by which the legs and arms had been pinioned, the surgeon certified that life was extinct. The expression of the face was marvellously serene and placid, and the features composed to a degree irreconcilable at first sight with the notion of a violent death, though the lips and parts of the forehead were unusually livid. Towards evening the body was buried in the accustomed place within the precincts of the prison, in a grave upwards of five feet deep, in the presence of the Governor and other officers of the gaol. Barrett was an Irishman by birth, about 27 years of age, of a thick-set, muscular figure, rather below the average height, and with a prepossessing countenance. He was unmarried, and by trade a stevedore. Neither before nor after his conviction did any relative call at the gaol to see him, and after sentence he was only, or chiefly, visited by the Rev. Mr. Hussey, who was with him a considerable time daily, and by his counsel and occasionally by one or other of the Sheriffs. His behaviour in prison was uniformly becoming, and he bore himself to the last with great fortitude, submitting himself at the same time with affectionate docility to the exhortations of his priest, and gratefully receiving the consolations of religion. He was never unduly buoyed up by the efforts made out of doors to reverse his sentence, but rather welcomed the repeated respites as affording him further time to prepare himself for the worst, should it come to that. 


He died without making any confession of the crime of which he was convicted, so far as any of the authorities are informed. What he may have said to his priest, if anything, in reference to the murders may never be divulged. All that is known is that he gave him “immense satisfaction,” to use that gentleman’s own expression, by his humble and penitent demeanour, his extraordinary fortitude, and by the earnestness with which he strove to prepare himself for his end. Yet there was this peculiarity about him, as observed more than once by one of the authorities in his visits to him after sentence—that he never absolutely denied his guilt. On those occasions, whenever he referred to the crime, he always said he had been convicted on insufficient evidence, and that he was not guilty of murder.
            - The Times, 27th May 1868


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