‘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

‘I thought it would give a man a job’; one man’s weak excuse for breaking windows

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George Jackson had a strange way of helping the late Victorian economy. On Sunday 19 August 1883 he picked up a handful of stones in the Strand and put them in his pocket. He walked on down the Strand in the direction of what was then the Charing Cross railway and foot bridge, heading for Whitehall. In 1883 this was where the majority of the government buildings were, including the Home Office on the corner of Charles Street and parliament Street.

At ten to one in the morning he was seen by PC 31 of A Division who watched as the young man lobbed two stones at the windows of the Home Office building. As the plate glass window smashed the police officer rushed over and seized the culprit as he calmly walked away. Jackson was taken away and brought before the sitting magistrate at Bow Street on the Monday morning after.

Mr Flowers wanted to know why he had thrown the stones, telling him he ‘had acted like an idiot’. The magistrate declared that:

I cannot understand a man willfully breaking a window and walking off’, adding: ‘You are not a glazier, are you?’

No, but I thought it would give a man a job’, was Jackson’s reply.

Yes, and you a month’s imprisonment’, quipped Mr Flowers.

It was a case of willful damage to government property but not overly serious. Certainly it was something the magistrate was well within his power to deal with summarily. However, he was inclined, he said, to send Jackson for trial where he could expect a more severe sentence. The prisoner’s situation wasn’t helped by the appearance of a policeman from L Division who said that he’d previously been convicted for breaking windows in Lambeth. The justice there had sent him down for a month but he’d not learned from his experience.

Mr Flowers decided to remand his for a few more days ‘for enquiries’. George would have to sweat it out in a cell for the time being as he waited to find out his fate.

In the end Jackson turned up at the Middlesex Sessions having been committed for trial almost a year later on a separate charge by one of Flowers’ fellow magistrates, Mr Vaughan. He was tried on the 5 February 1884 for ‘maliciously damaging three panes of glass, the property of Her Majesty’s Commissioners of Works’.

George Jackson clearly had a problem with authority and government. He pleaded guilty but despite this, and probably because his previous convictions now counted hard against him, the judge sentenced him to eight years in prison. Jackson was listed as being 33 years old and a carpenter. Perhaps he was a disgruntled former government employee, now out of work (as many were in the 1880s (the decade that coined the word ‘unemployment’).

Maybe also he was suffering from some form of mental illness. Either way, eight years was a very stiff penalty for breaking windows and reflects both the harshness of the late Victorian ‘justice’ system and contemporary fears associated with terror attacks in the capital, of which there were several in the 1883-5.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, August 26, 1883]

A boot and shoe fraud exposed by the fear of terrorism

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While I was born and live in London I teach history at the University of Northampton, so I’m always on the lookout for stories which link the capital to the east Midlands. Not surprisingly – well at least not surprisingly to someone that knows Northampton’s history – this case from Westminster concerns the boot and show trade, for which Northampton was (and remains) mostly famous.

Three people appeared in the dock at Westminster Police court on the 15 May 1883, two women and a man. They were charged with ‘unlawfully conspiring with other persons to obtain goods … by false and fraudulent representations’.  The ‘goods’ in question was a quantity of leather and boots and the trio were apprehended as the result of a targeted police investigation into fraud.

Detective sergeant Arthur Standing was on watch outside the Life Guards barracks in Knightsbridge (which had recently been the subject of a bomb threat) watching a house opposite.  The house was rented in the name of Edmund O’Connor, a commercial traveller in the boot trade. His Irish surname may also have raised suspicions given the proximity of the barracks and the spectre of the ‘dynamitards’.

Between 8 and 9 at night DS Standing and another officer waited as two women approached the house, each carrying a large bundle. Standing stopped the women and searched their bags. These were found to contain leather, which was later traced to wholesalers in Northampton and Leicester. Both women – Mary O’Connor and her daughter Elizabeth were arrested and Edmund followed soon afterwards.

The magistrate, Mr St John Poynter, was told by the police that they were investigating a number of other thefts connected with this case and asked for the three prisoners to be remanded. Poynter complied with their request and committed them to trial at Old Bailey and sent them back into custody in the meantime.

When it came to trial a couple of weeks later it became clear that Mary was the mother of the two other defendants, not Edmund’s (or indeed Edward as the Old Bailey court recorded his name) wife. Edward was the principal here and the goods stolen were in fact a large number of boots. O’Connor had apparently been trying to establish a boot and shoe shop on Knightsbridge High Street   and had obtained the lease to rent the premises from a solicitors in Jermyn Street at £120 a year. However, when he didn’t pay the money as agreed the solicitor’s cashier went looking for him in Knightsbridge, finding only his mother who said he was travelling on business.

