On this day in history : 26th May 1868 – Irish terrorist Michael Barrett, who was responsible for the Clerkenwell explosion, leaving 13 dead, is hanged in what is to be England’s last public execution….

Clerkenwell Prison, seen from within, after the bombing – unknown author – public domain

Barrett was born in 1841 and at the age of 27 he joined the Fenians, a political movement which dominated Irish Republican politics during the 1860s…. Ireland had been under British rule since the beginning of the 1600s…. The Irish Republican Brotherhood was founded in March 1858 with the aim of establishing independence and democracy for Ireland – its American counterpart, the Fenian Brotherhood, was founded in 1859…. By 1865 there were some 100,000 members and many acts of violence were being carried out across mainland Britain….

In 1867 the organisation was planning an armed uprising against the British – but the authorities had got wind of their plans and the leaders in Ireland were arrested…. However, two managed to evade capture and fled to England – but were caught in Manchester…. On the 18th of September, as they were being transferred to court, an ambush was to take place on the police van and the two prisoners were freed…. In the process police sergeant Charles Brett was shot dead….

Five men were arrested for the ambush and tried for murder….three were hanged at Salford Gaol on the 23rd of November 1867…. Mass protests had been held to demand clemency and a petition had been sent to Queen Victoria….

Meanwhile, three days before the hangings two more Fenian members had been arrested in London…. Ricard O’Sullivan Burke was charged with treason for securing weapons for the Fenians – it was also he who had planned the prison van ambush – and Joseph Casey, who was charged with assaulting a police officer…. They were placed in Clerkenwell Prison to await trial….

Ricard O’Sullivan Burke – Public domain

On Thursday the 12th of December their Republican colleagues attempted to rescue them by blowing a hole in the prison wall whilst the prisoners were in the exercise yard…. However the bomb failed to explode…. At 3.45pm the following day they tried again, using a barrel of gunpowder hidden in a street seller’s barrow…. A 60ft (18m) section of the prison wall was demolished – but also several houses nearby were damaged leaving many people injured and 13 dead…. The bombing was to cause much public backlash against the Irish community…. As it was the prisoners had all been locked in their cells at the time of the explosion as the prison authorities had been tipped off – so nobody escaped….

‘The Fenian Guy Fawkes’ by John Tenniel, Punch Magazine, 28 December 1867 – Public domain

Six men were tried at the Old Bailey, including Michael Barrett, with the trial starting on the 20th of April 1868…. It was presided over by Lord Chief Justice Cockburn and Mr Baron Bramwell…. Barrett protested his innocence and witnesses testified that he had been in Scotland at the time – however, another placed him at the scene…. Two of the defendants were acquitted by the Judges and after two and a half hours of deliberation by the Jury three more were acquitted…. On the 27th of April Barrett was found guilty and sentenced to death…. There was an outcry – many, including MPs, pleaded for clemency….

On the 26th of May 1868 some 2,000 gathered to watch as Barrett was hanged by William Calcraft outside Newgate Prison…. As his body fell the crowd sang ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Champagne Charlie’ and booed and jeered…. And that was to be the last public execution in England….

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