Today marks the anniversary of the last public execution in the UK, of Michael Barrett who was found – dubiously – guilty of the Clerkenwell bombing.
Michael Barrett was a member of the Fenians, a large group of people campaigning for an independent Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries, who abjured peaceful protest as being inadequate to the cause.
Born in Ireland, Barrett had joined the Fenians sometime in the 1860s and was known to be active in Scotland in 1867 as he was arrested earlier in the year for a firearms offense.
The Clerkenwell explosion took place the same year, and was a botched attempt to rescue a senior Fenian arms dealer, Ricard O’Sullivan Burke who had been arrested in November 1867, and was being held at the Middlesex House of Detention in Clerkenwell, next to where Spa Fields is today.
On 12th December 1867, a gang attempted to blow a hole in the prison wall, but the bomb failed to go off, so they returned the following day to try again.
The bomb was far more powerful than needed, and was badly handled. The explosion took place at 3:45pm and the force of the blast not only took down the wall of the prison, but also so badly damaged houses nearby that it killed 12 people and while the number of injured is disputed, it was a considerable number – being between 30 and 120 people.
None of the prisoners escaped.
The “Clerkenwell Outrage” sparked furious response in the press and Parliament, and was widely felt to have set back the cause for Irish independence by some decades such was the public anger to any concessions after the bombing.
In the aftermath, eight people were arrested, and after two gave evidence against the others, six men went on trial in April 1868. Following the presentation of the evidence, the judges ordered that two be acquitted, leaving four men to face the Jury.
Three were found innocent, but Michael Barrett, who had argued that he was in Scotland all the time and had found six witnesses to support his claim, was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
The execution had been scheduled for the 12th May, but was delayed twice as his friends were given time to prove his alibi that he had been in Scotland. It’s perhaps an indication of how worried people were about the safety of the conviction that two delays were authorised.
The execution eventually took place on the morning of 26th May 1868, at 8am, attended by the Rev Dr Hussy who administered the last rights as a Catholic, and the hangman, William Calcraft.
The press reports of the time say that the scaffold errected outside Newgate prison for the execution has been draped with black and little was visible of Barrett save his head as it was put into the noose. He died after a short but severe struggle on the rope, a consequence of Calcraft’s use of the short-drop hanging method which often simply caused the executed people to be strangled rather than having their neck broken.
A large crowd, though to be around 2,000 people gathered for the execution, but was said to be smaller than usual, and more restrained in their behaviour. Some of them would have arrived via the new London Underground.
Cries of “God bless you Barrett” and similar were heard from the crowd, while the hangman was hissed and booed after the hanging. It might be suspected that these were from Irish people living in London, but it was noted that there wasn’t much in the way of an Irish accent to be heard.
Although the doubt about the guilt of the man was widespread and evoked a fair degree of sympathy, this was not to be reflected in how people treated the Fenians, and Irish in general, and the Clerkenwell explosion was later seen to have been a badly misjudged attack by the Fenians.
It was also not known at the time that this would be the very final public execution, but that such public displays were to soon cease. This was due to the conclusion of a report, the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1864–66 which had investigated the merits of the death penalty. Although it did not call for abolition, it did recommend that the sentence of death be carried out in private and the “grotesque spectacle” of executions abolished.
The death penalty continued to be carried out in the UK, in private, right up to 1964, and was largely abolished in 1969. However it took until 2004 for the very last vestiges of the death penalty to be removed from the statute book.
Today it’s still uncertain if Michael Barrett was guilty of the crime that lead to his death outside Newgate Prison.