Meanwhile O’Connor had been busy ordering samples under the name of ‘Andrews’ and placing an order with a manufacturer in Bethnal Green.  A succession of creditors and unhappy traders gave evidence and Matthew O’Brien of CID reported that he’d entered the premises (searching for the elusive explosives they’d been tipped off about) and found it empty, dirty and with ‘no sign of business’. This must have rung alarm bells and prompted him to alert DS Standing.

In the end it was a complex case in which it seems that O’Connor was possibly trying to set up a legitimate business in town based on his wider contacts but was short of ready cash. That’s the generous explanation of course. He may well have been conducting a sort of ‘long firm’ scam where he pretended to be a genuine businessman in order gain credit and goods before clearing out before he paid a penny for anything he’d obtained.

That was what the jury thought although the element of doubt possibly worked in his favour as he only received a twelve-month prison sentence. His mother and sister fared better; found guilty of conspiracy by recommended to mercy by the jurors they were sent down for two months’ each.

The name ‘O’Connor’ would have chimed with the secret services of the day; a James O’Connor had been a prominent member of Clan na Gael who had been arrested in 1881. Special Branch was formed later in 1883 to combat Fenian terror and anyone with an Irish name would have aroused suspicion that close to a military target. In October 1883 Clan na Gael planted a bomb on a District Line underground train heading for Gloucester Road station. Thankfully no one was hurt and little damage was done but more attacks on the network followed.

We forget that London was targeted by terrorism in the 1880s but this case, of a fairly mundane if ambitious fraud, reminds us that the capital’s police (like their colleagues today) had to fight and political violence at one and the same time, with limited resources.  Who knows, if O’Connor’s name really had been ‘Andrews’ he may not have aroused suspicion and his gamble might have paid off.

[from The Standard, Wednesday, May 16, 1883]

A den of dangerous anarchists in North London

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In  November 1895 two women living in and around Harringay Park received disturbing letters in the post.  The letters contained threats and were written in black and red ink, with ‘rude drawings of skulls and cross bones’, reminiscent of some of the missives sent to the police during the Whitechapel (or ‘Jack the Ripper’) murder case a few years earlier.

The first person affected was a Mrs E. Brooks, of Green Lanes. She received two letters, the first of which read:

“We find you are no longer wanted in the world. We are going to blow you up, house and all. You may not believe it. You may laugh at it. But sure as there is a God, your end will come. We shall not name the day when we shall carry out the deed; and all the detectives in London will not stop us. You can laugh, but beware”.

The letter was signed “the Captain” and written on paper with the heading, ‘the Anarchists Secret Society’.

Mrs Brooks received a second letter, this time from the ‘Anarchists Society’, written in red ink, which warned that ‘we have resolved to blow you up with dynamite  next Saturday‘.

Needless to say poor Mrs Brooks was unnerved by the threats so contacted the police. Detective sergeant Alexander, of Y Division, investigated and found that another woman had had a similar communication.

Mrs Amy Fisk’s letter purported to come from the ‘Red Cross Society’ and said:

‘We have been watching your house , 93, Umfreville-road, Harringay, for some weeks past; in fact, since your husband’s death… some months ago. And we have had a meeting at our den in in France, and, as your husband was a member of our Society at Holloway, when he, in a fit of temper, murdered one of our band, we have made up out mind to avenge him by taking your life’.

Eventually the letter writer was traced and found to be a young lad, aged 16, who lived in the same street as Mrs Fisk. On 18 November William Ross, a ‘well-dressed boy’ appeared in the North London Police Court, accompanied by his father. The two women he was accused of threatening were also present and when they realised who the letter writer was, they both declared that they were not inclined to wish him any harm.

It seems that the boy had threatened Mrs Brooks because she ran a sweet shop and William owed her money. She had said she would be obliged to inform his parents if he didn’t pay up. She ‘was not alarmed’ by the letters but did want the ‘annoyance’ to stop.

The boy was defended in court by a lawyer who accepted that his actions were wrong but said they were ‘a boyish freak’. DS Alexander said that William had ‘partially admitted the allegation, but added that he did not do it single-handily’. He didn’t think that he had done anything wrong.

Mr Fenwick, the magistrate, thought otherwise. This was a serious affair and the lad would stand trial for it, regardless of the fact that his father was a ‘most respectable man’ who had lived in Umfreville Road for 25 years. He committed him to trial but accepted bail to keep him out of prison in the meantime.

