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The Fenians, the Metropolitan Police, and the Clerkenwell Explosion

In this Blog I am continuing the series of articles about the experiences and events that my great-great grandfather, George Clarke, encountered in his working life as a detective at Scotland Yard during the mid-Victorian period. Today, I describe something of the new challenges that Scotland Yard  faced between 1865 and 1868. A much fuller account of these and other relevant events can be found in my recent book 'The Chieftain'.

James Stephens, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1866. (Wikipedia)

From 1865-1868,  the small Metropolitan Police Detective Department at Scotland Yard was in the English front-line of trying to deal with a resurgence of Irish Republicanism that had started to spill over from Ireland into mainland Britain. The organisation principally responsible for this was a 'secret society', the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), established on St Patrick's Day 1858 in a Dublin timber yard by the revolutionary republican, James Stephens. By 1865, supporters of the Society, commonly known as 'Fenians', had spread their revolutionary philosophy well beyond Ireland, to other countries containing Irish emigrants (including the London area), and particularly to America.  Although the American Civil War interrupted the recruitment of supporters, by 1865 this war was ending. The detectives at Scotland Yard became involved in investigations on the Fenians from about this time.

Underpinned by financial support from the Fenian Brotherhood (FB; based in America),  the IRB had been plotting an armed rising in Ireland. By the end of 1866,  nothing substantive had happened and Stephens' colleagues became dissatisfied with his lack of progress towards delivering an Irish Rising and replaced him as leader with an Irish-American veteran of the American Civil War, Thomas Kelly .  In February 1867 there was a Fenian plan to raid Chester Castle and remove arms and ammunition and transport them via Holyhead to Ireland. However, this  was halted before it started, by an informer in the Fenian hierarchy. Nonetheless, on 5 March 1867, 'The Rising' finally started in Ireland, but also quickly fizzled out as the same informer  had leaked information which enabled several of the leading participants to be arrested before events got underway. However, amongst the organisers who managed to escape arrest were the Fenian leader Thomas Kelly, and the Fenian arms organiser, Ricard O'Sullivan Burke.

Colonel Thomas Kelly; succeeded James Stephens as leader of the IRB in  December 1866

On the 11  September 1867  the police in Manchester had a lucky break when Thomas Kelly was arrested with a Fenian accomplice, following a policeman's observation that the men were acting suspiciously.   All that good work was undone when, despite the presence of at least one Scotland Yard Detective in Manchester (George Clarke's boss, Superintendent Williamson), Kelly escaped during a successful rescue bid conducted by a large group of Fenians,  who intercepted the prison van carrying Kelly on his way back to prison from a court appearance.  Kelly was never recaptured, but on 20 November 1867, the Fenian arms organiser, Burke, was arrested in Woburn Square, Bloomsbury by one of George Clarke's colleagues, Inspector James Thomson, following information received from another informer.

Ricard O'Sullivan Burke, Fenian Arms Organiser

After the successful Fenian rescue of Kelly  in Manchester, it was perhaps not unreasonable to anticipate that a similar attempt could be made to free Ricard Burke.  After his arrest, Burke was being held in London at the Clerkenwell House of Detention. At midday on 11 December, the Home Office received a detailed tip-off from Ireland that a rescue was planned:

“The plan is to blow up the exercise walls by means of gunpowder – the hour between 3 and 4 p.m.; and the signal for ‘all right’, a white ball thrown up outside when he is at exercise”.(From Jenkins, B, (2008) The Fenian Problem 1858-1874 pp. 148-9).

After its receipt at the Home Office, the information was passed quickly to the Metropolitan Police. From that point there are some significant discrepancies in the historical record with regard to the steps taken by the police. Suffice it to say that whatever precise steps were taken, they were inadequate, and misdirected. In what appears to have been farcical incompetence, the police took too literally the phrase “to blow up” (contained in the warning message), suspecting that it was the intention of the Fenians to blow up the walls (from underground) using mines, whereas it materialised that their plans were instead “to blow down” the walls using a gunpowder bomb! As a consequence, there was an insufficient police presence outside the prison walls to prevent the forthcoming events.

