‘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

Terrorism in London: an echo from the 1880s

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In the light of this weekend’s terrorist attack in London I was reminded of a graphic I saw recently detailing the state of terror in Britain in the 50 odd years I’ve been alive. This graph is for Europe not simply the UK but it quite clearly shows that we have been through worse times than this in terms of numbers of people killed and wounded. I am not in the business of belittling the current state of emergency, I live in London and have friends all over the country. We need to vigilant and we need to carry on and show solidarity and strength; this sort of extremist terrorism is a real threat to our lives and our beliefs.

However, its not new, even if it comes in a new form.

In the 1970s and 80s terrorism at home came from Ireland in the guise of nationalists. Abroad it was middle-eastern or closely related to organised political crime. But even seventies terrorism wasn’t a new phenomena; we had terrorism in the 1800s as well.

In Europe political extremists (to use a modern term) committed terrorist ‘outrages’ with alarming regularity. They planted bombs, through bombs, and stated assassination attempts. In 1881 three bombers attempted the life of Tsar Alexander II. The first failed (Alexander was protected by his bullet-proof carriage), the second succeeded, and so the third assassin didn’t need to use his improvised suitcase bomb.

The killing didn’t achieve anything useful, it merely brought about a crackdown on extremists and put back the cause of political reform in Russia many years.

From the 1860s onwards Irish nationalists engaged in what was termed the ‘dynamite war’ with the  British State. In 1867 bombers attempted to blow a hole in Clerkenwell prison to allow their fellow nationalists to escape. Twelve people were killed and many more injured. In the end one man was convicted and held accountable, even though he may have been a fall guy for the Victorian state. Michael Barrett has the dubious honour of being the last man to be hanged publicly in England as a result of the bombing.

In the wake of the bombing at Clerkenwell Karl Marx recognised that the Irish national cause was not helped by blowing up innocent civilians in London. In fact he suggested that he actually helped the government. His 1867 comment is eerily prescient in 2017:

“The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government”. Karl Marx (1867)

In the 1880s the war led to several terrorist attacks in the capital, none of which were very successful or had the effect of Clerkenwell. At the end of May 1884 the  Pall Mall Gazette reported a number of related incidents in London under the headline, ‘Dynamite outrages in London’.

Scotland Yard, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, was attacked. A bomb was left in a toilet block behind the Rising Sun pub, and when it went off it knocked out all the lights in the pub and the nearby police lodgings. Several people were hurt, mostly by flying glass and other debris, no one seems to have been killed. The target was said to be the Detective Division HQ nearby or (and this is more likely) that of the Special Irish Branch.

Almost instantaneously another explosion rocked Pall Mall. A bomb went off outside the Junior Carlton Club, in St James’ Square, a smart gentleman’s club which was a favourite of London’s elite. Nearby however, were the offices of the Intelligence Department of the War Office who may have bene the real quarry of the bombers. Again, there was lots of broken glass and superficial damage but few casualties.

A second bomb, in St James Square seems to have had similarly limited effects. Several people were treated for cuts but no one died.

The paper also reported that a terrorist attack on Trafalgar Square had been foiled:

‘While all this excitement was going on , some boys, passing close to Nelson’s Column, noticed a carpet bag reclining against the base of the pedestal.’ The bag was seized by a vigilant policeman (who I believe thought the boys were trying to pinch it). He saw one of the boys aim a kick at the bag and probably thought they were about to run off with it. When the bag was examined it was found to contain ‘seventeen and a half cakes of what is believed to be dynamite, and a double fuse’. The boys had a lucky escape.

Earlier that year there had been similar attacks at Victoria  Station and other London termini, on the London Underground and later, in 1885 at the Tower of London and the Houses of Parliament. In 1884 a gang of Irish republicans blew themselves up on London Bridge, but not deliberately, they were trying to set a fuse which detonated accidentally. They were intent on sending Westminster a message and an attack on the iconic heart of the capital (note, Tower Bridge was not yet completed), would have made that message very clear: we are here and we can get to you.

Ultimately Irish Republican (or ‘Fenian’) terrorism was not successful in the 1880s or the 1970s. The Good Friday Agreement which ended the decades (if not centuries) of war between nationalists and the British State was the result of negotiation by diplomacy, not a forced surrender of the British state. Indeed there was recognition that the Republican movement was not going to force the British to agree to ‘freedom’ through the armalite  or the bomb, and that’s why they agreed to talks.

I doubt we can hope that the current crop of terrorists will come to the same conclusion anytime soon but we can at least demonstrate to them that we won’t be cowed, or beaten, or surrender to their vicious brand of hate. In the meantime they will keep trying to terrify us and we will keep carrying on with our lives, knowing this is the best way to show them that they can’t win.

Meanwhile, in 1885, some of those responsible for the bomb attacks in London over the previous year were brought to trial at the Old Bailey. James Gilbert (alias Cunningham) and Harry Burton were convicted after a long trial, of treason, and sentenced to penal servitude for life. For those of you with a fascination for the Jack the Ripper case you will be interested to know that detective inspector Frederick Abberline (along with two others) was mentioned by the judge for his efforts in bringing the case to court.*

If you want to read more about Fenian ‘outrages’ in 1880s’ London then a section of my 2010 book London Shadows: the dark side of the Victorian City, deals with it in more depth.

[from The Pall Mall Gazette, Saturday, May 31, 1884]

*MR. JUSTICE HAWKINS  called attention to a presentment by the Grand Jury, expressing their strong approval of the conduct of the Police in this case, and particularly mentioning Inspectors Abberline, Jarvis, and Hagan, and desire that the attention of the proper authorities should be called to the same.