The 1890s were rife with stories of anarchist cells and bomb-throwing terrorists and this must have fired young Bill’s imagination. The Pall Mall Gazette commented that:

‘It is sad that this finished stylist should be wasting his time in being committed to trail when the British public is clamouring for high-class fiction’.

A decade later two great thrillers were published which drew on some of the themes highlighted by fears of anarchists and others: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday (1908) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). Both are worth the time and trouble to rediscover.

[from The Standard, Tuesday, November 19, 1895; The Pall Mall Gazette, Tuesday, November 19, 1895}

Officer down!: the Perils of Police work in Victorian London

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Today, in a slight break from the usual format of these posts, I want to write about two incidents that didn’t appear in reports of the workings of the London Police Courts, but are closely related to them. This is because they involve officers of the Metropolitan Police, the body of men that brought the majority of defendants before the capital’s magistrates.

Police work was (and is) dangerous. The police have to place themselves in positions of risk when they are pursuing criminals (who might be armed and desperate) or protecting the public. In my lifetime and think of several three high profile events in which officers lost their lives. In 1984 PC Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead outside the Libyan embassy in London, while only last year PC Keith Palmer was killed outside the Palace of Westminster in a terrorist attack. In September 2012 Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes were murdered by Dale Cregan when they answered a routine call to investigate a suspected crime.

Police work then, can be perilous and, for all the criticism the police receive, it is worth remembering this. It is also worth noting that it was ever thus; from the very earliest days of the Met the men (and in those days of course it was only men) who joined up were exposed to everyday dangers. In 1830, in the first full year of the ‘New Police’, PC Joseph Grantham was beaten to death when he tried to break up a drunken brawl in Somers Town. The public ambivalence towards Peel’s new force was reflected in the coroner’s verdict which suggested PC Grantham had ‘over exerted himself in discharging his duty’ and his death was recorded as ‘justifiable homicide’.

In November 1882 The Illustrated Police News (not an ‘official’ police paper but one that traded in ‘crime news’) reported the death of one officer (by drowning) and the shooting of another. The reports were carried alongside all those that recorded the ‘daily doings’ of the Police Courts.

PC Fitnum (240R) of Kent police was at Foots Cray in Sidcup. It was thought that as his night patrol took him across the River Cray by means of a narrow plank bridge he had slipped and fallen in. The river had been swollen by heavy rains and it is quite likely that he was unable to swim. He was found by his son about half an hour after he left the station to commence his beat. The 43 year-old, with 17 years service, left a wife and seven children.

In the same week at Hampstead PC Charles Ellingham (221S) was perambulating his beat around the home of Mr Reginald Prance of Frognal, ‘a man well known in City circles’ the paper noted. Hearing a noise behind some bushes he walked over to investigate.

All of a sudden a man rose up from behind them, ‘pointed a revolver at the constable’s head, and fired at him, saying “Take that! This isn’t the first time you have disturbed to-night”.’

The bullet passed through PC Ellingham’s helmet but, fortunately,  missed his head. With ‘great courage’ the copper rushed his man but was unable to stop him getting another shot off. This one took PC Ellingham in the thigh, passing through his ‘great coat, tunic, trousers and drawers’ before ‘lodging in the flesh’. As the constable fell his assailant made his getaway, clambering over a wall into the Redington Road.

Amazingly, the policeman recovered himself and set off in pursuit, chasing the supposed burglar across the nearby fields. He nearly caught up with the ‘cowardly ruffian’ but despite the constable ‘springing his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles)  the would-be assassin got away.

Ellingham returned to Mr Prance’s home and made his enquiries. He could see no evidence that the man had attempted a break in and the footman confirmed that he had heard the shots fired. The following description of the attacker was circulated:

‘Age twenty-six; height, 5 ft. 8 in.; fair, light, moustache; dress, long dark overcoat; light trousers, black felt hat’. The paper also reported that: ‘Great activity prevailed among the police the whole of Sunday in endeavouring to apprehend the man’, but so far no one had been found responsible for the attempt on the constable’s life.

PC Ellingham was a young officer, just 21 years of age, a ‘smart looking young fellow’ and unmarried. He was receiving the very best in medical care the reporter assured his readership and CID were actively investigating the event.

Both incidents reflect the risks of police work in the late 1800s and to that we could add numerous accounts of drunken assaults on officers as they patrolled the capital’s streets. Historians of crime have argued over the extent to which animosity towards the police was confined to ‘professional’ criminals and the so-called ‘criminal class’ and most would accept that at least in the first 50 years of professional policing the public’s attitude towards the police was at best ambiguous. The press were apt to highlight police incompetence and corruption whenever they could, but, as these reports show, they were also quick to praise brave officers and remind the public of their sacrifice when it was made.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, November 4, 1882]

Fined for hanging a cat – a porter’s shame at Marlborough Street

I have written about cruelty to animals in previous posts on this site and, sadly, it seems to have been all too common in Victorian London. Cats, dogs and even performing monkeys were subjected to abuse or neglect by their owners or strangers and, occasionally, this was deemed serious enough to bring the perpetrators before the summary courts.

