‘Violence only creates victims, that’s all it ever has done’: the aftermath of the ‘Clerkenwell outrage’ of 1867

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At about a quarter to four in the afternoon of Friday 13 December 1867 a bomb went off in London. A barrel of gunpowder, hidden under tarpaulin, positioned next to the wall of Clerkenwell house of detention , exploded blowing a large hole in the prison wall. The bomb also destroyed a row of houses opposite killing a dozen of more occupants, sending at least one mad, and precipitating the premature births of up to 40 babies, half of whom subsequently died. In all at least a further 120 people were injured by the blast, and 15 were disabled for life.1

The incident, which was known by contemporaries as the ‘Clerkenwell Outrage’ is often considered the first serious act in the Irish Republican war against the British state. The bombers’ intention was to affect a prison break – rescuing comrades that had been captured in London earlier that year. In that respect they failed and six people were eventually put on trial for the ‘outrage’, charged with murder. On 26 May 1868 Michael Barrett was executed, the last man to be publically hanged in England, even though there was considerable doubt as to his guilt.

The problem the authorities had was in finding reliable witnesses who would testify. They had someone who turned Queen’s evidence (in other words agreed to inform on his colleagues in return for his own life) but doubts were raised as to the reliability of testimony secured in that way. The wife of Charles Page had given evidence in court in April 1868 and what happened in the days following the trial give us a sense of the difficulties the police and prosecution had in convicting those responsible for the bombing.

Charles Page was locking up his pawnbroker’s shop at 1 Pulteney Court on a Saturday night. He was chatting to his neighbour Mrs Cook when a voice cried out: ‘Let him have it!” A man rushed up to him and punched him in the eye, without any provocation. The police arrived and arrested the man, who appeared before the Marlborough Street Police court magistrate on the following Monday morning.

Here the defendant, who gave his name as James Cosgrove, offered an alternative explanation for his actions that night. He said he had seen Page abusing the woman and had intervened to defend her. Cosgrove was able to produce several witnesses that supported his version of events but Mrs Cook took the stand to swear she was the only woman present and confirm Page’s account.

PS Page of C Division said he ‘had no doubt whatsoever that the assault arose out of the Clerkenwell outrage’. He added that:

ever since the complainant’s wife had given evidence both husband and wife had been subject to such annoyance by persons in the neighbourhood that it had been found necessary to place an extra constable in the court for their protection’.

Cosgrove, he insisted, was ‘connected with the class of persons who committed the outrage’, meaning presumably, that Cosgrove was an Irishman or part of London’s large ethnic Irish community.

Mr Mansfield had heard all he needed to convict Cosgrove of violent assault. In normal circumstances I suspect he would have handed down a small fine of perhaps a few shillings with a week or two in goal for non-payment.  But these were not ‘normal circumstances’, London was still feeling the effects of the tragedy that left so many dead. The Queen had issued a letter of condolence and £10,000 had been raised to help the victims rebuild their homes.

This was a big moment in London’s history, its first real brush with terrorism. So Cosgrove was fined the huge sum of £4 18plus costs and warned he’d go to prison for two months if he didn’t pay. A woman who had made a scene in the court and had shouted abuse at Mrs Cook (no doubt calling her a liar) was bound over to keep the peace as well.

I pick these stories fairly randomly: the only link I have to today is the date. So it is a coincidence, but a sad one, that I find myself writing about Republican terrorism (or freedom fighting if you prefer) on the morning that news of Lyra McKee’s murder in Derry last night is reported.  The 29 year-old journalist was shot and later died of her wounds while she was covering an outbreak of rioting in the Creggan area of Londonderry. The ‘troubles’ were supposedly ended by the Good Friday Agreement but tensions in Northern Ireland are never far from the surface.  One local politician, the SDLP’s Mark Durkan tweeted:

Violence only creates victims, that’s all it ever has done. The thoughts and prayers of our city are with the young woman’s family and friends, may she rest in peace.’

