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An Explosive Trial.......Contd......

Added: Tuesday, October 16th 2012 at 1:08pm by wicklowmick
Category: Cities & Towns
Related Tags: ireland

The Clerkenwell Explosion............... 



(My fascination with the subject of this and my previous post is the fact that I spent the last thirteen years of my police service in London stationed at Kings Cross/Islington police stations.  The site of the prison break, the streets and surroundings are fully familiar to me and during the course of my duties I visited and frequented most of them).


As you will remember, Richard O’Sullivan-Burke was in custody awaiting trial for organising the attempted escape of two fellow leaders of the Fenian Brotherhood in Manchester in 1867.   During that attack, a Police Sergeant Brett had been killed.    Numerous Irishmen living in Manchester had been arrested and questioned resulting in five people being indicted on one count of Murder.    Three were found guilty and publicly hanged in a gruesome fashion.    This caused uproar among the numerous Irish and many high-ranking British people.


Mock funerals were held together with demonstrations all over Britain causing the then Prime Minister Disraeli to prohibit such marches.   Over in Ireland, sixty thousand people later attended the funerals in Dublin of the men hanged.   They became known as ‘The Manchester Martyrs’.


Now back to the subject:   Plans were quickly made when the leadership of the Fenian Brotherhood ordered an attack on the Clerkenwell House of Detention to attempt to free O’Sullivan-Burke.


It was decided to place a large amount of gunpowder close to the perimeter wall of the prison and to set it off when Burke would be in the adjacent exercise yard.    Letters were flying about among the Fenian ‘cells’ with messages in invisible ink between the lines.    For that purpose, a solution made from crystals of chloride of gold was used and in order to later read the messages, copperas was put into warm water and the mixture rubbed onto the paper.   After a few moments, the hidden message would appear.

I have little or no doubt that the police knew of this and many messages were intercepted when sent through the post.    In many cases, the police were one step ahead of the conspirators.   It will also become obvious later, that the Fenians had also been infiltrated by either informers or police – probably both.

Gun powder was purchased in small quantities in order to allay suspicion and stored in one of the members sheds.    Over the next week or so, the amount was more than sufficient as it later proved to do what was necessary.

At least two of the defendants chose to admit their roles and give ‘Queen’s Evidence’ for the prosecution which was led by the Attorney General himself and the Solicitor General.    That in itself would suggest that informants – most likely, participating informants would be giving evidence.

The trial began on 6th April 1868 at the Old Bailey, Central Criminal Court.................

The Clerkenwell House of Detention is situated between St. John’s Street, Clerkenwell and backs onto Corporation Row – then known as Corporation Lane.   The main building of the prison is now a large school being changed into expensive town houses.   The self-contained underground area was discovered in the 1980’s to be almost intact and was for a time open to the public for a fee.   It is now used solely for filming purposes.   It is not surprising that it is said to be haunted....................


Close to where the actual explosion occurred, within the grounds, is a schoolboys’ toilet which has a plaque on the wall commemorating the event.


In those days the surrounding area, now a small communal park, was heavily populated with cheap tenement type housing.

Plans were made whereby Burke would signal from the far corner of the exercise yard to one of the members who was in a house on the upper floor of a building outside and opposite the prison.   A child’s white rubber-ball was to be thrown over the perimeter wall as a signal that all was ready.    A previous attempt the day before had failed when the gunpowder was placed in an underground sewer close to the wall.   The fuse had failed to ignite....

At about 3.30pm the prisoners were supposed to take their outside exercise in the yard but once again information had been received by the Governor of the Prison about some plan of escape but not the means to be used.   As a precaution, he changed, without any notice even to his guards, the exercise time to begin at 2.30pm.   Things were beginning to go badly wrong.    However, the ball was thrown over the wall but the signal from Burke although given gave too little time to successfully carry out their task or even to put it off for another day.

In the meantime, two men were seen to push a barrow covered with a tarpaulin along the road towards the prison.   They placed it close to the wall, one lit the fuse and they made good their escape.


Shortly afterwards there was one of the greatest explosions ever heard in London.   The lack of knowledge about explosives of the Fenians who were mostly tailors or shoemakers was too much by a factor of about ten.  Although the wall was breached there were now no prisoners in the yard.   They, including Burke, had been returned to their cells.............

