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


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

A new gunpowder plot is foiled at Blackwall…or so the newspapers would like you to think

The title of the article covering the Thames Police Court’s business for the 5 December 1870 is almost worthy of the modern phenomenon of ‘click bait’. As the Urban Dictionary puts it, click bait is:

An eye-catching link on a website which encourages people to read on. It is often paid for by the advertiser (“Paid” click bait) or generates income based on the number of clicks’.

The Standard’s headline was: SHIPPING ILLEGAL QUANTITIES OF GUNPOWDER TO FRANCE. Given that the article appeared in 1870 I wondered if it might have something to do with the tensions on the European continent at that time.

In July 1870 France declared war on its aggressive neighbor, Prussia. Prussian troops then won a string of stunning victories until it finally destroyed French resistance at Sedan on 1 September. A day later Napoleon III dissolved the Second Empire and the Third Republic was declared on the 3rd.

France had not surrendered yet so the Prussians besieged Paris and continued to mop up French resistance elsewhere. Paris fell at the end of January 1871 and in March the short-lived Commune attempted to govern a part of the capital before it was ruthlessly destroyed by the French Army during La semaine sanglante” (“The Bloody Week”) in May 1871.

So I wondered if this headline pointed to London’s involvement in supplying armaments to the French forces fighting the German invaders. However, as is often the case with the Police Courts, the truth is sometimes more mundane or at best, hard to unpack.

William Munday was a carrier – in other words he was what we might call today a haulier; someone tasked with transporting goods from A to B. On the 24 November 1870 a clerk from the North Western Railway asked Munday to transport a quantity of gunpowder to Blackwall Stairs, so it could be loaded on a ship.

Munday agreed and 5 tons of gunpowder was duly loaded up on his waggons. This was huge amount of course and we shouldn’t be surprised that there were regulations governing the movement of explosive and other dangerous materials in the 1800s.   One statute in particular (23d & 24th Vict. cap. 139) covered this and was created to protect the public. This act included provisions about making, selling and transporting gunpowder, but also the manufacture of fuses, and the sale of fireworks. Anyone breaking the terms of the act (and Munday seemingly had) could be prosecuted and fined.

However, Munday said he had never transported gunpowder before and was not aware that he had broken any rules. His solicitor told Mr. Paget, the Thames Police magistrate, that his client had ‘inadvertently violated the law, and he submitted a very small penalty would meet the justice of the case. There was no blockade-running or a violation of the laws of neutrality’ (a clear reference to what was going on in France).

Mr. Paget was a little at a loss to know what to do. He studied the Act of Parliament and could see no obvious offence but at the same time he felt the Thames police were justified in stopping and seizing Munday’s cargo of 100 barrels of gunpowder. The act stated that the power to punish under the legislation rested with justices sitting at Quarter Sessions not in Petty Sessions of the Peace (as Police Court magistrates did). This changed in 1861 when a new law amended this one and power was passed to men like Mr. Paget.

In the end Munday was released along with two of his men, and probably vowed never to accept such a dangerous cargo in future. Whether the explosive got to France is unknown, just as we have no idea whether it was intended for the war or for some more mundane purpose.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 05, 1870]