Henry Lewis, a porter  working at 31 Pall Mall (a very ‘respectable’ address in the 1840s) was charged at Marlborough Street with ‘cruelty towards a cat’ in early November 1846.

The case (for anyone reading, but especially those of you – like me – who live with cats) was horrific.

Mr Hardwick (the Police Magistrate) was told that Lewis was seen:

‘to hang the cat by the neck to a shutter in an area of the house. He then took a poker, and struck it with the nobbed end several blows on the head. Afterwards he cut down the cat whilst alive, and threw it in the dusthole‘.

Asked why he acted in such a cruel way all that Lewis could offer in his defence was to say that the animal was ‘troublesome, and mischievous’ and that once he had trapped it he thought that was the best way of getting rid of it.

Cats can be  a nuisance of course; doing damage to property or taking food from kitchens but that can never justify the level of violence the porter meted out in this instance. Mr Hardwick agreed and ‘sharply rebuked the man’, while fining him 40s.

This week President Trump, that well known humanitarian, described the terrorist that ran down and killed eight people in New York as ‘an animal’. Technically he may have been correct – we are all animals. But he is wrong in the sense that he intended it. Most animals don’t kill their own kind for political, ideological, or religious reasons, only homo sapiens (i.e us) do that.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, November 03, 1846]

for other posts concerning cruelty to animals see:

Animal cruelty exposed in the early years of the RSPCA

Cruelty to cat grabs the attention of the press while across London the ‘Ripper’ murders begin.

Six weeks in gaol for cruelty to a cat

 

Sad tales from the Police courts, and the hunt for the men that shot a policeman hots up.

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Islington High Street, c.1890

On June 27 1884 The Morning Post reported on several London’s police courts as well as updating their readers on an ongoing story concerning the shooting of a policeman. At Southwark a man named Hill was brought up for the second time, having been remanded on a charge of fraud. Hill had supposedly cashed fake cheques on at least two separate individuals for over £15 a time. That might not sound like much but a rough calculation for 1884 makes that around £700 in today’s money. The magistrate further remanded him for the Public Prosecutor to get involved.

At Westminster an Irish woman named Catherine Fagan was accused of begging but the case touched on her supposed involvement with the cause of Irish Nationalism. A membership card for the “W. P. Boyton” branch of the Irish National Land League was found in her possession. The INLL championed the rights of poor tenant farmers in Ireland and it was hardly a revolutionary organisation, but the 1880s were a difficult decade for Anglo-Irish relations, and saw several Fenian terrorist attacks in England (as I’ve written about previously on this blog). Fagan was eventually allowed to go, with some charity from the poor box.

But the story that touched me this morning concerned another woman in distress, Sarah Ann Cocksedge. Sarah Ann was presented at Lambeth Police Court charged with attempting to take her own life. This was, as I’ve written about on several occasions, a sadly regular charge before the magistracy. Even more tragic of course, was the fairly routine discovery of drowned bodies floating in or washed up on the banks of the River Thames. London was an unforgiving and hard place to live in the 1800s and Victorian society’s understanding of mental illness was far from as advanced as our own is.

Sarah Ann had tried to take a poison, ‘spirits of salts’ (which is hydrochloric acid) but had been prevented. In custody she told a policeman that she wanted to kill herself because  had been asked her to cover up the death of an infant child.

She said a ‘former mistress had given her a child to get rid of, which she had put into a garden (mentioning the place) and this had preyed on her mind’.

A detective from CID appeared in court to say that he had enquired into her claims but had been unable to substantiate them. The chaplain of the goal that had been holding her since her suicide attempt sent a letter to the court asking the justice to remand her back into his care, as he felt he could help her find a new home.

Sarah Ann continued to declare that she had spoken the truth regarding the dead child but it seems no one wanted to listen. She was again remanded and sent back to prison.

Finally, the paper reported that the police were closing in on two men wanted for shooting a police constable in Islington. PC Chamberlain had been shot in Park Street, ‘whilst in pursuit of two men suspected go burglary’. They had got away and the constable was injured, but not fatally it was thought. Two days later it was reported that he was ‘somewhat better’ and that the manhunt was focused on Hampstead.

[from The Morning Post, Friday, June 27, 1884]