The last public hanging in England took place in London, outside Newgate Prison (now the Old Bailey) on 26 May 1868, 149 years ago this week.
It was the hanging of an Irishman, a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, or the Fenians as they were called. His name was Michael Barrett and he came originally from the townland of Drumnagreshial in the Ederney-Kesh area of County Fermanagh.
Michael was a Fenian and was associated with that organisation in Glasgow, where he had come from his home in Fermanagh to find work.
He was wrongly accused of causing an explosion at Clerkenwell Prison in London in December 1867.
After the public execution in Manchester of the Manchester Martyrs, Allen, Larkin and O’Brien, feelings were running high in the Irish community. There was a bid by some Fenians to rescue two Irish prisoners accused of buying arms and ammunition for the IRB. The bomb blast against the outer wall of the prison wreaked havoc and caused four civilian deaths and many injuries. The rescue team which caused the explosion escaped to America but the police needed to placate the demand for vengeance on the Irish community.
They arrested Michael Barrett and a number of others. Michael was the only one found guilty in a farcical trial.
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 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. The jury was out for two hours and in spite of the lack of corroboration pronounced Barrett guilty.
One of the trial lawyers, Montague 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.”
Before he was sentenced Barrett spoke from the dock. The next day the Daily Telegraph reported that he “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”.
Following the sentence, many people, including a number of Radical MPs, pressed for clemency. In Fermanagh, Barrett’s aged mother trudged several miles in the snow to appeal to the local Unionist MP, Captain Archdale, a staunch Orangeman, who, predictably, rejected her.
On May 27th, 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”.
He was sentenced to death by hanging, which was carried out on 26 May 1868. Michael was executed outside the walls of Newgate Prison before a crowd of two thousand who booed, jeered and sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Champagne Charlie’ as the body dropped.
After hanging for one hour, his body was removed and placed in a grave within the prison. Three days after he was hanged, the Bill outlawing public execution became law.
Queen Victoria was outraged that only one man was executed for the Clerkenwell explosion. She urged that in future, instead of being brought to trial, Irish suspects should be ‘lynch-lawed and on the spot’.