However, the poor quality housing in the vicinity was not so lucky.    Several of the houses collapsed killing about twelve people and injuring about fifty others.

During the trial a great number of witnesses were called including those who had turned Queen’s Evidence.   From my police experience I have little doubt that the first was either well educated in the art of giving evidence or was in fact an undercover police officer.    His evidence was excellent but there is little doubt that it was not in fact totally true...............

The main character in the dock, Michael Barrett was a self confessed and well known Fenian.    Again without doubt he had spent weeks in London possibly arranging things to do with the attack on the prison if not some of the other bombings that were going off at the time all over London.   I also have no doubt that he was in Glasgow at the time of the bombing at the prison organising a march and demonstration to do with the Manchester Martyrs.    

He produced numerous witnesses of good character but unfortunately, as with a great many Scots people at the time, they all had sympathies with the Irish cause.   Their alibis for Barrett were not accepted by the jury.

You see, knowing Londoners as I do, and I am sure that they have not changed much in the 100 years before I came to London, they would have loved it if Burke had escaped with little or no injury to anyone other than the prison guards.   However, with so many working-class people killed and injured, they quickly turned against the Irish.    The sympathies that many previously had were soon forgotten and with the Government and cheap newspapers stirring them up with headlines such as ‘The Clerkenwell Outrage’, few ordinary people cared little what was to become of Barrett.


The jury found him guilty and before sentence he spoke from the dock:

“....I am far from denying, nor will the force of circumstances compel me to deny my love of my native land.   I love my country and if it is murderous to love Ireland dearer than I love my life, then it is true, I am a murderer.  If my life were ten times dearer than it is and if I could by any means redress the wrongs of that persecuted land by the sacrifice of my life, I would willingly and gladly do so”. 


All those present in court throughout the trial were totally impressed by Barrett’s behaviour and demeanour.  Most, including The Times correspondent, were convinced of his innocence...................

Personally, I have no doubt that he was an active member of the Brotherhood and had taken part in many criminal acts in Britain.    However, on this occasion, I would give him the benefit of the doubt.   Because of the haphazard identification procedures in those days, I can guarantee that in a modern trial, he would be freed.

Incidentally, the others in his trial were all acquitted – obviously as part of some deal for turning Queen’s Evidence.

As for O’Sullivan-Burke:  I do not know what happened to him other than he died at the age of 84 back in his native America.   However, when the gaolers searched him after the explosion they found a glass jar containing  crystals of chloride of gold  which he had obviously been using to send 'invisible' messages to his friends.   Most likely those messages were intercepted by the authorities.....

One last point which was as a direct result of Barrett’s public hanging:   It was the last public hanging in Britain on the order of the Prime Minister Disraeli as he feared that between the deaths of Barrett and the Manchester Martyrs, riots would occur at any subsequent public executions – and not only by the Irish..........

Then again, it could also be as a result of what Karl Marx, who lived nearby in Kings Cross at the time said: "The London masses, who have shown great sympathy towards Ireland, will be made wild and driven into the arms of a reactionary government.  One cannot expect the London proletarians to allow themselves to be blown up in honour of Fenian emissaries"





User Comments

That was quite a story.  Sometimes things just go a little to far and in the end, because mistakes are made or plans change, things don't go as planned and then others are hurt in the process.  What a shame.

Thank you Barbara and Redman:  It was fascinating the many times I walked the streets in London where this all happened.   When I found the memorial plaque I was amazed..............Oddly enough, the story continued right up to the present day. Thank you both.............Mike..

I remember a little bit of this. Thanks for the whole story!

It's a interesting topic Mike and well written by you so we understood it...

I have heard of the Manchester Martyrs....and I am sooo glad that peace is reigning now...I remember the bad old days of bombs and checking under our cars ...and I don't miss them one iota

Thank you Chris:  It was indeed a sad time during the 70's.   I will always remember when a newpaper seller on the Isle of Dogs was killed by an IRA bomb when someone wrote "What in the name of God has an Indian newspaper seller ever done against Ireland"...................The same could, and should be said about the many others who died needlessly...................Mike..

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