Gunpowder, treason and plot in EC1
When a group of Irish Republicans blew up Clerkenwell’s House of Detention 150 years ago, it shocked Britain. Local archivist Tom Furber tells the story of “The Clerkenwell Outrage.”
In December 1867, a bomb exploded in Clerkenwell. Today we would call it an act of terrorism but in the Victorian press it became known as “The Clerkenwell Outrage”. The blast was an attempt to spring Ricard O’Sullivan Burke from the formidable Clerkenwell House of Detention on Sans Walk, where he was awaiting trial.
Burke was a leading figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood – a group also known as the Fenians. They were a revolutionary organisation committed to ending British rule in Ireland. Burke had first been arrested in September 1867 but had escaped from prison when, on the way to his trial, a group of fellow Fenians ambushed his transport and killed one of the policemen guarding him. He was recaptured in London a month later.
The plan for his next escape was simple. During the prisoners’ daily outdoor exercise, a ball would be thrown over the prison wall. This would be a signal for Burke to retire to a corner of the yard under the pretence of having stone in his shoe. A barrel of gunpowder would then be set against the wall, the fuse would be lit, the wall destroyed and Burke would be able to flee amidst the carnage.
At 3.45pm on 13 December, the ball was duly thrown over the wall and the bomb’s fuse lit. As it was a full barrel of gunpowder, the ensuing explosion caused surrounding buildings to collapse. In all, 12 people were killed and 120 more injured. A 60ft-high breach was made in the prison wall but Burke was stuck inside. Spies within the Brotherhood had warned the guards of an imminent escape attempt, so as a precaution the prisoners had been exercised earlier in the day and security around Burke had been increased. So when the powder exploded, he was in his cell.
Having failed to escape, Burke was convicted of treason felony and served a 13-year sentence. Three arrests were made on the day of the explosion but the sole conviction for this crime was Michael Barrett, who was later caught in Glasgow. He protested his innocence but his alibi supposedly failed to stack up; he received a death sentence.
The execution on 26 May 1868 outside Newgate Prison (The Bailey) drew a large crowd, with spectators camping out the night before to get the best view. So many people attended partly because of the notoriety of the crime but also because a change in the law meant that this would be Britain’s last public execution. A Times reporter described the scene: “Barrett walked up coolly and boldly. His face was as white as marble but still he bore himself with firmness… There was a partial burst of cheers, which was instantly accompanied by loud hisses… till as the last moment approached the roars dwindled down to a dead silence. To neither cheers nor hisses did the culprit make the slightest recognition. He seemed only attentive to what the priest was saying to him, and to be engaged in fervent prayer. The hangman instantly put the cap over his face and the rope round his neck… In another moment Barrett was a dead man.”
A charity was set up to help those affected by the blast and by the end of December 1867, donations had reached almost £10,000. With typical Victorian thoroughness, the bombed area was divided into sections, with a separate sub-committee overseeing the assessment of needs and distribution of relief in each one. Furniture and clothes were replaced and allowances provided to those no longer able to work as a result of their injuries. The fund continued to support the injured for years afterwards.
One poignant case is that of victim Arthur Abbott, who was featured in an article in the London Evening News on the 70th anniversary of the bombing. At the age of 28, Abbott lost an eye in the explosion and his sight entirely. Unable to continue working as a coppersmith he stood on the same corner of Holborn for nearly 50 years, relying on the charity of passers-by for a living.
Tom Furber is development officer at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). He is giving a free talk, “The Clerkenwell Outrage”, at the LMA on 28 November at 2pm – call 020 7332 3851 to book
Want to know more about the bombing, which was described by The Times as “a crime of unexampled atrocity”? The Finsbury Library in St John Street is hosting a special anniversary exhibition, Fenian Outrage!, featuring original documents and contemporary illustrations. It’s on from 1 December until 27 January. For more information, contact the Islington Museum at www.islington.gov.uk/heritage