That sentiment could equally well apply to those killed or injured by the Clerkenwell bomb, and indeed to Michael Barrett who most likely was hanged in error for it. Now, more than ever it seems, we need our politicians to dampen down on the rhetoric of division, and stop playing politics with people’s lives and economic futures.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 19, 1868]

1. K.R.M. Short, The Dynamite War: Irish-American Bombers in Victorian Britain, (Gill & Macmillan, 1979), pp.8-10

Drew Gray is the joint author of Jack and the Thames Torso Murders, published by Amberley Books in June 2019. Details available here

‘Get out the _____ staff, and let’s kill the ______’s : anti-Police violence in central London

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Throughout the nineteenth century there were parts of London that were almost off limits to the police. Almost all of Seven Dials (near Covent Garden) was such a myriad of back alleys and decrepit housing that the police were afraid to venture too far inside, in the East End places like Thrawl Street, Old Nichol or Dorset Street were equally notorious. In the centre of town Husband Street enjoyed a fierce reputation as a place feared by the bobby on the beat.

It was in the early hours of Tuesday 7 April 1863 when PC Carpenter (36C) heard and saw two men ‘hammering at the shutters’ on Husband Street and causing a disturbance. He called to them to desist and was treated to a mouthful of invective. The pair were drunk and in no mood to go home quietly as PC Carpenter suggested. When he insisted they went for him.

‘Take that you ____’ said one of them as he piled into the officer striking him mad knocking him to the ground. The constable had managed to shout loudly enough to summon help and William Green (76C) was soon on the scene. Both men struggled to arrest the drunks and a rough and tumble fight ensued. PC Carpenter was kicked in the eye as another officer arrived to lend his help to his colleagues. William Hellicar (171C) was grabbed by the hair from behind, wrestled to the floor and kicked as he lay prone on street.

‘Get out the _____ staff, and let’s kill the ______’ cried one of the assailants; ‘Murder the ______’ was also heard. Before PC Hellicar was attacked he heard one of the men say: ‘I’ll go and get  something to settle the _______’.

Eventually the drunken men were overpowered and dragged off to the station house. On the following morning they were produced before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court and charged with an assault on the police. They gave their names as John Biggens and John Dirken and said they lived at 6 Husband Street. There were ‘rough fellows’ and the street was described as being ‘notorious for assaults’.  Neither offered anything by way of a defense.

Inspector Bowles of C Division was in court to testify that all three of his officers had been hurt and Carpenter and Hellicar seriously enough to have been signed off sick by the surgeon. The magistrate noted that Biggens head was swathed in bandages and asked how he’d received his wound. PC Carpenter said it had been inflicted by mistake when Dirken had been trying to strike him; in his drunken lunge, he said, Dirken had missed the copper and hit his chum, splitting his head open.

Mr Tyrwhitt commended the police for their restraint in the face of such a ‘brutal’ attack and sent the prisoners to gaol for a month. Perhaps the police account was exactly as events had unfolded but I’m bound to say I’d be surprised if they hadn’t applied a little force of their own. Maybe Durkin’s fist did connect with his mate’s skull but that injury seems more likely to have been inflicted with a police stave (or truncheon).

Not that I blame the officers  in the least and nor, from the account in the papers, did Biggins or Dirkin. They seem to have seen this as one battle in a long running war between the police and the rougher elements of working-class London, a war – its fair to say – that is ongoing.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 08, 1863]

NB: The officer in the illustration above is wearing the new pattern helmet that was not introduced until 1864, a year after this case. 

A young Turpin is nipped in the bud

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William Roseblade was 13 years old when he was stood in the dock at Clerkenwell Police court accused of stealing money from his employer, Mr Thompson. Described as ‘a sharp, intelligent-looking boy’ it was alleged that William had stolen the princely sum of £10 and ran away. The boy was tasked with errand running for the Islington watchmaker and was regularly sent out with sovereigns to change to get changed for smaller silver coins. One day in March 1864 he simply didn’t come back.

PC William Kempson (304R) was on the platform at Lewisham railway station when he noticed  a lad acting suspiciously, putting money in a purse and he moved in and grabbed him. When he asked the boy (who was William) just where he’d got such a lot of cash he was given three different, and equally implausible answers.  The policeman took young William by the collar and marched him to the local police station. There he was searched and £5 14d, a pistol, some percussion caps, powder and a bullet mould were found on him.

This was more serious than the usual juvenile delinquency the police encountered daily, just where had William got a gun from and how had he ended up in Lewisham when his stated home address was in Norfolk Street, Islington?

