A chance conversation today on the ghoulish nature of people’s interest in public executions in years gone by reminded me of the case of Michael Barrett, the last man hanged in public in Britain. If for no other reason that he was very likely innocent.

Michael Barrett (1841 – 26 May 1868) was born in Drumnagreshial in the Ederney area of County Fermanagh.

The ruins of the prison after the bomb blast

The ruins of the prison after the bomb blast

He was the last man to be publicly hanged in England, for his alleged role in the Clerkenwell bombing in December 1867. The bombing killed 12 bystanders and severely injured many more.

Barrett had positioned the bomb in a wheelbarrow outside the external wall of Coldbath Fields Prison in the belief that it would bring down the prison wall and allow Fenian prisoners to escape.

Michael Barrett was 27 when he joined the Fenians, which, in the 1860s, was a political movement that dominated Irish politics and defied the Catholic Church and middle-class nationalists who advocated milder approaches. Thousands of Irishmen in both Ireland and Britain were recruited into its ranks.

The Clerkenwell bombing was the most infamous action carried out by the Fenians in Britain. It resulted in a long-lived backlash that fomented much hostility against the Irish community in Britain.

The events that led up to the bombing started with the arrest, in November 1867, of Richard O’Sullivan-Burke, a senior Fenian arms agent who planned the “prison-van escape” in Manchester a few months earlier. O’Sullivan-Burke was subsequently imprisoned on remand in the Middlesex House of Detention, Clerkenwell. On 13 December an attempt to rescue him was made by blowing a hole in the prison wall. The explosion was seriously misjudged; it demolished not only a large section of the wall, but also a number of tenement houses opposite in Corporation Lane (now Row) resulting in 12 people being killed and over 50 suffering a range of injuries.

Public opinion, which had been sympathetic to the Fenians, soon turned against them.

Public opinion, which had been sympathetic to the Fenians, soon turned against them.

The bombing had a traumatic effect on British working-class opinion. Karl Marx, then living in London, observed:

“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.”

The Radical, Charles Bradlaugh, condemned the incident in his newspaper The National Reformer as an act:

“calculated to destroy all sympathy, and to evoke the opposition of all classes”.

The day before the explosion, the Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, had banned all political demonstrations in London in an attempt to put a stop to the weekly meetings and marches that were being held in support of the Fenians. He had feared that the ban might be challenged, but the explosion had the effect of turning public opinion in his favour.

Months earlier, Barrett had been arrested in Glasgow for illegally discharging a firearm and allegedly false evidence was used to implicate him in the Clerkenwell Prison explosion which occurred the previous December.

In court, he produced witnesses who testified that he had been in Scotland on the date of the incident. The main case against him rested on the evidence of co-accused Patrick Mullany (a Dubliner who had given false testimony before and whose price was a free passage to Australia) who told the court that Barrett had informed him that he had carried out the explosion with an accomplice by the name of Murphy. Of the other 6 defendants, another was discharged as a police spy. After two hours of deliberation the jury pronounced Barrett guilty.

One of the trial lawyers, Montagu Williams, wrote:

“On looking at the dock, one’s attention was attracted by the appearance of Barrett, for whom I must confess I felt great commiseration. He was a square-built fellow, scarcely five feet eight in height and dressed like a well-to-do farmer. This resemblance was increased by the frank, open, expression on his face. A less murderous countenance than Barrett’s I have not seen. Good humour was latent in his every feature and he took the greatest interest in the proceedings.”

On being asked if he had anything to say before sentence was passed, Barrett delivered an emotional speech from the dock, which ended:

“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”.

The next day the Daily Telegraph reported that Barrett had:

“… delivered a most remarkable speech, criticising with great acuteness the evidence against him, protesting that he had been condemned on insufficient grounds, and eloquently asserting his innocence.”

Many people, including a number of Radical MPs, pressed for clemency. In Fermanagh, Barrett’s aged mother walked several miles in the snow to appeal to the local Unionist MP, Captain Archdale, a staunch Orangeman who rejected her.

Barrett was executed outside the walls of Newgate Prison on 26 May 1868 before a crowd of two thousand who booed, jeered and sang Rule Britannia and Champagne Charlie as his body dropped. The night before both within the prison and without there had been jeering and mock-hymns, and jeering accompanied Barrett as he made his way to the gallows, the bells of Newgate and a nearby church tolling in the background. More police than was usual were in attendance, armed very visibly with cutlasses and revolvers because of the fear of Fenian action.

Newspaper reports of the hanging vary according to their political standpoint. Some have Barrett dying without a struggle, others tell of his convulsions, protruding tongue and distorted features. The crowd was said to have been silent as his end came, respectfully removing hats at the moment of execution. After his death, as was customary, the hangman was also abused by the onlookers.