On the afternoon of 12 December, a man was seen by one witness to wheel a gunpowder barrel to the prison wall, and light a fuse. A white rubber ball was thrown over the wall and was picked up by a curious warder who pocketed it. Meanwhile, having seen the ball, Burke retreated to a corner of the exercise yard to await the blast, which never came because the fuse fizzled out. The barrel was wheeled away again.  The following day, the bomb was set successfully, but arrangements had been made for Burke to exercise at a different time and he was not in the yard. At 3.45 p.m. on 13 December 1867 the explosion blew down a length of the prison wall and demolished the fronts of many houses and shops in Corporation Row. No prisoners escaped or died but at least six deaths occurred amongst members of the public, as a direct consequence of the explosion, and  six more died through indirectly-associated causes; about 120 individuals were wounded.  Historical accounts of the event rarely agree on the final details of the damage caused.

Clerkenwell, 13 December 1867; firing of the gunpowder barrel and the explosion (Illustrated Police News)

Not surprisingly, criticism of the police came thick and fast, with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Richard Mayne and the detectives, in particular, being in the sights of the critics. Nonetheless, it was left to the Metropolitan Police to pick up the pieces from Clerkenwell and to trace those responsible for the explosion.

Immediately after the explosion had occurred, three people seen loitering near the Clerkenwell House of Detention were arrested.  These were Anne Justice, Jeremiah Allen and Timothy Desmond. Justice had been visiting the prison that day; Desmond came from an Irish community suspected of having strong Fenian connections, and Allen claimed to be working for the police. On 20 December, at Bow Street police court, a self-confessed Fenian, James Vaughan, implicated himself and gave evidence which implicated four others, Nicholas English, Patrick Mullany, William Desmond, and John O’Keefe, in the planning and execution of the bombing.

In January 1868, Patrick Mullany decided to volunteer information to the police to save his own skin. The information he gave was damaging to his co-conspirators, but Mullany also added a new name to the list of suspects; that of a man from Glasgow, calling himself Jackson, but whose real name was Barrett. According to Mullany it was Barrett who had set off the explosion. By coincidence, a man named Willy Jackson had been arrested in a Glasgow street in mid-January following the discharge of a firearm, and was still being held by the Glasgow police, who had regarded him with sufficient suspicion to inform Scotland Yard. Superintendent Williamson, head of the Scotland Yard Detective Department, with several others (probably including George Clarke) travelled to Glasgow and returned with Jackson, who was subsequently identified as Michael Barrett. Individuals who had known Barrett before in London, commented that he had changed his appearance between December 1867 and January 1868, by shaving off his whiskers, and some witnesses appeared to have difficulty in identifying him as a consequence.  Of course, the police had a very limited armoury of forensic techniques available at that time, and facial recognition was vitally important. This created problems for the police who were seeking witnesses able to place Barrett in London in December, and at the scene of the bombing at Clerkenwell. From the limited information of George Clarke’s involvement with the Clerkenwell enquiries, it appears that he helped to assemble identification evidence, as he is known to have interviewed at least one witness (Thomas Kensley) who later gave evidence in court of Barrett’s identity.

When the time had come for the Old Bailey trial of those arrested for the Clerkenwell Explosion, those in the dock on 20 April 1868, charged with the wilful murder of Sarah Ann Hodgkinson (one of the victims of the Clerkenwell explosion), were Anne Justice, Timothy Desmond, William Desmond, Nicholas English, John O’Keefe, and Michael Barrett, all of whom pleaded “not guilty”. Of those previously remanded, Mullany and Vaughan had turned “Queen’s Evidence” and appeared as witnesses for the prosecution. George Clarke was not called to give evidence and had been sent by Mayne to Cheshire to investigate a suspicious death.

'Fenian Guy Fawkes'. Punch magazine's perspective on the Fenian threat, December 1867.