William now gave a dramatic and bizarre story to the police. He said he’d been waylaid by gipsies and forced to join their gang. At first they threatened his life if he didn’t do as he was told but soon he won the confidence of their leader and became his second in command. He said the gang had stopped several gentleman on the roads and demanded ‘their money or their lives’. William held the gun and was told that if they didn’t hand over the money, or were violent, he was to shoot them. He added that the gang ‘never ill-used them if they did not make a noise and at once complied with their wishes’.  He declared that he had already shot several people who hadn’t done as they were asked.

Now, however, he had grown tired of the life of a highwayman and a burglar and wanted to go to sea ‘so that he could be a pirate and a bold buccaneer, and sweep the seas and be his own master, and forever free’.

It was a romantic tale and, of course, a complete fantasy from beginning to end. The magistrate asked the police if any crimes fitting William’s description had occurred in the area he mentioned but they had not, the lad had made it up. What had inspired him then? Well, it seems young William had a passion for penny dreadfuls, for the cheap publications like “Dick Turpin”, “The Gentleman Highwayman,” and “Tales of the Daring and Bravery of Pirates”. He’d filled his head with heroic criminality and was unable to separate this from the reality of his own life.

His mother was distraught. She told the justice that she’d raised him properly, ‘religiously and respectably’ and he had brought disgrace on a  family that had never been in trouble with the law before. She urged the magistrate to send her son to a reformatory school: ‘He was young’ she said, ‘and he might turn out a bright man’.

The magistrate upbraided William for his behaviour and his attitude but the lad was unrepentant and seemingly unfazed by his appearance in court. He was living the dream of being a highwayman, acting up to authority and ‘dying game’ as Turpin did. Whether he felt the same way once he had spent a month in a cell at the Clerkenwell house of correction is anyone’s guess however.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 3, 1864]

An elderly lady is sent flying by a drunken cabbie

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Traffic accidents seemed to be fairly common in Victorian London and so to were prosecutions of drivers (particularly hansom cab drivers) for dangerous driving. The most usual outcome was a fine, and occasionally a short spell in prison if the cabbie was unable to pay the fine. However, cab drivers were also prosecuted for being drunk in charge of a cab, especially when they were abusive towards a passenger or a policeman. In this case one driver was arrested after he drove his cab into two women who were walking on the King’s Road, nearly killing one of them. The driver was drunk and ended up before the magistrate at Westminster Police court.

George Thompson stood in the dock as the evidence of his actions was recounted before Mr Mansfield, the sitting magistrate. Emmelie Ullarbane said that she was walking along the King’s Road with her elderly companion Mrs Martha White on the previous evening. As they were crossing the road a cab driven by Thompson hit them, knocking Mrs White to the ground and trampling her. Emmelie was hurt but not too badly.

A policeman came rushing up and asked if they were injured; Mrs White was quite badly hurt so she was taken to be treated by a doctor. Mr. Mansfield asked him if either woman had been drinking, to which the officer – PC Langford (344B) – answered that they had not. That might seem an odd question to have asked but perhaps I can make sense of it later.

Having checked on the injured parties PC Langford set off in pursuit of the driver who hadn’t stopped after the accident. The policeman called to him but was ignored, so he raced along and managed to catch up with the cab. Langford leapt up onto the back of the cab, seized the reins, and stopped the horse. It was obvious to him when he confronted Thompson that the driver had been drinking and was quite incapable.

The policeman arrested Thompson and took him back to the station before heading off to Brompton to visit Mrs White to see how she was. According to the doctor’s report she was in a bad way, her petticoats ‘were torn to pieces by the tramping of the horse’, and she was not yet ‘out of danger’. It must have been a huge shock to an elderly lady and Mansfield remanded Thompson (who had two previous convictions for drunkenness) in custody for a week.

I wondered why the magistrate had enquired as to whether the women were themselves drunk. Two women walking in the early evening on the King’s Road did not necessarily suggest anything unusual. One on her own might have raised eyebrows but given Mrs White was described as being ‘elderly’ we might assume Ms Ullarbane was her companion or servant and so I can’t see anything odd here. Until that is we learn that Mrs Martha White was a ‘West India lady’.

I take this to mean that she was a part of London’s black community in the late 1800s a group rarely mentioned but ever present in the nineteenth-century capital. Perhaps Mansfield was simply expressing contemporary racism and imperialist views in assuming, or merely suggesting, that two black women out and about on a Tuesday evening had been drinking and were, therefore, partly to blame for the accident that had occurred.