The description of the crowd at the hanging in The Times the next day yields an unflinching and fascinating glimpse into the attitudes of the general public to such spectacles. It certainly seemed like a grim and tasteless affair.

Huge crowds would gather for executions: a fact which caused considerable anguished hand-wringing in the educated classes

Huge crowds would gather for executions: a fact which caused considerable anguished hand-wringing in the educated classes who felt the spectacle undignified.

The execution differed little from other similar exhibitions. On Monday the barriers were put up, and on Monday night a fringe of eager sightseers assembled, mostly sitting beneath the beams, but ready on a moment’s notice to rise and cling to the front places they had so long waited for. There were the usual cat-calls, comic choruses, dances, and even mock hymns, till towards 2 o’clock, when the gaiety inspired by alcohol faded away as the public houses closed, and popular excitement was not revived till the blackened deal frame which forms the base of the scaffold was drawn out in the dawn, and placed in front of the door from which Barrett was to issue. Its arrival was accompanied with a great cheer, which at once woke up those who had been huddled in doorsteps and under barricades, and who joined in the general acclamation. The arrival of the scaffold did much to increase the interest, and through the dawn people began to flock in, the greater portion of the newcomers being young women and little children. Never were there more numerous than on this occasion, and blue velvet hats and huge white feathers lined the great beams which kept the mass from crushing each other in their eagerness to see a man put to death. The crowd was most unusually orderly, but it was not a crowd in which one would like to trust. It is said that one sees on the road to the Derby such animals as are never seen elsewhere; so on an execution morning one see faces that are never seen save round the gallows or near a great fire. Some laughed, some fought, some preached, some gave tracts, and some sang hymns; but what may be called the general good-humoured disorder of the crowd remained the same, and there was laughter at the preacher or silence when an open robbery was going on. None could look on the scene, with all its exceptional quietness, without a thankful feeling that this was to be the last public execution in England. Towards 7 o’clock the mass of people was immense. A very wide open space was kept round the gallows by the police, but beyond this the concourse was dense, stretching up beyond St. Sepulchre’s Church, and far back almost, into Smithfield—a great surging mass of people which, in spite of the barriers, kept swaying to and from like waving corn. Now and then there was a great laughter as a girl fainted, and was passed out hand over hand above the heads of the mob, and then there came a scuffle and a fight, and then a hymn, and then a sermon, and then a comic song, and so on from hour to hour, the crowd thickening as the day brightened, and the sun shone out with such a glare as to extinguish the very feeble light which showed itself faintly through the glass roof above where the culprit lay. It was a wild, rough crowd, not so numerous nor nearly so violent as that which thronged to see Muller or the pirates die. In one way they showed their feeling by loudly hooting a magnificently-attired woman, who, accompanied by two gentlemen, swept down the avenue kept open by the police, and occupied a window afterwards right in front of the gallows. This temporary exhibition of feeling was, however, soon allayed by coppers being thrown from the window for the roughs to scramble for. It is not right, perhaps, that a murderer’s death should be surrounded by all the pious and tender accessories which accompany the departure of a good man to a better world, but most assuredly the sight of public executions to those who have to witness them is as disgusting as it must be demoralising even to all the hordes of thieves and prostitutes it draws together. Yesterday the assembly was of its kind an orderly one, yet it was such as we feel grateful to think will under the new law never be drawn together again in England.

On 27 May, following the execution, Reynold’s News commented:

“Millions will continue to doubt that a guilty man has been hanged at all; and the future historian of the Fenian panic may declare that Michael Barrett was sacrificed to the exigencies of the police, and the vindication of the good Tory principle, that there is nothing like blood.”

Barrett’s execution was the last public hanging to take place in England. Until their transfer to the City of London Cemetery, Michael Barrett’s remains lay for 35 years in a lime grave inside the walls of Newgate Prison. When the prison was demolished in 1903 it was taken to its present resting place. Today the grave is a place of Irish pilgrimage and is marked by a small plaque.

After the explosion the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli advocated the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act in Britain, as was already the case in Ireland. Greater security measures were quickly introduced. Thousands of special constables were enrolled to aid the police and at Scotland Yard a special secret service department was established to meet the Fenian threat. Although a number of people were arrested and brought to trial, Michael Barrett was the only one to receive the death sentence.

gladstoneWithin days of the explosion, the Liberal leader, William Ewart Gladstone, then in opposition, announced his concern about Irish grievances and said that it was the duty of the British people to remove them. Later, he said that it was the Fenian action at Clerkenwell that turned his mind towards Home Rule. When Gladstone discovered at Hawarden later that year that Queen Victoria had invited him to form a government he famously stated, “my mission is to pacify Ireland.”

He can hardly have imagined that the task would take another 150 years or so.

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