The Clerkenwell Explosion trial lasted seven days and in view of the nature of the crime, and the subsequent public outrage it had created, was closely watched by politicians and public alike. Montagu Williams, who was defence counsel for Anne Justice, has left some first-hand recollections of events during the seven days at the Old Bailey (see Williams, M. (1890) Leaves of a Life; Vol 1 pages 182-203):

“To judge by the appearance of the prisoners, the Fenian movement must have been at a somewhat low ebb at that time.  With the exception of Barrett, the accused seemed to be in a state of extreme poverty….[Barrett was] a square-built fellow, scarcely five feet eight in height, and dressed like a well-to-do farmer….A less murderous countenance than Barrett’s,  indeed I do not remember to have seen….The only time I saw Barrett’s face change was during the examination of the informers, and the look of disgust, scorn and hatred that he turned on these two miserable creatures was a thing to be remembered.”

Victorian barrister, Montagu Williams: defence counsel for Anne Justice

Anne Justice was discharged on 23 April, when Lord Chief Justice Cockburn adjudged that the evidence against her was too slight to be sent to the jury and the prosecution case was also abandoned on the following day against O’Keefe, who was likewise discharged.  As his female client left the dock, Montagu Williams recalled: “She turned round to where Barrett was sitting, seized him by the hand, and with two large tears rolling down her cheeks, kissed him very gently on the forehead.  Then she hurried away.  This was not a very judicious proceeding perhaps – but how like a woman”.

On 27 April, the jury members retired, taking two and a half hours to reach their verdict, a relatively long time for Victorian juries. On their return, the Desmonds and English were declared ‘not guilty’, and Barrett ‘guilty’. Before sentencing, Barrett requested, and was granted, the opportunity to say a few words. He saved his strongest words for the police.  Referring to evidence given by a young witness, Thomas Wheeler, that it was Barrett who had lit the fuse of the bomb, Barrett stated that the witness had been intimidated by the police and that a ‘positive’ identification had been made only when: “a wretch wearing the uniform [of a police officer] brought the boy back and held him by the shoulder until he was compelled to admit that he knew me”. (Jenkins, (2008) loc.cit. pp. 179-208).

The police who had transported him from Glasgow to London, were also targets for his criticism: “I was hurried off to London where they knew I was alone and in their power.  Their nervous haste, indeed has subjected me to the most flagrant injustice. I do not allude to the higher authorities in Glasgow, but I do to the mean, low, petty, truckling creatures who hang about police courts and who would not hesitate to have recourse to the most vile and heinous practices to benefit themselves, or even to gain a smile of approval from their superiors.  They will now congratulate themselves on the success of their schemes”.(Jenkins loc. cit.pp. 179-208)

Finally, and anticipating the inevitable death sentence, he said “I will now seek that other land, where I trust to obtain justice”. Barrett’s ‘few words’, had lasted some 30 minutes and made a profound impression on those present including Williams, who later wrote that “I think I can safely say that there was not a dry eye in the court”. Needless to say, as only one of the six initially accused had been found guilty, the mood of the politicians, the press and the public was also to blame the police, though from a different perspective than Barrett. It was not a good time to be a policeman.

Despite a review of his case by the Home Office, Barrett was finally executed by hanging outside Newgate prison on 26 May 1868.  He was the last person in Britain to be executed in public. By then, the Fenian Conspiracy had essentially ebbed away; senior Fenians were either in prison, had fled into exile in France or America, or had simply had enough. One suspects that the Detective Department at Scotland Yard were mightily relieved. Between 1865 and 1868 they had taken on board nationwide information-gathering and surveillance operations of a nature, and on a scale, that they had never encountered before. At the same time they had to sustain a detective capacity to deal with more routine criminal cases, both in London, and when called upon, in the provinces.  It should not be forgotten that there were only 10 detectives at Scotland Yard (until late November 1867 when numbers were increased to 14). Criticism of  Commissioner Mayne is appropriate for his handling of some aspects of the Fenian Conspiracy, and particularly the Clerkenwell Explosion. However, it should not be forgotten that the Metropolitan Police was accountable to Government through the Home Office, and Mayne was poorly-served by his political masters.  If the Government wanted a different approach from the Police, politicians should have done more to help them deliver it.