This case rumbled on for several months, maybe as a result of the injuries Mrs White received. A jury had held the cab company liable and Martha had been awarded £100 in compensation. Thompson was finally brought back before the Westminster magistrate in August 1869. This time it was Mr Arnold and he declared that he was not going to be influenced by that civil judgment but determine punishment on it merits. He was convinced, he said, that Thompson had been drunk that night but wasn’t sure that had caused the accident. Instead he held Mrs White partly to blame stating that the accident:

‘was caused by the nervousness of the injured lady and her friend, who did not know whether to advance or recede’.

So he imposed a fine of just 10on Thompson who might have expected worse (especially given his previous convictions for being drunk in charge of a cab). The police were not so sanguine as the magistrate however, and informed his worship that the renewal of the driver’s license had been refused. George Thompson would not be driving a hansom in London again, or not at least in the near future.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, April 01, 1869; The Morning Post, Wednesday, August 18, 1869]

The not-so-perfect employee

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Fleet Street in the 1850s

When Sarah Morgan left Mr Williamson’s employment on 1 February 1869 she did so with such a ringing written endorsement that she soon secured a job at a lawyer’s chambers in Gray’s Inn. Williamson was sorry to see her go as she had been an excellent servant to him and his wife at the Fleet Street premises where he carried on the business of a London hosier, supplying gloves, stockings, and other goods to his City customers. It must have come as something of a shock to him when the police contacted him about her in late March of the same year.

Sarah had started work at the chambers and she was seemingly doing very well, everyone was happy with her and she was living up to the reference the hosier had provided.  It all went wrong for her when, on 23 March a young man was found hiding in her room. The police were called, initially because he was suspected of robbing the place. He was taken away but nothing was found on him to suggest he’d committed a crime. He was later charged at Bow Street but cleared of any wrong doing. This turned the attention back on Sarah.

Mr Saltmarsh, her new employer, asked to search her things and she willing agreed. He went though the two boxes she indicated were hers and he found nothing within that belonged to the Chambers. However he did find two boxes she hadn’t pointed out to him and opened these. Inside was a treasure of hosiery:

’27 pairs of kids gloves, 10 cambric handkerchiefs, and other things’ all belonging to her previous master, Mr Williamson.

In all there were goods valued at over £7 (or around  £450 in today’s money). In court before two aldermen at the Guildhall Sarah claimed these had been given to her by James Oakes, the hosier’s shopman, but he denied it when asked and  when pressed on this Sarah admitted this was a lie. She threw herself on the mercy of the court and asked to be dealt with summarily, under the terms of the Criminal Justice Act (probably the 1855 Administration of Justice Act which allowed magistrates to deal with petty thefts and some other offences if the accused agave their permission to being dealt with – and pleaded guilty to the charge).

The aldermen (Gibbons and Causton) agreed and after a brief consultation sent her to prison for three months with hard labour.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, March 25, 1869]

An ‘attempt to impose on the Duchess of Cambridge’ (no, not that one…)

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Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel, the 2nd Duchess of Cambridge

On 12 March 1869 an elderly man by the name of Alfred Rodwell (a retired bookbinder) was brought into the Bow Street Police court by PC Fraser. He was charged with obtaining money by false presences from ‘her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge’. Today that elevated position is held by Kate, wife of Prince William, and mother of the third in line to throne of England. In 1869 the incumbent was Princess Augusta of Hesse-Kassel the wife of Adolphus, the seventh son of George III. In 1869 she would have been in her early seventies and lived with her husband at Kew, and then later at St James’ Palace.

It was to the palace that Rodwell had sent a petition for her attention. According to the duchess’ equerry, Lord Frederick Paulet, the petition and a covering letter were received on the previous Wednesday asking for money. Numerous other aristocrats had appended their names to the petition making promises of cash for the former bookbinder, including Countess Russell (right) Frances-Anna-Maria-Fanny-ne-Elliot-Countess-Russelland Lord Amberley. A search was made of Rodwell’s lodgings where several large envelopes were found, each of them addressed to a person of title or importance, and each of them containing the petition and a similar begging letter.

It quickly became apparent that while Rodwell had been helped by Countess Russell in the past she no longer deemed him to a respectable person worthy of her benevolence. Paulet was suspicious and so he had contacted the Mendicity Society to find out if Rodwell was a ‘deserving case’ or a charlatan.  The Bow Street magistrate, Sir Thomas Henry, decided to remand the old man in custody while enquiries were pursued.

A few days later he was back in court and this time it became evident that he’d altered the petition (changing the date from one that Countess Russell had signed a year or more earlier) and he had also forged some of the signatures on it. Mr Fryer from the Mendicity Society (who made it their business to root out imposters seeking charitable support) showed that the signature of ‘Captain S. Sanderson’ and that of ‘Lord Bailey’ were both fake. ‘Some of the signatures were genuine’ he said, ‘others doubtful’.

He added that Rodwell had also stuck some of the pages of the petition together so that it obscured the whole of some names (like that of Lady Victoria Buxton, a noted philanthropist). Sir Thomas questioned the accused about his attempts to alter the document in a number of ways but Rodwell stuck to  his story even when the magistrate confronted him with the evidence that he was obviously changed the date from ‘1862’ or ‘1867’ to ‘1869’. Rodwell said that the Countess Russell had signed his petition in 1867 and that was enough.

‘But you have altered the date’, said the justice, ‘and that is forgery. A character may be good at the time it is written, and not hold good another year. I can’t tell when it was written’.

When asked again why he had altered the writing Rodwell rather lamely claimed that it ‘was to make it look more modern’.

Sir Thomas could have asked each and every person who had supposedly signed the petition to come to court to swear that they had (or had not) given their consent to it but it would be waste, he said, of their time, especially when they would only have acted from ‘a charitable motive’ in the first place. Alfred Rodwell had been shown to be a chancer and he would suffer for it. He sent him to prison for three months and the gaoler took him down.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, March 13, 1869; The Morning Post, Friday, March 19, 1869]

Murder in Wales but business as (depressingly) usual in London

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In mid March 1866 the trial of Robert Cox was concluding in Swansea. The body of John Davis had been discovered by police in Dyffryn Wood a long time after his disappearance. The body had been decapitated and the evidence led the police to Cox (or Coe). The jury had convicted Cox after deliberating for 12 hours and the judge, Justice Blackburn, ‘passed sentence of death in the usual manner’. The so-called ‘Mountain Ash murder’ resulted in the execution of Cox outside Swansea gaol on 12 April 1866. Cox confessed to killing his workmate after they had both been drinking. His was the last public execution in Wales.

Meanwhile the reports of the London Police courts reminded readers that most crime in the country was much more mundane. At Marlborough Street  Henry Baynes, a publisher’s clerk, was brought up again on a charge of defrauding his employers. He was accused of obtaining cheques by false presences from a number of publications including The Morning Post, the Owl, and Notes and Queries.  The prosecuting counsel was a Mr Wontner who was to go on to become a magistrate later in the century. On this occasion he managed to persuade the sitting justice that there was sufficient evidence against Baynes to send him for a jury trial.

At Southwark Mary Ann Vanna was accused to stealing a clock, coat and ‘other articles of wearing apparel’ from a house in Cole Street. She pleaded guilty in the hope of having the case heard summarily (and therefore getting a reduced sentence) and said it was the first time she’d been before a magistrate. The justice said he doubted that as she was a ‘well known character’ who lived with a ticket-of-leave man. He sent her to prison for six months at hard labour.

Over at Worship Street Mary Ann Taylor appeared in the dock charged with destroying her clothes in the casual ward at Shoreditch workhouse. She raised eyebrows in court because of the state of her dress:

‘beneath a dark wrap of a shawl and old bonnet she wore what was immediately recognizable as having been long since a nipped counterpane, but perfectly white and carefully patched and darned so as to exclude the clemency of the weather’.

When the magistrate asked the poor law officers why she was dressed like that they told him that when paupers destroyed their own clothes, with the expectation that the house would give them new, better ones, they supplied one of these ‘nice white dresses’ instead.

The effect was to humiliate the wearer and it seemed to have worked on Mary Ann who looked miserable and wept openly as she explained that she’d cut up her own clothes because they were ‘so filthy’. The magistrate sent her to prison for 14 days.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, March 16, 1866]